Critical comments made in the news media by some victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing have not given the public an accurate or complete picture of how the bombing relief fund has been handled, fund administrators contend.
The Oklahoma City Community Foundation, which manages the fund, has been rocked by renewed public criticism since Friday when an NBC television weekly news magazine aired the latest in a series of news reports that quoted victims critical of the fund's administration.
The foundation disputed comments by Gloria Chipman, who lost her husband in the bombing.
Chipman was cited Friday in an NBC “Rock Center with Brian Williams” report as complaining that she had to fight the foundation for tuition money for her daughter.
“You get denied so many times you finally — you give up and you do whatever you can to survive,” she stated on the television show.
The foundation actually helped provide Chipman's daughter with “assistance (tuition, fees, books, etc.) for 10 semesters,” a spokeswoman for the foundation said.
Foundation officials provided The Oklahoman with a thank-you note the daughter wrote to a fund administrator on a graduation announcement. “I wanted to thank you and the organization for all your help and contributions to my education,” it stated.
Chipman said she agreed to appear on the show as a member of the Survivors Tree Committee, a group that advocates the divvying up of remaining bombing relief funds.
Also upsetting foundation officials was a segment that featured a woman who lost an ear in the bombing accompanied by a comment that the woman just wanted contact lenses because her glasses won't stay on.
The woman's case manager is working with her doctor on getting a prescription and contact lenses ordered, said Cathy Nestlen, foundation spokeswoman.
“This is a situation where we had provided assistance to this person initially, then contact was lost,” Nestlen said.
“Contact was re-established last fall following the media coverage. Initially, there were more pressing medical needs than the contact lenses so it's been a process,” Nestlen said
Audit is ongoing
A forensic audit of the Disaster Relief Fund is currently under way. Foundation officials say they expect it to be completed and made public by mid to late March and believe it will show foundation officials have been good stewards of donated funds.
Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating criticized the NBC weekly news magazine crew for spending a half day interviewing him and his wife about the handling of Oklahoma City bombing relief funds and then choosing not to broadcast any of their comments on Friday's show.
The way information was presented was “a terrible insult to the giving, caring, sharing community of Oklahoma City where all of this was done largely at no charge,” Keating said.
Officials with the Oklahoma City Community Foundation criticized the show for excluding footage of individuals who voiced support for the administration of the fund.
The show focused on bombing victims with complaints about how the relief fund has been administered, but the show's reporters “failed to interview even one of the hundreds of others who have received assistance, who are grateful and extremely pleased with how the situation was handled,” foundation officials said.
A spokesperson for “Rock Center with Brian Williams” defended the broadcast.
“We believe that the piece on-air and online was fair and accurate,” the spokesperson said. “Although Nancy Anthony, president of the Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund, declined to comment on specific cases, we took into account Ms. Anthony and the foundation's responses to the victims' specific allegations, and those responses were reflected in the story.”
The NBC show focused on how donated money was managed following the April 19, 1995, terrorists' attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Building which left 168 dead and hundreds injured.
$40M was donated
Following the attack, about $40 million in donations poured into various local charities and government officials for the benefit of bombing survivors, officials say.
Much of the money was quickly spent on emergency needs, but about $14.6 million eventually was consolidated into one of about 1,300 funds managed by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
The fund has since spent more than $11 million for the continuing medical, educational and living needs of about 1,000 bombing survivors, but still has about $10 million left in the fund because of money earned off investments.
Public reports last year that the fund still has that much money — more than 17 years after the bombing — have sparked criticism from some survivors that the foundation has been too tightfisted in releasing money to meet their needs.
Fueling the controversy was a memo that foundation President Nancy Anthony and two colleagues wrote to foundation and fund trustees recommending that $4.4 million of investment earnings from bombing funds be set aside for purposes that would not directly benefit survivors.
The memo recommended establishing a $2 million endowment to train community people on how to respond to future disasters and establishing a $1.5 million endowment that would provide annual earnings to the Oklahoma City National Memorial for survivor support and activities.
It also recommended setting aside $400,000 to assist other communities that experience disasters and $500,000 for long-term studies on things like how money can best be used to assist survivors of disasters.
As of last November, the foundation had provided $456,688 in interest earnings to the Oklahoma National Memorial and $10,000 each in tornado relief funds to Alabama and Joplin, Mo., but the rest of the more than $10 million in bombing fund money is still available for victims, foundation officials said.
Some members of a survivors' group called the Survivor Tree Committee said survivors still have a lot of unmet needs and are advocating for remaining funds to be divvied up among survivors and the fund disbanded.
The NBC bombing report featured an interview with Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney who was called in to determine how government and donated funds should be divided up among victims following the Virginia Tech after shooting; Aurora, Colo., theater shooting; 9/11 terrorists attack; BP oil spill; and Indiana State Fair pavilion collapse.
Feinberg said be believes the best thing for survivors is to divide the donated money up among them and let them do with the money as they see fit.
IRS rules factor in
Former Gov. Keating disagrees with that approach and foundation officials say IRS regulations don't allow it.
Keating said Oklahoma officials did not have the same resources available to them after the Oklahoma City bombing as New York officials did after the 9/11 terrorists' attack.
Following the 9/11 attack, the federal government created a $7 billion victims compensation fund.
Feinberg helped divvy that money up, giving families amounts ranging from $250,000 to $7.1 million, depending on the wealth and annual incomes of the victims, according to a report in CNN Money.
Families of wealthy, high-earning victims were given more money under the rationale that they had suffered a greater loss in anticipated income.
Keating said he found that allocation formula “offensive.”
“I take a special offense that Ken Feinberg would criticize the process that thoughtful and decent and family-focused people in Oklahoma City made,” Keating said. “We didn't have billions of dollars from the U.S. government.”
Instead, Oklahoma officials had about $10 million that came from generous donors, he said.
If that money had been divided among the 1,000 or so people who have received money from the bombing fund, each would have only received about $10,000, he said.
Keating said he doesn't believe the fund's limitations are fully appreciated by people like Deloris Watson, the grandmother of injured bombing victim P.J. Allen.
Watson appeared on the NBC show and was critical of fund administrators for requiring bombing victims to seek Medicaid and other funding sources before receiving money from the bombing fund.
Keating said it is his understanding that the fund has provided about $325,000 in assistance for Allen, much more than the $10,000 or so he would have received if the money had just been divvied up.
“I made a battlefield decision when this money started coming in,” Keating said.
Parents who lost children were given money to bury their children and money for counseling, he said.
Children who lost parents received much more. They were promised money to pay the costs of college, anywhere in the country, that were not paid by other scholarships.
The fund also has tried to pay for unmet medical, counseling and living expense needs stemming from the bombing.
The goal has been to meet the “greatest needs for the longest time,” he said.
Watson said she wasn't trying to create the impression that the foundation hasn't helped her grandson.
“They've done a lot for P.J.,” she said. “It's just that there are things that they didn't do that we all feel that they should do.”
Many of those things would not have taken a lot of money, she said.
I take a special offense that Ken Feinberg would criticize the process that thoughtful and decent and family-focused people in Oklahoma City made. We didn't have billions of dollars from the U.S. government.”
Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating,