Squeezing Terrorists' Bankbooks
Mark Werbner finds a novel way to fight terrorism
Published in 2006 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 12, 2006
Updated on December 18, 2019
From the beginning, it was much more than a lawsuit to Mark Werbner. A calling?
Perhaps. Fate? If you believe in that. Those so inclined could even consider it the intervention of a divine hand.
Call it what you will. But when an East Coast attorney seeking to combat terrorists by hitting their finances sought out the Dallas lawyer for help, he did so with no idea of Werbner’s background. No hint that Werbner had helped Jews around the world immigrate to Israel. No clue that Werbner, whose own faith had reawakened years earlier, was scouring his soul for ways to aid besieged Israelis.
That call from the blue to a man dedicated to seizing justice for those crushed by terror should make the Arab Bank — and those it allegedly rewarded for violence — truly afraid. And now, a case that he didn’t go looking for could very likely end with Werbner making history.
He has won some big cases before: $24 million against American Airlines; $36 million for the family of a young man who was severely injured in a bus collision; and a $454.5 million verdict against CompUSA that earned him the Texas Trial Lawyer of the Year award in 2002.
But nothing he’s done begins to approach the immensity of this case. Werbner and a team of Israeli and American lawyers have taken the war on terrorism to the courtroom. It is, Werbner admits two years into Terror Victims v. Arab Bank, which is seeking more than $1 billion in damages from a bank with more than $30 billion in assets, much more than a lawsuit.
“Very,” he says. “A client once said to me, ‘This is so deep, it’s in your bones,’” Werbner says. “Then, the next day, he says, ‘No. I was wrong. This is so deep, it’s in your marrow.’”
Those who knew Werbner more than two decades ago would never have expected this. He grew up in San Antonio, the son of a used-car salesman who also owned a Texaco gas station. His mother sold advertising for the local newspaper. He grew up learning the value of hard work, pumping gas at his dad’s station. The family was Jewish but far from Orthodox. He’d had his bar mitzvah and they attended synagogue. But only a few of the 2,000 students at Churchill High School in San Antonio, where Werbner graduated in 1972, were Jewish.
His faith and his heritage didn’t define him. What did, Werbner says, was working hard and moving up.
After high school, he attended the University of Texas, graduating in just three years. In 1978, he graduated from Southern Methodist University Law School. It was all about the career, he says. It was all about success.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Werbner remembers, he was working as an attorney in Dallas, and he and other young associates would hit happy hour on Friday nights. The talk was almost always about their cases, their ambitions and the pecking order at their law firms.
Then, in 1982, Werbner says he was “invited to something that changed my life.” He and his wife, Cheryl Pollman, whom he met when both were law students at SMU, were asked to become members of the young leadership group of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. This was no social club, but a request for a real commitment of time and energy — and an 18-month study program. Attendance was mandatory and, at the end of the program, the young couples would go to Israel.
“It was a spiritual reawakening,” he says. “We started to be kosher. Going to Friday-night Shabbat, instead of going out … we really found something that had been missing in our lives.”
He adds, “It was interesting and exciting and stimulating and it felt like it gave us a focus and a cause. … I didn’t want to be just another lawyer driving a BMW down the expressway to downtown Dallas.”
Since that first program, Werbner says, he has been to Israel at least 20 times, met Refuseniks in Moscow hoping to emigrate from Russia, been shadowed by the former KGB, and led a Dallas delegation to Warsaw, Poland. They successfully worked to convince Jews in Eastern Europe to immigrate to Israel. And, along the way, Werbner says, his connection to his faith deepened. And it deepened his outlook on life.
Dick Sayles, Werbner’s partner at the Dallas firm of Sayles Werbner, has known Werbner for more than two decades. They were young attorneys together at Carrington Coleman nearly 20 years ago; two years after Sayles started his own firm, he brought Werbner into the fold. They each have taken more than 200 cases to trial — substantial, serious cases involving personal injury, intellectual property and white-collar criminal defense.
“He’s a fantastic trial attorney, smart and focused,” he says. But Sayles says he has seen more than that. He has seen the difference Werbner’s spiritual reawakening has made.
“I’ve just been privileged to see it,” he says. “To me, it’s not a surprise. It’s just the maturing of a dimension he’s always had.”
Pollman agrees. “The seeds were already planted,” she says of her husband. “Once we went to Russia, the commitment to Jews worldwide became solidified. That was a very meaningful time in our lives, and I believe had great impact on the real ‘adult’ Mark was to become.”
Then, in 1991, the journey took another turn. As the United States launched the Persian Gulf War to retake Kuwait from Iraq, Saddam Hussein began launching Scud missiles at Tel Aviv. Werbner decided he had to go there. After all, he’d worked so hard to convince Soviet Jews to move to Israel, he felt a sense of obligation to share their danger.
“When the Scuds starting falling, it felt real personal,” he says. “Now it was time to show our real intentions. Now it was time to put our money where our mouth is. I felt some guilt for pushing emigration. [Immigrants] were literally getting off the plane and given gas masks.”
