O'Malley to sign bill requiring railway to disclose WWII past

A company partly owned by the French railroad will have to detail the railway's role in transporting Holocaust victims to Nazi death camps before it can compete again to operate Maryland commuter trains, according to legislation that Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to sign today.

The law will make Maryland the first state to require that a company seeking government rail contracts provide all records about Nazi victims it transported and any personal belongings taken from them, supporters said.

The legislation targeted Keolis, a Paris-based company whose majority owner is Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francaise (SNCF), the government-owned French railway that historians say was paid to transport nearly 77,000 Jews and other Holocaust victims during World War II.

Keolis America recently bid on a contract to operate the Brunswick and Camden lines that CSX now operates for the Maryland Area Regional Commuter system. The Maryland Department of Transportation canceled the bid process in November, saying it hadn't attracted enough competition. CSX, which has the contract through June 2012, has said it wants to focus on its freight business.

Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan said the Maryland Transit Administration expects to solicit Brunswick and Camden line bids again this summer. Asked whether a firm's ties to the Holocaust would affect its chances of clinching a MARC contract, Cahalan said state procurement law does not consider a company's historical actions. The new law, he said, does not preclude companies from winning a MARC contract once they have properly disclosed the required Holocaust-related information.

Holocaust survivor groups called the Maryland law a major victory for victims, their families and U.S. taxpayers.

"Legislators, taxpayers and concerned citizens want to know where their tax dollars are going and the character of the companies that their governments are doing business with," said Raphael Prober, an attorney for Akin Gump. The law firm is representing 269 Holocaust victims pro bono in the push for legislation and in a federal lawsuit that seeks damages from SNCF for belongings taken when Jews and other Holocaust victims boarded SNCF trains during World War II.

Steve Townsend, president of Keolis America, said SNCF owns 57 percent of the parent Keolis company, which was founded in the late 1990s. He said Keolis plans to bid on the Brunswick and Camden lines again and hopes SNCF can provide the historical documents required under the new law.

"Keolis has a separate history from SNCF," Townsend said. "The linkage is that SNCF owns a majority of the shares in Keolis. Keolis can't make the disclosures because it's not our history. It's SNCF's history. We didn't operate trains in World War II."

Keolis won an $85 million contract from Virginia Railway Express, its only U.S. commuter rail system, and has operated VRE trains since last summer. The company also is bidding on a contract to operate commuter trains in Northern California, Townsend said.

On the "heritage" page of its Web site showcasing its high-speed rail operations, SNCF says the Nazis seized its trains during the German occupation. The railway says it has a "commitment to complete transparency of its WW II history," including opening SNCF's archives to historians in 1996.

Prober, of Akin Gump, said the company has not opened all of its archives, while others aren't easily accessible.