TWIN TOWERS FUND SLOW TO HELP TO VICTIMS, BUT DEADLINE FOR GIFTS IS MET
by Walter M. Brasch
American Reporter Correspondent
BLOOMSBURG, Pa., Nov. 21, 2001 -- Almost two months after the Sept. 11 n= ational tragedy, and sandwiched between two Congressional investigative hea= rings about how charities are distributing donations to victims and their f= amilies, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced that the city-sponsore= d Twin Towers Fund will finally begin to release funds. The Twin Towers Fun= d had accumulated $85 million since Sept. 11, but had not provided assistan= ce. Donors to the Fund include a four-year-old girl who gave 60 cents, a= nd husband-wife celebrities Arnold Schwartzenegger and Maria Shriver who co= ntributed $1 million. Several corporations have made six- and seven-figure = donations, according to Tamra Lhota, president of the New York City Public/= Private Initiatives, which oversees the Fund.
Of the 190 charities which have collected about $1.2 billion for all vi= ctims and their families, the Twin Towers Fund is third in collections, beh= ind the Red Cross and the September 11th Fund established by the United Way= and the New York Community Trust.
Neither the American Institute of Philanthropy's (AIP) Charity Watch nor= Philanthropy Research's GuideStar, both of which evaluate charities, have = current financial details about the Twin Towers Fund. Daniel Borochoff, AIP= president, says his organization doesn't evaluate new charities for three = years. The Twin Towers Fund "is just too new," he says.
At a press conference Nov. 7, Giuliani said "hopefully before Thanksgivi= ng" at least $100,000 will be given to each of the families of the 406 New = York City firefighters, police, and New York/New Jersey Port Authority pers= onnel killed in the Twin Towers destruction. He emphasized that "every sing= le penny" collected will go to those groups. He did not include any other u= niformed services group previously identified by the Twin Towers Fund as po= tential recipients.
With a day to spare, New York's beloved mayor met the deadline. He told= a press conference today that the Twin Towers Fund had distributed a total= of $39,935,00 in gifts ranging from $60,000 to $300,000 to 331 families of= uniformed officers killed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Cente= r.
The largest gift was to the family of a firefighter who left six you= ng children behind, he said. Mayor Giuliani noted that few of the other fun= ds have actually disgorged the enormous sums of money collected to help the= World Trade Center victims.
Giuliani says that for the remaining $45 million that will not be dist= ributed by Thanksgiving, as well as future donations, "we really need more = time to figure out what's the most equitable way to distribute that."
The day of Giuliani's announcement was one day after the oversight subco= mmittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committeehad just concluded formal= hearings into possible fraud insolicitation of funds. The oversight commit= tee of the House Waysand Means Committee, which often deals with issues rel= ated to the Internal Revenue Service and charitable donations, was schedule= d to hold formal hearings the next day.
To a series of questions about the coincidence of the release of funds = the day between the two major hearings, KimSerafin of the Mayor's office sa= id on Nov. 8 "you are reading too much into it." She claimed the release of= funds was "not related" to a growing public concern or to the hearings the= mselves.
Nevertheless, the distribution of funds as outright gifts is a policy ch= ange. "The most expeditious way to assist [families]is through FEMA [Federa= l Emergency Management Agency] or the Red Cross," said Tamra Lhota on Oct. = 24, six weeks after the disaster. She indicated at that time there were "no= immediate plans" to distribute funds to families. "If needs [of the unifor= med personnel] are not being met," said Lhota, "we stand here to help." The= intent at that time, she said, was for families to seek assistance "for un= met needs" from the Twin Towers Fund "only after" they received assistance = from other agencies.
Persons calling the Fund's toll-free number (877-870-4278) first hear a = recorded solicitation for donations. The Web site (www.twintowers.vista.com= ) is little more than an appeal to donate funds on-line. Callers who spoke = to someone at the phone bank were often told they first had to apply to FEM= A which would then provide information to the Twin Towers Fund for suppleme= ntal assistance.
