- The Washington Times - Monday, October 29, 2001

Here's an interesting ethical question. Say you're a celebrity, and you agree to do a benefit for the families of the victims of the terror attack.

You go on television and ask your fellow Americans to donate money. And they respond. Hundreds of millions of dollars have poured in from the TV telethon and the concerts.

You feel good that various charities are flush with donated cash partly generated by you. And of course you benefited from the public seeing you in an altruistic situation.

But then a logjam occurs. In fact, according to USA Today, more than six weeks after the attack, less than 10 percent of the $1.4 billion pledged to help those grieving families has actually been distributed. Some families have received no donations at all. So what do you, the celebrity, do? What is your responsibility in this situation?

That ethical question is playing out right now in America. There are 160 separate charities set up to help those affected by the tragedy. Tens of millions sit in banks collecting interest. But the situation is so chaotic that nobody really knows what is going on.

The two big charities, the Red Cross and the United Way, both say time is needed to distribute the funds in a fair and responsible way. And many celebrities are buying that. On the surface, it sounds reasonable. But look below the surface.

There are approximately 6,000 families involved here. Fifteen thousand American kids have lost a parent. That is not an overwhelming number. In fact, if you divide 6,000 by 160 charities, it comes out to less than 38 families per charitable organization.

The problem is that one charity doesn't know what the other is doing. There is no central controlling authority, as Al Gore would say. Grieving people are forced to fill out dozens of forms and then left to fend for themselves. The charities are not proactive they don't seek out the affected families. People who just buried spouses must knock on doors and try to get responses from confused workers. One widow asked me why she had to "beg" for the donations intended for her family. I had no answer.

Gov. George Pataki of New York has not intervened in the situation. The attorney general of New York, Elliot Spitzer, says he has no power over private charities, but has set up a data bank. But none of the grieving people I talked with knew anything about it.

The truth is that the charities can do pretty much anything they want with the donated money. They can pay salaries with it, pay bills, pay outside consultants and contractors. The only responsibility a nonprofit charity has is to file a tax return once a year. And the agencies do not have to itemize expenses unless audited.

This is one big, cruel mess. The United States government can move a huge military machine halfway around the world in two weeks but can't supervise charities and get financial help to a few thousand devastated families in six weeks. Does this make sense to you?

Outside of defeating our enemies on battlefield Earth, helping the families harmed by the terrorists is America's most pressing responsibility. And the American people have been magnificent donating record amounts of cash. But the bureaucracy has let the country down, and many politicians, who couldn't get down to Ground Zero fast enough when the TV cameras were there, are now apathetic.

The one remaining hope to clean up this deplorable situation is Congress. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican and a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, wants that body to directly oversee the distribution of the donated money. I pray Mr. Hayworth can convince his colleagues to take action.

As for you, the celebrity, well, maybe you should go on television and ask some direct questions. If all the movie stars, bands and glamour pusses turned into sourpusses and pushed these charities to get it together, odds are they would.

There is power in celebrity in this country. But is there any courage?

Bill O'Reilly is host of the Fox News show "The O'Reilly Factor" and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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