By Ziva Branstetter
OKLAHOMA CITY —
More than 17 years after a bomb ripped apart a federal building in Oklahoma City, more than $12 million in donated funds remains, and survivors say the foundation in charge of most of it has denied requests to pay for surgery, tuition and other needs.
Deloris Watson has cared for her grandson, P.J. Allen, since his lungs were nearly destroyed by the blast April 19, 1995. At 18 months, P.J. was the youngest survivor of the America’s Kids day care center, where 15 children died.
P.J. required a tracheotomy — a tube placed in the neck to provide a direct airway — that doctors said could be removed at age 10. Watson said she learned the surgery has a high failure rate, and she found a specialist in Ohio with a record of success.
Watson said she asked the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, which controls $10 million of the funds, to help pay travel and medical expenses.
“They told me he had to have five failed surgeries in the state of Oklahoma before they would pay for him to go out of state. That’s ridiculous,” she said.
Watson said she received help from the American Red Cross and Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati, where she stayed for a year while her grandson learned to swallow, eat and drink again.
She said she is concerned the fund will deny future requests and that other bombing survivors are afraid to speak out.
Allen is 21 and attends Oklahoma State University. Watson said the fund paid for some of Allen’s college tuition and living expenses, but she had to fight to get those expenses covered. One semester, Watson was told “the books were closed,” and she had to pay thousands of dollars herself, she said.
Nancy Anthony, Oklahoma City Community Foundation president, said the foundation provides thorough oversight of the funds. Because of its sound investment, the foundation has been able to stretch initial donations for many years, she said.
Anthony said survivors who feel they were improperly denied payment can write a letter appealing those decisions to the fund’s board of trustees, she said.
After Timothy McVeigh parked a rental truck packed with fuel-soaked fertilizer in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in April 1995, 168 people were killed and some 850 injured in the ensuing explosion.
More than $40 million in donations poured in to local and national charities. Of that, $14.6 million was consolidated under the control of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
Records show $10.4 million remained in the foundation’s Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund as of June 30, 2011, the latest year records are available.
Some bombing survivors contacted by the Tulsa World said they had no idea funds remained and were never contacted by the foundation to determine whether they had unmet needs. The fund isn’t included on a list of funds on the community foundation’s website.
Anthony said there was an active outreach by the foundation for several years after the bombing.
Some survivors were upset by statements attributed to Anthony.
In a 2001 New York Times article, Anthony was quoted as saying: “There’s a culture of victimhood, made up of people whose identity as Victim of the Oklahoma City Bombing gave them importance and visibility they’d never had before.”
In 2005, Anthony told the Chicago Tribune: “The perception of people, unfortunately, is that you need to give people money and that money will make them feel better. Well, it probably does make them feel better. But heroin makes them feel better for a short time, too.”
Anthony told the Tulsa World: “There are no happily-ever-after stories here. ... We knew that lots of times they were angry at us just because they were going through that anger process.”
She said the foundation provides services to help survivors recover, rather than direct payment, which can jeopardize a nonprofit organization’s status.
Foundation records show $4.4 million of the bombing fund was “reallocated” by the foundation in 2005. Records show the foundation spent $2 million of that on a “community infrastructure fund,” $1.5 million on the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and $500,000 on “long-term studies” that Anthony said have not yet been done.
The foundation donated $400,000 of the $4.4 million to other disaster funds, including tornadoes that struck Joplin, Mo., and Alabama in 2011, she said.
Anthony said the foundation was able to set aside those funds because it earned more than expected on the invested donations. The community infrastructure funds went toward preparing Oklahoma City for future disasters, while the funds for the memorial were earmarked by donors specifically for the memorial, she said.
“When we got to the 10th anniversary and saw this big hunk of money, we sort of looked at the other issues,” she said.
After the bombing, then-Gov. Frank Keating and other officials said donated funds would pay for higher education for all who lost one or both parents in the tragedy. Thirty children were orphaned, and 219 lost at least one parent, the Oklahoma City National Memorial’s website says.
Keating, who has had no role in the funds since 2000, said the funds were intended to pay for any type of higher education, including trade school.
Keating, now president of the American Bankers Association, said: “The focus should be on helping people” rather than preserving the fund principal.
“I think it’s entirely appropriate to have these questions asked and answered,” Keating said.
Branstetter writes for the Tulsa World.