Eighteen years after the Oklahoma City bombing, a fund set up to help the injured and the families of those killed still has $10 million dollars in the coffers. Meanwhile victims say they've been denied aid for years. Rock Center's Harry Smith reports
By Anna Schecter
A group of survivors and relatives of those killed in the Oklahoma City bombing are outraged that there is $10 million sitting in a disaster relief fund designed to help them. Meanwhile they say they’ve been denied help for years.
“They tell us that there are all these restrictions,” said Deloris Watson, whose grandson, P.J. Allen, was severely injured in the April 1995 explosion.
PJ Allen in the hospital after being injured in the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Watson said she was led to believe the fund was depleted because it has been so difficult over the past 18 years to get financial aid.
A year after the bombing, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation was entrusted with $14.5 million in donated money from sympathetic individuals and religious groups around the world. The money was put into a newly established Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund.
Then-Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating mandated that the fund be used to help with the long-term health care needs of survivors and scholarships for children who lost a parent in the blast.
Watson said the Oklahoma City Community Foundation was helpful at first, but as the years wore on, the caseworkers lost their empathy.
“It's been horrible. It has been absolutely horrible. I try not to reveal that to P.J., the struggle, the attitude, the lack of respect,” Watson told NBC News' Harry Smith in an interview that aired on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.
In 2005, then-11-year-old Allen needed major surgery on his trachea. Watson, who became his sole guardian after the bombing, said the Oklahoma City Community Foundation refused to pay for the surgery directly, instead steering her toward Medicaid to cover the cost.
“Why would the state of Oklahoma have to take money from taxpayers when money's been donated to the bombing fund to meet the medical needs of the children?” asked Watson.
The Ronald McDonald House, the Red Cross and the Oklahoma City Community Foundation all pitched in to cover hospital and living expenses during Allen’s recovery and rehabilitation after the surgery.
Watson and a handful of disgruntled survivors and relatives of those killed have formed a group called the Survivor Tree.
One member, Gloria Chipman, lost her husband in the bombing. She said that though her son was given tuition money for college, her daughter was told by the foundation that her grades were not good enough for financial aid.
“You get denied so many times, you finally -- you give up,” Chipman said.
Falesha Joyner lost an ear in the explosion. She said she just wants contact lenses because without an ear, her glasses will not stay on.
When Tim Hearn's mother was killed in the bombing, he left school to raise his siblings. Last year he was denied tuition money for trade school, he said, because the Oklahoma City Community Foundation told him he was too old.
Tim Hearn says the fund has denied him money to attend trade school.
“They can't put a time limit on when a person wants to go to school. They don't know my situation. You know, if they lost someone through a bombing or anything like that, they'd feel what I'm talking about,” said Hearn.
Nancy Anthony, president of the foundation, told NBC News there is another side to the story.
She said the caseworkers who have been helping survivors and the families of victims are caring and do the best they can to help those in need.
“I think everybody has to be realistic about what can be done and how much money can really do,” Anthony said, adding that she cannot comment on specific cases because of confidentiality agreements.
The disgruntled survivors all believe the foundation cares more about preserving the fund than providing assistance.
They said they are always pushed to state and federal programs first, resulting in a grind through government bureaucracies that has left them exhausted and angry.
“I think that they felt that we should just move on with our life. And all of us wanted to move on with our lives, but you can't move on with your life when you still have some major health issues hanging over you,” said Watson.
Allen said it has been difficult to watch his grandmother struggle through red tape to help him.
Nancy Anthony, president of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, says the fund for the victims of the bombing has helped nearly 1000 people.
“I don't understand why they have made it so difficult for not only myself but other survivors and victims to get the medical stuff they need and surgeries. I just wish my grandma didn't have to go through all that,” he said.
Adding insult to injury
Angry survivors were stunned when they recently learned there is still more than $10 million in the fund.
Adding insult to injury, in 2005 the Oklahoma City Community Foundation decided to reallocate nearly $4.5 million away from the survivors to a variety of causes including the Oklahoma City National Memorial, other communities hit by disasters and future research on disaster relief.
“They decided to give $4.4 million away, and we're on welfare…. I can't even imagine that,” said Watson.
Anthony said she will revisit the decision to reallocate money to other causes.
“We were thoughtful about it at the point in time when we did it,” she said. “We had perhaps a different perspective of it. So that can be revisited.”
Anthony underscored that she is fulfilling the mandate the foundation was given when the bombing fund was formed, as well as following the requirements of the Internal Revenue Service.
The Disaster Relief Fund has provided $11.1 million in assistance through 16,256 transactions to 962 people, according to the foundation’s website.
Anthony said that she and her colleagues have been good stewards of the money, and that is why, with interest earned on investments, there is $10 million currently in the fund. By preserving the fund, she said the foundation has ensured that there will be money to take care of survivors in need for many years to come.
“This isn't about distributing money. It's about helping people move forward. The money is just another tool. You have to try to say, ‘What's your ultimate goal here?’ If the goal is to give the money away, well, we could've done that a long time ago. But I don't know that would've been terribly effective,” she added.
When asked if the role of the foundation was to be paternalistic, she replied, “I guess that might be what we have done, whether that's good or bad.”
Attorney Ken Feinberg, who handled the distribution of billions of dollars for victims of 9/11, the BP oil spill, and the Virginia Tech and Aurora movie theater shootings, said taking a paternalistic approach is the worst thing you can do.
“I'll never forget in Virginia Tech, one family said, ‘We're going to take our share of the proceeds, and we're going to celebrate the memory of our lost son by going to Disney World with the whole family.’ My view of that is if that's what you want to do with compensation that is due you, do it,” Feinberg told NBC News.
Having built his career on overseeing settlement payouts in the wake of massive disasters, he has been criticized by some lawyers and victims for pressuring claimants to give up their right to sue. Over the years he said he has learned a few lessons along the way.
“All the words in the world are no substitute for getting the money out the door…. Do not attempt to restrict how the funds will be used. Do not attempt to educate or explain. ‘Here's the money -- it's yours,’” he said.
When asked how he would handle the donated funds for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, Feinberg said he would determine who is eligible to receive money and how much, and distribute it within 60 days without restriction and then close the program.
Anthony said her hands are tied. She said the foundation is bound by IRS restrictions and her duty to the donors.
“We have limitations. We can't always do what [the survivors] want us to do. And I think that there needs to be a little bit of respect for trying to understand what the donors wanted. And I don't think you can say that everyone donated money for a specific thing,” she said.
Watson said she is worried about Allen’s future health care needs. He will likely need a lung transplant, and she does not want him to have to fight as hard as she has to get the aid he will need.
“I don't want him to have to go through what I had to go through from him having his trach removed,” she said.