Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is demanding answers from the American Red Cross on how it spent nearly half a billion dollars in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake that leveled the country.
Grassley sent Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern a list of 17 detailed questions and has given the venerated charity a little over a week to respond. Until now, the Red Cross has declined to address publicly many of the questions the senator is asking.
Grassley cited recent stories by NPR and ProPublica about Red Cross efforts in Haiti, which found a string of poorly managed projects and questionable spending.
The Red Cross promised donors it would provide permanent homes to tens of thousands of people and that it would build brand-new communities. After five years, the organization has built just six homes.
"This is kind of surprising to me," Grassley tells NPR. In recent years, he has played an oversight role over the congressionally chartered Red Cross.
In his letter, the senator questioned some of the representations the charity made to him personally during a meeting a few months ago.
"When I read about their unwillingness to make public certain information that people are asking legitimate questions about, that kind of bothers me," he says.
The Red Cross has so far declined to detail what programs it ran in Haiti, how much they cost or what its expenses were. Grassley has asked for an itemized list of those programs and expenses, as well as how the Red Cross calculates its overhead and how it comes up with the numbers it uses to tell donors how many people it has helped.
"I expect them to answer my questions," he says. "And we'll get all this information out for the public because I think the donors are entitled to it."
In a statement, the Red Cross says:
"The American Red Cross is proud of our work to help the people of Haiti and we welcome the opportunity to respond to Senator Grassley's questions and set the record straight."
Jake Johnston, a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., has been examining the Red Cross work in Haiti for several years and says he's eager to see how the charity responds.
"The Red Cross has been especially difficult to get information from," Johnston says. "If the Red Cross were to answer these questions, it would shine a light on this black box that everyone's been asking questions about for the last five years — which is, how this money has actually been spent."
Johnston says he would like to know how much of the millions of dollars the Red Cross says it gave to partner organizations actually made it to Haitians in need.
"One of the big things with the Red Cross Haiti's response is that they partnered with a lot of other organizations," he says. "They acted as a donor themselves. And to see how that actually played out, who they partnered with, what the costs associated with those projects were, and how much money actually made it to the ground, that's the real question mark at this point."
Grassley has given the Red Cross until July 22 to respond.