Edward Fagan

Edward Fagan (R) talks with Austrian opponents of the Czech nuclear power plant in Temelin 20 March 2001 during his visit to the controversial facility. (DAVID VEIS, AFP/Getty Images / March 20, 2001)

In the late 1990s, New Jersey attorney Edward D. Fagan commanded a world stage as one of the first lawyers to seek billions of dollars in reparations for Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

With his lawsuits, he was the first to file claims against Swiss banks for withholding accounts that once belonged Holocaust victims — resulting in a $1.25 billion settlement.

Colorful and controversial with a brash street-fighter style, he also targeted multinational corporations and European nations. He presided over news conferences, often with an elderly survivor by his side, and garnered international headlines.

Following his fame came a precipitous fall, with disbarments in New York and New Jersey for malpractice and dipping into client funds, and mounting personal debts and judgments in the millions of dollars.

Now, he has resurfaced in Boca Raton, with a lawsuit filed April 19 in federal court in West Palm Beach against the Czech Republic, seeking the return of 127 art works — taken by the Nazis from a wealthy Jewish family that perished during World War II — that he values at more than $50 million.

Fagan, 59, says his latest legal crusade is in keeping with his passionate support of Jewish causes, and a chance for redemption for what he characterizes as past mistakes.

"I am not the Ed Fagan of years ago, about whom some people complained, and on whom other people gave accolades. They took my license, but not my brains," Fagan told the Sun Sentinel, in an email exchange from Prague. "I am very proud of what I am now doing and hopefully I can be judged by who I am and what I am doing today — not based on the past."

Fagan filed the suit on behalf of himself and Michal Klepetar, a Czech national who has been waging a decade-long battle with the government to reclaim the art work by old masters, including Flemish and Dutch paintings.

Klepetar's great-uncle, Richard Popper, acquired the art work, which vanished following the war, but 43 paintings wound up in the Czech National Gallery. Popper, his wife and daughter died in 1941 or 1942 after being deported from Prague to the Lodz ghetto in Poland.

While Klepetar and his brother have been recognized as Popper's heirs and some buildings were returned to them, the Czech government and courts repeatedly have refused the return of the artwork because Klepetar is not a direct descendant.

Klepetar, 65, said he met Fagan in Prague through a mutual friend who thought he might still have a chance to get the looted art back with Fagan's help.

"I was frustrated in court," Klepetar said. "I needed someone like Mr. Fagan to go to the American courts himself."

Art experts have been critical of the law the Czech government passed in 2000 that entitles only Holocaust victims and their direct descendants to the return of property stolen during the Nazi era. A spokesman for the Czech Republic Embassy inWashington, D.C., declined to comment on pending litigation.

Fagan filed the suit on behalf of himself and Michal Klepetar, a Czech national who has been waging a battle with the government to reclaim the artwork by old masters. Fagan created an entity called Victims of Holocaust Art Theft, with a Boca Raton post office box address and Klepetar as a co-owner, that is the plaintiff in the suit.

Fagan said he purchased a "small" interest in the 43 known Popper artworks and a "larger" interest in the remaining 84 missing pieces.

Those interests, Fagan said, give him the right to pursue the artwork in federal court in the United States. He is not licensed to practice law in Florida, but, he said, he is not acting as a lawyer. He signed the 51-page suit as a representative of Victims of Holocaust Art Theft.

"The Czech Republic and its museums are knowingly withholding and profiting from thousands of pieces of artwork, plus other objets d'art — such as Judaica and ceramics, glass, furniture, clocks, carpets — that were stolen from Holocaust victims and continue to be withheld from them," Fagan said.

Through his earlier lawsuits, Fagan said, he helped collect $8 billion on behalf of Holocaust victims, but in the process he became mired in controversy.

Burt Neuborne, a New York University law professor who was the lead claims counsel in the Swiss banks case, said Fagan "was effective in getting public attention. I don't think he was very effective as a lawyer. I will say this – he had a genius for publicity."

As Fagan took on thousands of Holocaust clients, other personal-injury clients suffered. One such client, Allen Tavel, injured in a car crash, won a $3.2 million malpractice judgment against Fagan, after Fagan failed to respond to a motion that resulted in Tavel's injury suit being dismissed, according to Tavel's current attorney, Matthew Schwartz.

Fagan has not paid anything on the judgment, Schwartz said.

"He has not honored his obligations to Allen Tavel," Schwartz said. Fagan said he plans to have the case re-opened and fight the judgment.

Fagan's lead plaintiff in the Swiss banks case, Gizella Weisshaus, an 82-year-old Auschwitz survivor living in Brooklyn, said she ended her relationship with Fagan in 1998 after discovering he misappropriated $82,000 held in her cousin's estate.

"He defrauded me," Weisshaus said. "I wouldn't have anything to do with Fagan, no more."

Fagan testified in New Jersey bar proceedings that he was entitled to the money as legal fees, but the New Jersey Supreme Court found — in disbarring Fagan in 2008 — that he "knowingly misappropriated" the money, as well as used $300,000 from another client to keep his law practice afloat. Some of that $300,000 was owed to Fagan as a fee, the court found.

Fagan told the Sun Sentinel, "Mrs. Weisshaus was not 'defrauded' about anything or out of any monies; yet she continues to make these allegations to anyone who will listen." He also said, "I made mistakes for which I am very sorry. However, for the last three-plus years, I have dedicated myself to getting better, which I am doing."

Two rabbis who have known Fagan for decades say his good intentions sometimes overwhelmed his abilities and resources.

"His personal life and his public life have been complicated, but the person I remember was filled with passion and love for people, for Israel, for the Torah," said Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of Congregation Rodfei Sholom in San Antonio, Texas, who worked with a young Fagan when he was a youth counselor.

"I know deep down Ed Fagan is a good man. I know deep down he means well. I know he has made some very serious mistakes and he will admit it," said Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek in New York, adding in his current work Fagan is seeking "teshuvah," Hebrew for repentance.

"It is a good story of redemption. I think he deserves the chance to help others and redeem himself."

pfranceschina@tribune.com, 561-243-6605 or Twitter @pfranceschina