WASHINGTON – The French firm that may want a piece of California's high-speed rail project would face costly and embarrassing lawsuits from Holocaust survivors under a bill circulating on Capitol Hill.
The bill would expose the state-owned rail giant SNCF to lawsuits from victims transported aboard its trains to World War II concentration camps. The legislation also provokes questions about SNCF's interest in California's high-speed rail future.
"Yeah, there are complications, and there are ways to deal with that," Rep. Howard Berman, D-Los Angeles, said Wednesday. "The answer is for the rail company and the French government to confront the issue and get that past them."
The complications could start soon, as the California High-Speed Rail Authority this week began inviting companies to present their qualifications for the rail project's first phase from Madera to just south of Fresno. Potential bidders have a month to submit initial applications.
A subsidiary called SNCF America has already expressed interest in the "design and construction" of the statewide project whose estimated price tag now hovers around $98 billion, rail authority records show.
Technically, the Holocaust Rail Justice Act discussed by lawmakers Wednesday does not impinge on the rail project. Practically speaking, though, the bill casts a shadow over one of the project's big potential players.
The legislation targets SNCF for its role in transporting an estimated 75,000 Jews and other victims from France to concentration camps. One of them was Leo Bretholz, a 90-year-old Baltimore resident who in 1942 escaped from an SNCF train bound for Auschwitz.
"There was hardly room to stand or sit or squat in the cattle car," Bretholz recalled for the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. "And in that car there was one bucket for us to relieve ourselves in."
SNCF officials say they were compelled by Nazi authorities to provide the rail transportation.
Bretholz and other survivors subsequently sued SNCF, which stands for Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais. An appellate court dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the government-owned rail company enjoyed sovereign immunity – but it didn't hold back from castigating those who had been in charge.
"The evil actions of the French national railroad's former private masters in knowingly transporting thousands to death camps during World War II are not susceptible to legal redress in federal court today, because defendant has since become a part of the French government," the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned in November 2004.
The legislation was first introduced in 2003 with four House co-sponsors. It would essentially sidestep this court ruling and permit lawsuits to proceed. The bill now has 40 House co-sponsors, including Berman and Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Jim Costa of Fresno.
Like-minded legislation passed the California Legislature last year, requiring companies bidding on the state's high-speed rail system to disclose their role in transporting Holocaust victims. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.
Rail company officials were not invited to testify Wednesday, but they have Capitol Hill clout. SNCF America paid the lobbying firm Dutko Worldwide $950,000 over the past year to work on issues including "Holocaust accountability," lobbying records show.
Within California, too, the company has been busy. In September, for instance, the rail company funded "Courage to Remember" Holocaust exhibits in Fresno and Sacramento.
"It is so important that we remember and do not forget our past history so we do not repeat it," Denis Doute, CEO of SNCF America, said.