Neal Sher hunted Nazis for the Justice Department. He lobbied on Israeli
and Jewish issues as head of the powerful
American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. And most recently, he worked to ensure that families of
Holocaust victims collect on their insurance policies.
Now, the 56-year-old Sher is unemployed. And, on Aug. 28, the D.C. Court
of Appeals stripped him of his D.C. law
license. The move comes roughly one year after Sher conceded he had made "unauthorized reimbursements" of travel
expenses from the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, where he served as its chief of staff.
He resigned from that position in June 2002.
Sher says he has made restitution to the commission, but remains defiant
about the disbarment, saying he feels unfairly
targeted by the D.C. Bar.
"To me, and to others I've talked with, this is overkill," Sher says.
To many who know him, Sher's free fall comes as a shock.
"It's a tragedy," says Elan Steinberg, former executive director of
the World Jewish Congress and a current member of
its executive committee. "I think everybody agrees it's a tragedy."
"I have known Neal for 25 years," says Stuart Eizenstat, a partner at
D.C.'s Covington & Burling who served as special
representative for President Bill Clinton on Holocaust-era issues. "I can only say it's a real tragedy, and I think it is an
exception to the decades of [Sher's] service to the country and to the Jewish community."
Sher consented to disbarment in the District before any ethical charges
had been filed, thereby leaving no public record
of why his law license was revoked. A court order in a Virginia state court where Sher's divorce is pending prevents any
of the lawyers, parties, or witnesses from "disclosing and/or disseminating" any information concerning Sher's resignation
from the Holocaust commission.
In a Sept. 3 statement to Legal Times, former Secretary of State Lawrence
Eagleburger, who chairs the Holocaust
commission, wrote that Sher resigned from the commission after admitting to "unauthorized reimbursements of
[commission] travel expenses." According to Eagleburger, Sher informed the commission of what he had done last
summer, and an internal probe was launched.
"Mr. Sher was open with [the commission] and cooperated fully in [its]
investigation," wrote Eagleburger, noting that
Sher made "immediate and full restitution," including the payment of attorney fees incurred by the commission.
"Unfortunately, the price Mr. Sher paid has continued to grow," wrote
Eagleburger, adding that he did not believe that
the D.C. Bar needed to take any action. Eagleburger did not state how much money was allegedly taken.
Sher, in an interview, concedes he made "mistakes," but refuses to discuss
what he did wrong, saying it was a "private"
matter. Sher says he agreed to the disbarment because he didn't have the money to hire a lawyer.
"I was not in the position ? for primarily financial reasons ? to fight
this," says Sher, adding that he estimates it would
have cost him $100,000.
Sher, who says his New York Bar license remains intact, adds that D.C.
Bar ethics officials opened an investigation into
the matter without a complaint being filed. Bar officials may have launched their investigation of Sher after seeing a
November 2002 Forward newspaper article detailing his dismissal from the commission. Sher says bar officials attached
a copy of that article in a query that was sent to him.
"I think that during my career I've been involved in some very important
and historic matters and made significant
contributions to justice ? at least that's how many people have portrayed my career," Sher told Legal Times. "In light of
my history, years of service, and all the circumstances, I cannot help but feel that this is terribly unfair ? to be subjected
to the capital punishment of the legal profession."
The Office of D.C. Bar Counsel declines comment. It is not unusual for
the office to open an investigation after learning
about potential ethics violations in the press. In the District, lawyers can be disbarred for a number of reasons. Stealing
money is considered one of the most serious offenses and in most cases leads to a lawyer's license being yanked.
Any attorney who has been disbarred may seek reinstatement after five years.
View from the top
Sher made a name for himself hunting Nazis. In 1979, the New York University
School of Law graduate joined a brand
new Justice Department unit called the Office of Special Investigations. There, he tracked Nazis who had entered the
United States after World War II and worked to have them stripped of their citizenship and deported.
In 1983, Sher became director of the 20-lawyer OSI, and the office logged several high profile matters under his watch.
For example, the office persuaded the Justice Department in 1987 to
put then-Austrian President Kurt Waldheim on a
watch list barring him from entering the United States after compiling evidence that the former German army official had
been aware of atrocities against Jews and did nothing to stop them. Waldheim, who was the United Nations secretary
general from 1972 until 1982, disputed the claim and argued that the DOJ was relying upon false information.
Other OSI cases included a former NASA official who allegedly persecuted
Jews while working for Germany's weapons
program from 1943 to 1945; a retired factory worker in Connecticut who was accused of being a former Nazi death camp
guard; and a Jew who admitted to beating other Jews at a German concentration camp.
But the office under Sher's leadership also came under scrutiny. Two
cases in particular ? those of John Demjanjuk and
Andrija Artukovic ? left the impression to some observers that Sher and his staff played up scurrilous evidence against
targets while ignoring exculpatory information.
Demjanjuk, a retired Cleveland auto worker, was accused of being a notorious
Ukrainian concentration camp guard in
Poland who was known as Ivan the Terrible.
