NEWARK - BMW, Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank and 14 other German companies withheld $100 million from a fund for victims of Nazi-era forced labor, a lawyer for the victims said during a federal court hearing.
But the companies said they already fulfilled their financial obligations to the $5 billion reparations fund, which so far has paid $3 billion to 1.5 million people worldwide.
Lawyers for the companies also said that American courts should not have jurisdiction in the dispute.
"This precise issue is beyond the power of this court to resolve," attorney Roger M. Witten said Tuesday in U.S. District Court.
The dispute focuses on how much interest the fund was to have accrued over an eight-month period starting in January 2001. Disbursements from the fund during that time were held up because of a federal judge's refusal to dismiss American lawsuits against German companies. The lawsuits eventually were dismissed.
The fund is administered by a German government-sponsored foundation, "Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future." A group of 17 German companies collected the $2.5 billion from themselves and an additional 6,000 German businesses. The other half of the fund was paid by the German government.
The companies making up the group are the ones being sued over the interest.
Lawyers on both sides of the case agreed Tuesday that when the fund was established in December 1999, German companies promised to pay their $2.5 billion share, plus anticipated interest totaling "at least" the equivalent of $50 million.
But while the companies and the fund's administrator insisted their obligation had been met, the plaintiffs in the case say the companies owe an additional $100 million in interest accrued during the delay.
Plaintiffs' attorney Burt Newborne told Judge William H. Bassler the interest payment should be increased.
"I have never seen the word 'at least' construed, ever, to mean ceiling and not a floor," said Newborne, who was appointed by the United States as a member of the foundation's 27-member board of trustees to represent victims' interests.
Newborne said he had appealed to the fund's board, but that a vote was blocked by the foundation's director. He also said he did not file a lawsuit in German court because he did not believe any judge there would agree to hear the case.
Witten said Newborne couldn't know that for sure because, "He's never tried." Bassler said he would issue a decision "fairly soon."
Aside from BMW, Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank, the collective consists of Allianz AG, BASF AG, Bayer AG, Commerzbank AG, DaimlerChrysler AG, Degussa-Huls AG, Deutz AG, Dresdener Bank AG, Hoechst AG, RAG AG, Robert Bosch GmbH, Siemens AG, VEBA AG and Thyssenkrupp AG.
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