Are They Cheating on 9/11 Payouts? the Public Responded to the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks with Unprecedented Financial Support for Victims and Their Families, but Was That Money Distributed as Intended?

Article excerpt

Byline: Kelly Patricia O'Meara, INSIGHT

One of the most remembered, and perhaps most repeated, lines in movie history occurs when Tom Cruise is reduced by Cuba Gooding Jr. to shouting into the phone: "Show me the money!" It's been years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Billions were contributed to nongovernmental organizations to assist those most affected. In an effort to measure the success of the distribution of those funds, Insight has set out to see how that money was spent or disbursed.

Based on the many billions of dollars unaccounted for by federal agencies in any given year, "showing the money" has never been the strong suit of federal bureaucrats. But when it comes to comparing the contributions that poured into nongovernmental agencies, and the billions of dollars expended by taxpayers after the terrorist attacks, it is the bureaucrats who have been the most open and aboveboard.

According to an Associated Press compilation, a total of 3,021 persons died as a result of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., excluding the 19 hijackers on the four aircraft. The wire service says 1,609 people lost a spouse or partner; an estimated 3,051 children lost a parent; and a total of 403 firefighters, paramedics, police and Port Authority officers were killed by the World Trade Center implosion.

The outpouring of compassion in the form of financial contributions to assist those who lost loved ones or were injured by the attacks was extraordinary. In December 2002 the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report titled More Effective Collaboration Could Enhance Charitable Organizations' Contributions in Disasters that reviewed the effectiveness of collaboration among charitable organizations. The GAO reported of the disaster relief that "35 of the larger charities reported raising an estimated $2.7 billion since September 11, 2001."

That's a great deal of money by anyone's standards. While it would be nearly impossible to contact every nonprofit that received contributions, Insight has focused on two well-known charitable organizations that received large donations, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, as well as the government's disaster agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to examine how well contributions were reported and how effectively they were distributed. In other words, we asked them to "show us the money."

That the families of those killed or seriously injured were supported financially by the charitable contributions seems clear, but the details of the distribution are murky. For example, the American Red Cross, which has received clean audits in both 2002 and 2003, reports that it has distributed $882 million of the $1.072 billion donated to the organization for this purpose. The breakdown of the three largest categories for the $882 million disbursed is as follows:

Immediate disaster relief: $137 million

* Includes more than 14 million meals for disaster workers and victims, one-on-one disaster mental-health contacts with more than 200,000 people, plus disaster health-care services to 133,000 people.

* Also included are $40 million of donated materials and services.

Financial assistance to families of deceased/seriously injured: $374 million

* Includes financial assistance to 3,712 families whose loved ones were killed or seriously injured as a result of the attacks.

Financial assistance for displaced workers/residents/others: $283 million

* Includes financial assistance to 54,000 families whose homes were destroyed or made inaccessible or who lost jobs or income.

The American Red Cross also reports that some $63 million of these contributions was spent on "stewardship" of the fund, a cost that included "systems for tracking beneficiary assistance." If so, critics ask, why has no document been released to the public offering a breakdown of outlays within each category? …