Katrina & Beyond

Congress Launches New Red Cross Inquiry

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A new effort to scrutinize the American Red Cross is under way. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley is asking the group questions about its finances, structure and relief efforts. The inquiry stems from the Red Cross response to Hurricane Katrina and concerns about its leadership.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

There's another effort in Congress to scrutinize the American Red Cross, and it could be the most serious effort yet. This new inquiry comes from a powerful senator who chairs a pivotal committee which could rewrite the group's federal charter. NPR's Howard Berkes has details.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley wants to review five years of Red Cross records, including board meeting minutes and financial documents. Grassley's concerned about the Red Cross response to Hurricane Katrina and an apparent crisis in leadership.

Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): The Red Cross as an organization has shown in a couple disasters here recently not being able to get the job done. But Red Cross, different than a lot of charities, is chartered by Congress. Congress has the responsibility to oversee that that organization is doing what the charter that Congress granted tells them to do.

BERKES: The charter doesn't give the Red Cross federal funding, but it does give the group primary responsibility for feeding and housing victims immediately after disasters. Senator Grassley worries that the group's board of governors isn't up to the task.

Sen. GRASSLEY: The board gets too big and nobody feels any responsibility. And one of the most well-known organizations meeting the needs of people in disasters can't let that very good reputation fall by the wayside because people are not attending to the cooking in the kitchen.

BERKES: The Red Cross has had four CEOs in six years. Critics blame a bloated board with 50 members, most from local chapters with local interests and some with big names but little time for governing. That, some suggest, leaves the Red Cross unprepared to respond to disasters as big as Hurricane Katrina. Bernadine Healy is a former Red Cross CEO who clashed with the group's board.

Dr. BERNADINE HEALY (Former CEO, American Red Cross): What Senator Grassley is doing now is the right thing. I think it is long, long overdue because the problems that he is outlining in his letter have been festering for quite a time. If it's not fixed now, I think we do risk turning the Red Cross into the itsy-bitsy Red Cross that will not be there for Americans. And then who will be there?

BERKES: The Red Cross was there this year with 220,000 volunteers helping more than a million families with food, shelter and money. There were people in places the Red Cross didn't reach. Local groups filled the gap but without Red Cross resources. That's also part of Senator Grassley's investigation.

Sen. GRASSLEY: A lot of times local organizations will not get help and cooperation from the Red Cross, and I would think that the Red Cross would be looking for people that can deliver where they can't deliver and trying to help everybody get the job done.

BERKES: The Red Cross declined to respond to questions about Senator Grassley's probe, but spokesman Chuck Connor did provide this prepared statement.

Mr. CHUCK CONNOR (Spokesperson, American Red Cross): We have a very strong working relationship with the senator and with the Finance Committee, so we're really looking forward to dialoguing with the committee with a view to how we can make improvements to our service.

BERKES: In the House, Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi has already introduced legislation that would rewrite the Red Cross charter. Thompson's bill also calls for federal investigations of Red Cross disaster response. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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