A Sphinx-Like Judge in Cairo Terror Case

Merrill Kramer, an attorney at the Washington, D.C., powerhouse firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, has waited 13 months. Now he wants an answer.

In 1993, he was shot by a terrorist gunman while dining at the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo, Egypt. In 1996, he and others filed a $132.5 million lawsuit in New York, the American headquarters of the Intercontinental Hotels Corporation, charging the chain with negligent security. In 1997, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska issued a carefully reasoned, 16-page opinion, telling Mr. Kramer to take his lawsuit to Cairo.

The crucial security decisions were made in Cairo and London, she wrote, not at the corporate offices, now closed, at 1120 Sixth Avenue. The Egyptian courts regularly hear personal injury suits and award damages, she wrote, making them an adequate alternative. And not only that: “It is undisputed that the Southern District of New York is heavily overburdened. This … favors dismissal.”

After getting the bad news from the judge, Mr. Kramer, now 44 and mostly recovered from his gun wounds, formally asked Judge Preska to reconsider her decision.

He has been waiting to hear back ever since.

Mr. Kramer, a law partner of Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, was not the only victim of the 1993 attack. At the table with him were Coby Hoffman and Robert Guidi, executives from Brooklyn Union Gas Company. Mr. Kramer and the executives were developing a proposal for a natural gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel. They had just stood after a last glass of wine when a fellow diner leaped up, yelled ” Allahu akbar !” and opened fire. Bullets ripped through Mr. Kramer’s femoral artery and rib. Lying on the ground next to a champagne rack, he couldn’t move. He watched as the executives, as well as jurists from France and Italy, fell dead.

Mr. Kramer went through four hospitals on three continents before he was able to return to work six months later. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Government tried the gunman, Sabir Farahat Abu il-Ala, and deemed him insane. He was sentenced to stay at a mental hospital.

But since then, even the Egyptian courts concluded that Farahat was a terrorist. In 1997, Farahat walked away from the insane asylum after bribing officials there and, with his brother, attacked a bus of tourists, killing 10 more people. At the ensuing trial, Farahat said he had wanted to slay Jews. The Egyptian judge convicted him for “terrorist motives.” Then Farahat was executed.

Joining Mr. Kramer in the $132.5 million lawsuit against the Intercontinental were Karen Guidi and Eve Hoffman, widows of the slain executives. The widows were also unhappy with Judge Preska’s decision, according to Mr. Kramer.

“Saying the widows and myself should have to go back to the place of this devastation for the convenience of Intercontinental, that’s just not the law,” he said. “I don’t know of any other case where all the plaintiffs and all the crucial defendants are located in the United States and a judge has ordered the case to be tried in the terrorist country, where there are constant attacks and constant reminders.”

After the 1996 incident, 58 tourists were killed in an the attack in Luxor, in southern Egypt. Then came the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and, on Jan. 5, 1999, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel caution for Egypt: “Americans should maintain a low profile, vary routes and times for all required travel, and treat mail from unfamiliar sources with suspicion.” That’s the kind of thing that might make it difficult for someone to file a lawsuit in Cairo.

One legal scholar, Prof. Paul Dubinsky, of New York Law School, said that judges tossing out cases based on improper venue is becoming more common. “In the next decade, forum non conveniens is going to be the most active international litigation issue,” Mr. Dubinsky said.

A judge doesn’t often reverse herself, particularly after issuing a 16-page decision. Judge Preska, appointed by President George Bush, is thinking it over longer than usual. Why the delay? “My experience is that these motions are usually ruled on in months, if not weeks,” said international litigator Gregory Wallance of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler. “Judge Preska is a very efficient, productive judge, so there may be some considerable issue she’s digesting.”

Mr. Kramer is getting antsy. “I’m in a little better financial situation than the widows,” he said. “It’s much more of a financial strain on them than me, but I want this behind me, too.”

His lawyers at Schneider, Kleinick, Weitz, Damashek & Shoot, are eager for a reversal, too: If they wanted to pursue the suit in Egypt, they’d have to pony up a retainer for an Egyptian lawyer. Egyptian lawyers don’t take cases on contingency.

Mr. Kramer and company have little choice but to wait for Judge Preska. Ordinarily, they could withdraw their motion and head to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan. But then that court would consider only the facts on the record as of July 1997. Better to let Judge Preska rule on the significance of the recent attacks.

“If she thought it was a fluke that we were shot and it wasn’t going to happen again, I mean, lightning struck twice,” said Mr. Kramer. “Not just in Egypt, but the same gunman.”

Even though she has at least temporarily rid herself of Mr. Kramer’s lawsuit, Judge Preska is surrounded by signs of terrorism every day. To reach her offices at the 500 Pearl Street courthouse, she has to leave her vehicle a couple of blocks away, wend her way through two sets of concrete barricades and, once inside the building, walk past the usual guards and metal detectors. As any court employee can tell you, Foley Square is on terrorist alert. Later this year, prosecutors at the Federal courthouse will accuse five men of blowing up the United States embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

At this point, whichever courthouse Mr. Kramer ends up in, he’ll be surrounded by reminders of terrorism.

The Anti-Trump

If Donald Trump wants to erect his Trump World Tower, all 72 stories of it, he is going to have to get past Donald Elliott first. The Beekman Hill Association, one of a number of neighborhood groups opposed to Mr. Trump’s gargantuan project, recently retained Mr. Elliott, a discreet and veteran fixer, to scale back the plans.

Mr. Elliott is scrutinizing the Trump Organization’s assembly of air rights and other legal machinations it used to snare the permits for the building. “We’re trying to determine the procedure that was followed to get approval for this building and see whether it was appropriate,” Mr. Elliott said. As of yet, Mr. Elliott said he doesn’t have any conclusions. “Not to say I won’t have any-just not yet.”

Mr. Elliott, 66, was a close confidant of former Mayor John Lindsay. He was the chairman of the City Planning Commission from 1966 to 1973, and later he and Mr. Lindsay traveled from law firm to law firm together. “Everybody knows him,” said one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers for the building, Jay Neveloff of Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel. “He’s got a good reputation.”

How up to date is his real estate prowess? “He’s not a name that would jump to my mind if you asked me to name the five or six biggest land use lawyers,” said commercial real estate hot shot Jonathan Mechanic, a partner at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.

Mr. Elliott insisted that working to stop a prominent project wouldn’t sink his chances of getting other developer clients. “I’m not antidevelopment in any sense of the word,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time working on development projects and expect to in the future, but I think they have to be done in accordance with the applicable planning and land use rules.”

Maybe the fact that Mr. Elliott is not necessarily against development worked in his favor. The association passed over Jack Lester, who often takes on real estate moguls on behalf of community boards and neighborhood groups.

-Gabriel Snyder

You can reach N.Y. Law by e-mail atmfleischer@observer.com.