"That is not accurate," says Russ Edmonston, FEMA public information off= icer. He says that although FEMA assists and advises other agencies, there = is no direct connection between FEMA and the Twin Towers Fund. "The Twin To= wers Fund should at least be taking names and numbers," he says.
"The best-protected group are uniformed personnel," says the AIP's Dani= el Borochoff. He says there are significant governmental benefits for the u= niformed service victims' families. In addition, existing non-profit charit= ies are providing a wide range of additional assistance, from food and mort= gage payments to college tuition for children of the victims. The Fire Depa= rtment of New York says it prefers donations be made either to the United F= irefighters Association Widows' and Children's Fund or to the New York Fire= fighters 911 ReliefFund/International Association of Firefighters.
Within= the first week of the disaster, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spit= zer and his staff increased their comprehensive oversight of charitable giv= ing "when it became evident that the scale and scope of the disaster was go= ing to be met by an equally large base of donations," according to Mark Vio= lette of the attorney general's staff.
"We have opened our hearts and wallets to the victims, and the people wa= nt assurances that their money [is] spent as effective as possible, that th= ere is the maximum good from their generosity," Violette says.
Since Sept. 11, about 120 new disaster relief organizations have applied= for tax-exempt status, according to Steven Miller of the Internal Revenue = Service.
Although most charities must register with the attorney general's offic= e and file annual reports, Violette says his office has encouraged charitie= s to publicly report their intentions on the use of funds and to report fin= ancial data monthly.
Individuals may access the attorney general's Website to learn about ag= encies, their fund raising and spending, and what funds are available. Indi= viduals will be able to use a ncomprehensive search engine to find specific= requirements, such as "mortgage assistance."
Charities also have access to a confidential database, based upon one e= stablished following the Oklahoma City bombing six years earlier, to track = applications for funds. The information, says Violette, is to avoid duplica= tion of effort, make it easier for victims and their families to apply for = and receive assistance, to identify needs not being met, and to reduce frau= d. New York's attorney general transferred the database to the charities on= Nov. 2.
"Certain organizations have a history of experience with disaster assist= ance," says Violette. "Newer organizations may have the best intentions but= don't have the structure or even their boards of directors established," h= e says.
For more information: Twin Towers Fund www.twint=
owersfund.vista.com or www.nyc.gov/html/em/twintowersfund.htmlNew York State Atty.General www.oag.state.ny.us or www.w=
Walter M. Bras= ch, a reporter and editor, isprofessor of journalism at Bloomsburg Universi= ty and a award-winning nationally-syndicated columnist. Rosemary Brasch and= 38 other individuals sssisted on this investigation or provided informatio= n. Many are employed in governmental agencies or charities and asked to rem= ain anonymous.
The = American Reporter
Mayor Giuliani may have had the most altruistic intent when he created t= he Twin Towers Fund.
He may not have seen it as a way to control donations to the city. H= e may not have seen it as PR for the city, especially since at least one of= New York City's newspapers has been trumpeting the cause and the mayor's r= ole since the fund was created.
And, he may not have seen it as a way to= improve relations with the city's uniformed services, with whom he has had= a series of confrontations.
But the politically-savvy mayor should have investigated all other fund= s that were in place, had the resources, and were ready to assist the famil= ies of all who were affected by the disaster.
Had he done so, perhaps he would not have waited two months -- until th= e heat of Congressional hearings -- to change a policy, one created with go= od intentions but without a lot of thought. He would not have waited two mo= nths to distribute funds -- undoubtedly more than anyone had thoughtpossibl= e.
And, had he investigated other available charities andrealized they were= serving the uniformed services, the 60 centsthat the 4-year-old girl donat= ed and the $1 million that two NewYork celebrities donated to the $85 milli= on fund might have goneinto other charities, including those maintained by = thefirefighters, who lost more than 300 of their own, and who saythey prefe= r donations be made to their own long-standing support charities.