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Red Cross debunks concerns about aid



Published: Sat, November 3, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Area chapter directors have received few calls from concerned residents.

By WILLIAM K. ALCORN

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Residents of the Mahoning and Shenango valleys sent nearly $500,000 through local American Red Cross chapters, and significantly more in direct contributions, to the National Red Cross Liberty Fund to aid victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Russell Preston, executive director of the Mahoning chapter, said $122,000 came directly to his chapter from Mahoning County residents.

But he thinks that was just the "tip of the iceberg. Probably three or four times" that amount was donated directly to the National Red Cross Liberty Fund, Preston said.

Cheryl Oblinger, executive director of the Trumbull chapter, agreed that substantially more than the $189,000 given through the Trumbull chapter was donated directly to National Red Cross via the toll-free number and other means.

Criticism: In the wake of the unprecedented giving locally and nationally, however, the Red Cross is facing criticism of its handling of the Liberty Fund, primarily because not all of the dollars are being immediately distributed to victims of the attacks.

The Red Cross had received about $561 million in cash and in-kind services for the Liberty Fund as of Friday, about $17 million of which was specifically designated for victims of the World Trade Center attacks.

The Red Cross said it plans to spend about $300 million over the next year on direct relief efforts and hold the remaining money in trust to help terrorist attack victims in the future.

It is the amount being held back that has caused some to say the Red Cross misled donors about the use of the Liberty Fund.

Also, the Red Cross spent $1.7 million to expand its accounting, database management and telecommunications systems and an additional $800,000 on its Web site -- expenditures officials say were needed to handle the unprecedented volume of contributions and inquiries since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Preston said he is "totally convinced the funds are being properly used. I think we are using the money wisely."

Oblinger said the terrorist attacks are a disaster without boundaries, unlike a storm or an earthquake. "We don't know where this is going to go. We could have a lot more victims," she said, explaining the decision to hold back some of the funds for the future.

Audits completed: Because of the enormous number of dollars involved, every Red Cross chapter and the National Red Cross completed, as of Oct. 31, an independent outside audit of Liberty Fund money, said Tony DeCaprio, executive director of the Lawrence County Red Cross chapter.

There is a need for long-term assistance, Oblinger said. For example, she noted, the Red Cross is still providing funds for victims of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, which occurred April 19, 1995.

The Red Cross is also contacting people who have contracted anthrax. They are terrorist victims, too, she said.

Because the Red Cross has enough money in the Liberty Fund to take care of present and future needs, it has discontinued appeals for donations for the Liberty Fund, although funds designated for terrorist victims will still be placed in that fund.

According to Harold Decker, interim chief executive officer of the Red Cross, the Liberty Fund money will continue to be kept separate from other funds and will be spent on aid to victims' families and other relief efforts arising from terrorist attacks.

Local inquiries: The chapter heads all said they have received calls from residents, mostly generated by radio talk shows, concerned that the money donated for the Liberty Fund was not being disbursed to the victims' families.

"We have had a few people call with questions, and when we answered them, they seemed satisfied," said Ginger Grilli, executive director of the North Columbiana County chapter.

People often do not understand all the expenses involved, she said. Since Sept. 11, the Red Cross has served 9.5 million meals to volunteers and victims' families and provided clothing, shelter, and medical and metal-health aid among other things.

Direct grants have been made to the families of victims to offset the loss of income, and the Red Cross is still contacting employers and families trying to locate everybody who might be in need. Those are outright grants, not loans, and need not be paid back, Grilli said.

"I'd stake my personal and professional integrity" that the money earmarked for the Liberty Fund has been and will be used for the victims of terrorist attacks, Grilli said.

Oblinger said one of her callers heard Red Cross administrative costs represented 51 percent of the donations. Traditionally, she said, Red Cross administrative costs are 10 to 15 percent. In the case of the terrorist attacks relief effort, she thinks administrative costs will be lower than normal because there were so many volunteers.

"I don't object to anybody asking questions. It gives me a chance to correct misinformation," she said.

DeCaprio said he went on a radio show Thursday to "get the word out. We have nothing to hide. I don't want to be defensive, I want to be pro-active," he said.

Rebecca Payne, executive director of the Lawrence County chapter, said money will be needed for long-term response to terrorism, including anthrax victims and military action.

"We have to [reserve funds to] provide uniform assistance. I don't believe we have anything to be ashamed of," she said.

alcorn@vindy.com




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