Murrah survivors group wants review of denied requests for aid
BY ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Enterprise Editor
Thursday, November 15, 2012
11/15/12 at 7:11 AM
Read the letter: View the text of the Survivor Tree Committee’s letter about the proposed audit.
Get background on the bombing: View the Tulsa World’s continuing coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing and past stories about the disaster relief fund.
Related story: Editorial: Survivors owed answers.
A group representing survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing has sent letters to Gov. Mary Fallin and other officials asking that an audit of a relief fund review how many requests for help have been denied.
The letters, sent by three women who have formed the "Survivor Tree Committee," were sent Wednesday to Fallin, former Gov. Frank Keating and former Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick. Keating and Norick were in office when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.
The nonprofit Oklahoma City Community Foundation oversees the Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund, which still contains about $10 million in remaining donations and the interest earned on invested donations.
"The audit should include all the requests for assistance since the fund was established," states the letter from the Survivor Tree Committee. "The documentation must include phone conversations, letters of request, letters of assistance, and all denial correspondence be it by phone or written. This form of correspondence needs to include what was paid or how much was denied and for what reason."
The letter is signed by Deloris Watson, Gloria Chipman and Holly Sweet. Watson's grandson, P.J. Allen, was seriously injured in the building's day-care center. Chipman's husband, Robert Chipman, was killed in the bombing. Sweet, of Tulsa, said she donated funds after the bombing, when an estimated $40 million was contributed to help victims and survivors.
Some survivors have told the Tulsa World the foundation has denied requests for assistance with medical expenses, education and other needs.
The foundation - an umbrella organization overseeing more than 1,200 funds - has denied the allegations, saying they are either inaccurate or are misunderstandings. It says it has spent about $11 million of the $14.6 million it received to assist survivors since 1995 and that funds remain because they have been invested wisely.
Records show that in 2005, the foundation set aside more than $4.4 million in earnings from the Disaster Relief Fund for other purposes, donating $20,000 to other disaster funds following tornadoes in Joplin and Alabama.
The survivors' group has asked that the needs of all survivors be studied and that the remaining funds be distributed among them.
Following Tulsa World stories regarding the survivors' concerns, the foundation announced last week that the fund would be audited. The foundation's news release said it would "engage an independent auditor in Oklahoma City to conduct the audit with the consultation of Governor Keating and Mayor Norick."
The Survivor Tree Committee's letter, dated Nov. 14, states: "It has been announced in the press that OCCF intends to begin an audit to clear themselves of allegations; they denied assistance to survivors of the bombing. We did not call for an audit, we requested that Kenneth Feinberg be called to do a study, audit, review of files, conduct town hall meetings, and distribute the monies."
Feinberg is an attorney who has been dubbed the "pay czar." He has helped determine distribution of donations and federal funds to survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the BP oil spill and shootings at Virginia Tech and a Colorado movie theater.
Feinberg said he would conduct such a review of the Oklahoma City fund at no charge if requested by policy makers.
"Our allegation is that in addition to denying survivors access to the donations, the treatment by the OCCF staff was designed to discourage people from seeking assistance," the letter states. "In regards to the audit itself, the allegations are not about misspending. It is non-spending that is the primary complaint among survivors of the bombing."
Some survivors interviewed by the World have said they never heard from the foundation and were not aware that funds were still available to help them. The foundation said it conducted extensive outreach for three years after the bombing.
The foundation's website did not list the fund among those it oversees until the World's stories were published. No application form for money from the fund exists, and officials said they have no database of survivors of the bombing.
The foundation's communications director, Cathy Nestlen, sent an email to the World on Wednesday in response to questions. The email said the auditors would determine the scope of the audit based on goals outlined by the foundation, adding: "We assume this topic (requests made, granted and denied) will be part of their review."
"In the six days since a decision was made to have an audit, we have contacted several national firms which have forensic and investigative audit sections, sought their input as to what the appropriate scope should be, and asked them to submit proposals. We have also eliminated any firms with identifiable conflicts of interest," Nestlen's email states.
Keating, now president of the American Bankers Association, was traveling this week and was not available for comment, a spokesman said. Norick could not be reached for comment.
Keating has said the foundation "has remained one of the primary resources for providing ongoing assistance with the medical and educational needs of victims and their families. It is imperative that we assure the public that their donations have been managed and disbursed properly."
A foundation release last week quoted Norick as stating: "Preserving public confidence and trust is critical to making sure that we have fulfilled our duty ... ."
Fallin said last week that she supports the audit.
Q&A with the Oklahoma City Community Foundation
TW: What is the overall goal of the audit and what does the OCCF hope will occur as a result?
OCCF: "We believe that the purpose of the comprehensive performance audit is to determine whether the DRF (disaster relief fund) has properly performed its duties, to assure that OCCF has performed its duties in conjunction with the DRF, to assure that any legitimate concerns of the beneficiary class have been appropriately addressed, to assure that funds are spent for the purposes that the donors intended, (and to) determine and confirm whether we complied with all applicable laws. We should have an independent national firm review the policies we established to assure that they were consistent with the donors' intentions and that we applied these policies consistently to meet the needs of the beneficiary class.
TW: Who chose the firm or auditor?
OCCF: The expectation is that the selection will be made by the OCCF standing audit committee in conjunction with (former Gov. Frank) Keating, (former Oklahoma City Mayor Ron) Norick. The audit committee members are independent of OCCF, the committee is chaired by a current OCCF trustee.
TW: Has this firm or auditor ever done work for the Oklahoma City Community Foundation before?
OCCF: No, the accounting firms' professional rules prevent them if they have any prior relationship.
TW: What is the scope of the audit in terms of dates and topics? Is it investigative in nature?
OCCF: Based upon the broad goals in #1, the details of the scope will be established by the auditors in order to achieve those objectives. It is necessarily forensic or investigative in nature because OCCF financial statements have always been the subject of independent audit.
TW: Will the audit include a review of how many requests for assistance have come in - either written, over the phone, email etc. - and what occurred as a result? Will it include figures on how many requests have been granted or denied?
OCCF: The auditors will determine the answer to this question, but we assume this topic will be part of their review.
Source: Excerpts of questions and answers between the Tulsa World and representatives of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation
Original Print Headline: Group seeks tally of denials
Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306
The Oklahoma City National Memorial is shown in this image. BILL WAUGH/For the Tulsa World