So Werbner, too, got a gas mask. And, through it, he saw the lives of friends disrupted and shattered by missiles and bombs and bullets. But besides providing solidarity, he says, “I never thought there was anything I could do.”
Courtney Linde, too, thought there was nothing she could do. In late 2003, her husband, John Linde Jr., 30, a former Marine, had taken a private security job to help defray the costs of Courtney’s battle against bone cancer. She was in the Air Force, but there were concerns about whether the government might discharge her rather than continue providing the expensive treatment she needed, which included replacing her right femur and patella with a titanium rod and artificial kneecap.
On Oct. 15, 2003, John Linde was in a caravan of vehicles, providing security for diplomats driving to a camp in Gaza. They were going to interview Palestinian candidates for Fulbright scholarships. A buried roadside bomb detonated, killing John Linde Jr. and two other Americans.
For more than a year after losing her husband, Courtney Linde was lost. “The whole year was kind of a blur,” she says of 2004.
Meanwhile, New York attorney Gary Osen was looking at what he could do for victims of terrorism after a neighbor was killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the past, Osen had won reparations from Swiss banks that held money taken from Jews by the Nazis in World War II. He had also used the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows any U.S. citizen injured or killed by means of international terrorism to sue for treble damages in American court. Osen wanted to use lawsuits to go after terror.
In April 2004, Werbner received an e-mail from Osen. “I just about fell out of my chair,” Werbner says of the e-mail. Within two days, he was in Washington, D.C., meeting with other lawyers about how to attack the attackers. Their idea: Go after the banks that were funneling funds to the terrorists and their families. Within 10 days of that initial e-mail, Osen and Werbner were in Israel.
“I took off on this thing like a lit-up bottle rocket,” Werbner says.
He began scouring the world for experts. He sought the intelligence linking financial institutions and suicide-bombers’ families. And he began knocking on a lot of terror victims’ doors. And then Mark Werbner met Courtney Linde.
“The attorneys found me,” she says. “They told me they had evidence of the banks’ money encouraging more people to kill. They let me know there was probably something I could do to keep someone else from going through this.” She agreed to be a plaintiff in the case.
In July 2004, Linde v. Arab Bank was filed in federal court in New York. It would grow to include more victims and seek more damages. Eventually, the attorneys would split in the case, taking their clients with them. Werbner says there were differences in strategy and approach. He now represents 50 to 60 families whose loved ones have been the victims of the violence in Israel. Linde says she’s happy to have met Werbner.
“He’s a great guy and he’s doing good things,” she says. “He’s very passionate about this case. It’s probably one of the reasons I even went along with it at the beginning.”
The suit claims that the Jordan-based Arab Bank has bankrolled terrorism, pumping more than $40 million to terrorists through its branches in the Middle East. Much of that money has been paid out to the families of terrorists involved in suicide attacks, Werbner says. Money flows from suspected terrorist fundraisers into the Arab Bank, is transferred to U.S. dollars at the Arab Bank’s New York branch and then returns to Middle East branches for payment to terrorists and their survivors, he explains.
While Arab Bank officials deny knowingly funding terrorist activity, U.S. bank regulators have traced large sums of money flowing from suspected terrorist fundraisers through the Arab Bank and into its Middle East branches. Arab Bank’s New York City branch has been severely restricted, and continues to face scrutiny from regulators and the Justice Department. In September 2005, a federal judge in Brooklyn upheld the validity of the lawsuits against the bank, keeping the case alive.
Nevertheless, Werbner says the bank’s deep pockets will make this a battle for years to come. And there are days when he feels worn out by the “reams of paper” the other side can throw at him and his clients.
“But I find a lot of energy and inspiration from the victims,” he says. “We’re on a mission.”
Jim Bonner, a New York attorney who is working as local counsel on the case, says that energy is paying dividends. “He does have a tremendous passion for these issues, and it comes across very strongly in the courtroom,” Bonner says. “The judges and magistrates, they can feel his passion. And I think that has played a large part in the manner in which we’ve been treated during the litigation. We’ve had some favorable rulings.”
Sayles, too, says he has no doubt that Werbner’s passion for the victims will carry the day. “The courtroom is the great leveler,” he says. “And Mark is incredible in a courtroom.”
But obsession can take a toll. When he’s working on a case, his wife says, his focus is intense. “In the beginning, it was all-consuming,” Pollman says of the terror victims case. “But, as time went on, he recognized the need to keep a balance in his life.”
Whether it’s taking quiet moments with Cheryl, escaping with his son for a week on the slopes or getting away for a scuba diving outing with friends, Werbner finds the time to unwind. “I wouldn’t trade that for the world,” he says.
Still, the pressures of the world — and this case in particular — are never far away. And Werbner worries. Yes, he believes this case already has made a difference in the war on terror. Yes, the Arab Bank has stopped doing some of the things it had been doing. And, yes, there’s a heightened awareness throughout the world about how money fuels terror.
But he wants to win — badly. He wants to win for all fathers and mothers — and husbands and wives — left suffering in terrorism’s wake.
“They’re counting on me to give them some measure of justice. They’re counting on me to bring something … that allows them to fight back.”