Senate Probe Raises Questions About Red Cross

A Senate investigation of the American Red Cross has resulted in the release of thousands of pages of internal documents. They show that even volunteers, board members and staff are concerned about how the organization is managed. The documents question the group's response to Katrina and how it spent its money.

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A key member of Congress says he's not sure the red, the American Red Cross is ready to respond to the nation's next big disaster. Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa has been investigating the Red Cross, and yesterday, released thousands of pages of internal documents, showing that even people inside the organization worry about its competence.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

The American Red Cross is a multi-billion dollar behemoth, chartered by Congress to house and feed disaster victims. No other private group has that federal mandate, says Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): The Red Cross is known to all Americans as being in the frontline, responding to disasters. And I think that there's some question about their ability to do that.

BERKES: Grassley gathered thousands of pages of internal Red Cross documents about how the group is governed, and how it responded to Hurricane Katrina. He also received letters and phone calls from Red Cross volunteers and staff, who Grassley characterizes as whistleblowers.

Senator GRASSLEY: I want to make sure that the Red Cross pays attention to their whistleblowers, and that they don't ill treat their whistleblowers. Because too often, whether it's government or whether it's the Red Cross, I get a feeling that whistleblowers are about as welcomed as a skunk at a picnic.

BERKES: That fits the treatment described by Christie Lesh(ph) of Grassley's home state of Iowa, who spent two weeks in and around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a Red Cross volunteer.

Ms. CHRISTIE LESH (American Red Cross Volunteer): There just seems to be an inability to respond to what we on the ground were saying was really happening, what our real needs were. And the people making the decision at the next level or two, being able to say okay, you don't need that. You need this, and doing it.

BERKES: Lesh complains about thousands of emergency meals needlessly wasted at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. She eventually took her complaints to senior Red Cross officials in Washington, and says she was told not to tell her story to anyone outside the group, which prompted this from Senator Grassley.

Senator GRASSLEY: It seems like the Red Cross is just like the FBI, they don't want any bad publicity. And that's what I mean when they're more concerned about their public relations than getting the job done.

BERKES: Grassley blames the group's structure for its lapses during Katrina, and for going through four CEOs in the past six years. He says the 50-member board of governors is bloated with people who ignore board meetings, some who interfere with executives, and others immersed in local concerns.

Diana Aviv is with Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofit groups, and she says large governing boards are an inherent problem.

Ms. DIANA AVIV (President and CEO, Independent Sector): Because it is very difficult to keep them all involved, there are a lot of different agendas. A smaller board, you have the capacity to have a serious conversation, to come to consensus around issues, and to move the agenda forward. With 50, you're managing a crowd all the time.

BERKES: Aviv adds that boards alone can't be blamed for a group's failures--executives are also responsible. Some Red Cross board members warned more than four years ago that the group was headed for trouble if it didn't reform its governing structure. One effort to do that recommended no changes. Now, with pressure from Congress and a stream of negative publicity, the Red Cross is launching another reform effort.

Red Cross officials declined interview requests for this story, but they issued a statement, saying they're "committed to learning from prior challenges and making necessary changes."

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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