by Walter M. Brasch
American Reporter Correspondent
November 21, 2001
TWIN TOWERS FUND SLOW TO HELP TO VICTIMS, BUT DEADLINE FOR GIFTS IS MET
BLOOMSBURG, Pa., Nov. 21, 2001 -- Almost two months after the Sept. 11 national tragedy, and sandwiched between two Congressional investigative hearings about how charities are distributing donations to victims and their families, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced that the city-sponsored Twin Towers Fund will finally begin to release funds. The Twin Towers Fund had accumulated $85 million since Sept. 11, but had not provided assistance.
Donors to the Fund include a four-year-old girl who gave 60 cents, and husband-wife celebrities Arnold Schwartzenegger and Maria Shriver who contributed $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 victims and their families, the Twin Towers Fund is third in collections, behind 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 Thanksgiving" 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 personnel killed in the Twin Towers destruction. He emphasized that "every single penny" collected will go to those groups. He did not include any other uniformed services group previously identified by the Twin Towers Fund as potential 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 Center.
The largest gift was to the family of a firefighter who left six young children behind, he said. Mayor Giuliani noted that few of the other funds 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 distributed 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 subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee had just concluded formal hearings into possible fraud in solicitation of 9/11 victims-compensation funds. The oversight committee of the House Ways and Means Committee, which often deals with issues related to the Internal Revenue Service and charitable donations, was scheduled 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, Kim Serafin of the Mayor's office said 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 themselves.
Nevertheless, the distribution of funds as outright gifts is a policy change. "The most expeditious way to assist [families] is through FEMA [Federal 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 uniformed 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 unmet 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 FEMA which would then provide information to the Twin Towers Fund for supplemental assistance.
"That is not accurate," says Russ Edmonston, FEMA public information officer. He says that although FEMA assists and advises other agencies, there is no direct connection between FEMA and the Twin Towers Fund. "The Twin Towers Fund should at least be taking names and numbers," he says.
"The best-protected group are uniformed personnel," says the AIP's Daniel Borochoff. He says there are significant governmental benefits for the uniformed service victims' families. In addition, existing non-profit charities are providing a wide range of additional assistance, from food and mortgage payments to college tuition for children of the victims. The Fire Department of New York says it prefers donations be made either to the United Firefighters Association Widows' and Children's Fund or to the New York Firefighters 911 Relief Fund/International Association of Firefighters.
Within the first week of the disaster, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and his staff increased their comprehensive oversight of charitable giving "when it became evident that the scale and scope of the disaster was going to be met by an equally large base of donations," according to Mark Violette of the attorney general's staff.
"We have opened our hearts and wallets to the victims, and the people want assurances that their money [is] spent as effective as possible, that there 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 office and file annual reports, Violette says his office has encouraged charities to publicly report their intentions on the use of funds and to report financial data monthly.
Individuals may access the attorney general's Website to learn about agencies, their fund raising and spending, and what funds are available. Individuals 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 established following the Oklahoma City bombing six years earlier, to track applications for funds. The information, says Violette, is to avoid duplication 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 fraud. New York's attorney general transferred the database to the charities on Nov. 2.
"Certain organizations have a history of experience with disaster assistance," says Violette. "Newer organizations may have the best intentions but don't have the structure or even their boards of directors established," he says.
For more information, contact: Twin Towers Fund at
Walter M. Brasch, a reporter and editor, isprofessor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and a award-winning nationally-syndicated columnist. Rosemary Brasch and 38 other individuals sssisted on this investigation or provided information. Many are employed in governmental agencies or charities and asked to remain anonymous.
The American Reporter
Mayor Giuliani may have had the most altruistic intent when he created the Twin Towers Fund.
He may not have seen it as a way to control donations to the city.
He 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 role 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 funds that were in place, had the resources, and were ready to assist the families of all who were affected by the disaster.
Had he done so, perhaps he would not have waited two months - until the heat of Congressional hearings - to change a policy, one created with good intentions but without a lot of thought. He would not have waited two months to distribute funds - undoubtedly more than anyone had thought possible.
And, had he investigated other available charities and realized they were serving the uniformed services, the 60 cents that the 4-year-old girl donated and the $1 million that two New York celebrities donated to the $85 million fund might have gone into other charities, including those maintained by the firefighters, who lost more than 300 of their own, and who say they prefer donations be made to their own long-standing support charities.