- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2003

The inability of charities to distribute quickly $3 billion raised after the September 11 terrorist attacks indicates that the federal government must coordinate future relief efforts, according to a congressional report.
"Despite some early efforts, little coordination of charitable aid occurred early on, although a more integrated approach emerged some months later," said the General Accounting Office (GAO) report.
About 70 percent of the September 11 donations had been distributed or spent on disaster relief as of Oct. 31, 2002, the GAO found.
The congressional investigators said early use of the integrated approach would have eliminated roadblocks and confusion among victims and the 35 major charities examined.
Families of September 11 victims felt that they had to navigate a maze of service providers, and both charities and individuals indirectly affected by the disaster were confused about available aid, the report said.
The GAO recommended that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) convene a working group of key charities, volunteer organizations, and federal, state, and local emergency officials to implement strategies for future disaster-aid delivery.
The group should streamline the application process and confidentiality agreements and simplify efforts to identify victims and survivors. The report found that there were no uniform contact lists for the families of the victims.
Millions of people contributed to the recovery effort, which the study found to be more successful than flawed.
"Overall, charitable aid made a major contribution in the nation's response to the September 11 attacks, despite very difficult circumstances," it said.
Charities differed sharply on how they distributed the money, making it difficult for the GAO to assess success in many cases.
The report was requested by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.
With hundreds of charities collecting funds, Mr. Grassley said it was no surprise that each varied greatly in the way the money was raised and distributed.
Congress has a major oversight role to ensure that charities are accountable for the tax breaks they receive, Mr. Grassley said.
"Giving to a charity isn't a frivolous act. People think hard about how much they can afford and where their money will do the most good. Charities should treat them accordingly," he said.
The GAO also found that charities and government oversight agencies had taken several steps to prevent fraud and that "relatively few cases have been uncovered so far."
While it was difficult to pinpoint the exact amount of dollars raised and spent, the GAO said that it also was unable to determine the extent of fraud and that "it will be difficult for charities and oversight agencies to assess" the same.
More than 200 people have been charged in New York with defrauding charities, the Associated Press reported.
When Congress returns to address charitable giving, Mr. Grassley said that he wants to attach a "sunshine" provision requiring that charities promptly disclose information on money raised and spent.
"Transparency instills public confidence. That's the case whether people are donating money in response to a tragedy, during the holiday season, or just out of general regard for others," Mr. Grassley said.


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