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Justice Dept. scrutinizing Red Cross assistance

A U.S. Department of Justice representative met Tuesdayafternoon with American Red Cross officials to discuss possibleirregularities in the distribution of financial assistance by thecharitable organization.

Officials were mostly mum following the more than one-hourprivate meeting at the Lincoln County Multi-Use Facility, which hasserved as Red Cross service center for Brookhaven. Nancy Butler,the center director who only recently began overseeing the site,had no comment, and the Justice Department representative also didnot discuss his visit.

“Absolutely no comment about anything,” said the man, who wouldnot give his name.

Melton McMorris, president of the local Red Cross chapter, leftthe meeting early for a prior engagement. In his brief commentswhile leaving, he downplayed any problems.

“Everything worked out fine,” McMorris said.

McMorris acknowledged possible discrimination was discussed, buthis comments suggested only that favorable treatment may have givento some people.

“All of it may not have been racial,” McMorris said. “It wasabout taking groups while people were out here waiting.”

There have been indications that a variety of individuals wereserviced without having to wait in line at the center. Whilediscussing Red Cross operations Monday, McMorris said that was donefor some people whose work did not allow them time to wait.

Darlene Graham, a local Red Cross volunteer, also participatedin Tuesday’s meeting. She indicated she was satisfied with themeeting’s outcome.

One suggestion that came from the meeting, Graham said, is thatRed Cross should make an effort to recruit more black volunteers tohelp clients. Many national Red Cross volunteers have been white,while a large percentage of the clients seeking help wereblack.

Graham also discussed a need for Red Cross to develop a bettersystem for administering aid. Following complaints about the checkdistribution process, Red Cross officials have begun looking intoalleged fraud.

“The Red Cross set itself up to be robbed,” Graham said. “Theyhad no system.”

Assistance levels ranged from around $350 for individuals to$1,565 for families of five or more. Red Cross officials overseeingthe operation acknowledged that check amounts skewed toward themaximum as word spread about the assistance process.

Graham mentioned some people making multiple visits forassistance. She said it was not fair that evacuees who needed helpthe most could not get it.

“They couldn’t hardly get in here because of local people,”Graham said.

Statistics released by the Red Cross show 1,394 cases,representing 11.9 percent of Lincoln County households, hadreceived more than $1.5 million in assistance from theorganization. The per-case average assistance amount was$1,080.

For Lawrence County residents, 961 cases received a total ofjust over $1 million, for a per-case average of $1,041. The numberof cases represented 15.9 percent of Lawrence Countyhouseholds.

The number of cases from Pike County totaled 724, or 4.6 percentof its households. In dollars, $808,539 was given out for anaverage of $1,116 per case.

The totals show cases where a client gave a predisaster addressin the respective counties. Information on clients from otherindividual counties and Louisiana was not included in the data.

Totals are as of Sunday and reflect only cases that had beenentered into a Red Cross database as of then. Officials said alarge backlog remained to be entered.

Earlier this week, the Red Cross changed its guidelines so thatonly people with damage from the hurricane are eligible forassistance. Officials are asking applicants to bring proof of homedamage or they may request an assessment be done on theirhomes.

The Brookhaven and Monticello service centers are scheduled toclose Friday. The Monticello center opened last Thursday and wasexpected to be operation at least several weeks.

National Red Cross officials, however, said they are closingmost centers in the state in order to concentrate their efforts onthe coastal counties.

On Monday, McMorris said dishonesty creates problems. He said itis unfortunate that some people would cheat the system.

“I know some went to several places, but they will be caught,”McMorris said.

Graham said this was her first time to volunteer to help the RedCross. She said she was moved by images of people in need after thehurricane.

“I felt like if I could give them a drink of water or a cracker,I was going to do that,” she said.

While critical of check distribution activities, Graham praisedshelter functions and other activities to help evacuees.

“The churches did a wonderful job,” Graham said.