In 1982, Demjanjuk was stripped of his American citizenship in the face
of allegations that he helped operate the gas
chambers at Treblinka. In 1986, he was extradited to Israel, where he was convicted and sentenced to hang. But during
Demjanjuk's appeals process, information casting doubt on his identity as the infamous Ivan came to light. And it became
known that Sher's unit had possessed the information for more than a decade. In July 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court
acquitted Demjanjuk of all charges.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit subsequently blasted the
Justice Department by stating that OSI attorneys
"acted with a reckless disregard for the truth."
In 1994, Sher left Justice after being picked as executive director
of AIPAC. The Jewish Advocate blessed the pick,
noting that Sher excelled as a communicator and administrator.
During his two-year tenure, AIPAC was instrumental in the passage of
anti-terrorism legislation and in increasing foreign
aid to Israel. AIPAC also was a strong supporter of legislation requiring the United States to move its embassy in Israel
from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ? a move that never happened.
Sher, however, abruptly stepped down in 1996, claiming that he wanted
to work in academia. Some reports claimed
that Sher was forced out by the group's directors, who were unhappy with his performance. Sher soon joined the
World Jewish Congress as a D.C.-based consultant, seeking Holocaust reparations for survivors and their families.
A year later, Sher joined D.C.'s Schmeltzer, Aptaker & Shepard as
a partner, where he reportedly was to focus on litigation,
independent counsel investigations, and government relations. He also became president of the American Section of the
International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.
In 1998, several European insurance companies reached an agreement with
Holocaust survivor groups, state insurance
commissioners, and the Israeli government to pay the families of Holocaust victims, who had earlier been denied insurance
benefits. The insurance companies pledged millions of dollars, and the International Commission on Holocaust Era
Insurance Claims was created to help evaluate claims and disburse the money. Sher was hired as its chief of staff.
The commission came under fire early on for taking too long to process
claims and for its refusal to make its finances
public. In May 2001, the Los Angeles Times, citing internal commission documents, claimed that the commission had
spent $30 million on salaries and outreach efforts, while paying out just $3 million. Later that year, a House committee
held hearings at which Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) threatened to subpoena commission records. Commission chair
Eagleburger, however, maintained that Congress had no authority over the group.
For the most part, Sher remained behind the scenes while working for the commission until his resignation in June 2002.
Sher's life began to unravel early last year.
In April 2002, he filed for divorce from his wife of 13 years in Fairfax
County Circuit Court. He obtained a restraining
order against Grazia Sher, claiming that she assaulted him on several occasions and threatened to kill him.
Grazia, meanwhile, claimed in court papers that Sher was having an affair
with an art appraiser in Toronto and that she
had the evidence to prove it. According to a transcript of a hearing in the divorce case on file in the Fairfax court, Grazia
hired a private detective to follow Sher on a trip to Toronto on Valentine's Day 2002. Three private investigators videotaped
Sher being picked up at the airport by a woman and then taken to a private residence. Sher and the woman then spent the
night together at a Toronto hotel.
Sher admitted to the affair, according to court papers. Court filings
also note that Grazia Sher suffers from mental illness
and that she was hospitalized for two weeks because of depression.
"She became depressed when she learned her marriage had fallen apart
because her husband was unfaithful," says
Virginia divorce lawyer Mark Sandground Sr., who represents Grazia Sher. "She's still emotionally devastated."
Grazia Sher declines comment.
Two and a half months after the divorce was filed, The Baltimore Sun
published a lengthy investigative article on the
commission's expenditures. The article, which relied upon internal commission documents, reported that Sher had
claimed to spend $136,653 in travel expenses in 1999. The article stated that the air fare alone for trips to Rome and
Berlin often was $5,000 or more per trip. The article also noted that Sher had quit the commission just a few weeks
prior to the article's publication.
Some details about what happened between Sher and the commission are
still unclear. Eagleburger, in his statement
to Legal Times, said that Sher was placed on administrative leave after admitting to the improper travel expense
reimbursements. The commission's outside counsel, Thomas Howard of the D.C. office of Ballard Spahr Andrews
& Ingersoll, conducted an internal investigation. Howard's findings were then reviewed by one-time FBI director and
former federal judge William Webster III of the D.C. office of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. Sher paid back
the commission, including the money it cost for the group to conduct the inquiry, and quietly resigned. According
to Eagleburger, Webster recommended that no further action be taken.
The D.C. Bar opened an investigation earlier this year, and Sher consented to disbarment late last month.
Sher declines to talk about what happened, except to say that he came
forward, admitted to Eagleburger what he had
done, and then made full restitution. Sher declines to say how much money was involved or where he obtained the
funds to pay back the commission.
Sher also refuses to talk about his divorce, which is scheduled to be finalized later this month.
He says he has had no consistent employment since leaving the commission more than a year ago.
"There's a lot of things that I've been trying to do, but I've made
no money at all," Sher says. "I've been unemployed.
I'm getting no paychecks ? nothing
Other articles of interest: