Former Sen. George Mitchell will oversee a plan to disburse $350 million left in the American Red Cross fund for Sept. 11 attack victims and their families, the charity announced Thursday.
Red Cross officials also said they will have given out close to half of the $667 million Liberty Fund by year's end, exceeding their November pledge to disburse more than $270 million by Dec. 31.
The charity has been spending the $317.5 million exclusively on emergency housing, psychological counseling and other needs directly related to the terrorist attacks, including $139.6 million in direct cash assistance to families of victims, Red Cross officials said at a news conference.
The Red Cross was heavily criticized for plans to spend some Liberty Fund donations on blood bank, community outreach and infrastructure improvements not directly related to the attacks.
The refocused, accelerated spending and the former Senate majority leader's appointment as independent overseer show that the Red Cross is keeping a series of promises to better disburse Liberty Fund donations, said David McLaughlin, chairman of the Red Cross' Board of Governors. The charity pledged in November to funnel donations entirely to terrorism victims.
The Red Cross also pledged to contribute to a shared database on victims' needs and the assistance from the many charities participating in the relief effort.
"The work has not been easy and even with our proven ability to respond to disasters, in this case we've had to learn to adapt as we went along and as we move forward," McLaughlin said. "Today I am very proud to say that we have kept or exceeded every one of those commitments that we made."
Mitchell, who did not attend the press conference and could not be reached for comment, is charged with reviewing and publicly assessing a plan to disburse the remaining Liberty Fund donations. The Red Cross also pledged in November to release the plan by the end of January.
Mitchell will have some input into the plan, but his role will largely be to reassure the public that Liberty Fund donations are being appropriately handed out, Red Cross spokesman Frank Donaghue said later.
"It isn't a day-to-day role," Donaghue said. "It really is a response to criticism initially that we didn't hear our donors and didn't hear the American people."
The Red Cross' 50-member Board of Governors retains the power to approve the plan, a move one charity watchdog said harmed the effort to rebuild public trust through the appointment of Mitchell.
"Does he have real power or is it window dressing?" asked Daniel Borochoff, president of the Bethesda, Md.-based American Institute of Philanthropy. "By giving up some of the control, they'd be showing that they're more concerned about the public interest than their own interest ... It sounds like the national board doesn't want to let go of the control."
Mitchell, who is from Maine, has been lauded for his work to broker peaceful solutions t the armed conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.
"I think he brings just a tremendous ability to solve problems," Red Cross chief executive officer Harold Decker said. "He's come into very, very different environment all over the world and assisted in problem-solving efforts."
Liz McLaughlin of Pelham, N.Y., whose husband,Cantor Fitzgerald executive Robert C. McLaughlin Jr., died in the World Trade Center, said she hoped Mitchell's involvement would prompt the Red Cross to better inform victims' families about the benefits they can expect to receive in coming months.
"I'm hopeful that he'll be able to cut through some of the red tape and the procedural problems," she said.
Red Cross executive David McLaughlin said, however, that Mitchell will not closely administer the fund, instead assuming a bully pulpit from which he can publicly air his approval or disapproval of the plan.
"He said, 'I don't want to manage the fund. That's not my role,"' McLaughlin said. "If we wanted to move forward and he didn't agree, we would move forward but we would do it at our own risk."
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