Survivors of Oklahoma City bombing left with questions about how money from disaster fund was distributed

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Falesha Joyner holds a portrait of her mother Cheryl Bradley Hammon, niece Peachlyn and nephew Gabreon, who all died in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
No one family lost more in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building than the Bradleys.

Sisters Falesha Bradley Joyner and Daina Bradley lost their mother, Cheryl Bradley Hammon, that morning during a trip to the social security office. Daina Bradley’s two small children, Peachlyn, 3, and Gabreon, an infant, also died.

Bradley lost a leg. Joyner lost an ear.

And yet, both sisters say they continue to be denied payments for their medical expenses and other assistance from a charitable fund set up to support survivors in the wake of the bombing.

Four years ago, the Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund, overseen by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, still had more than $10 million remaining to benefit survivors of the 1995 bombing. How the remaining funds have been distributed continues to be a point of contention for some survivors.

While a handful of survivors have been awarded trust funds from the Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund to pay for long-term medical needs, others say they continue to have problems accessing the money.

Joyner’s right arm is paralyzed. She has post-traumatic stress disorder. She says she can’t drive a car.

The force of the blast drove tiny bits of glass, concrete and metal into her mouth that destroyed her gums and teeth and leached into her blood over the years.

“It isn’t about money— but money answers things,” Joyner said. “I need money to answer all of these things.”

Private company controls what remains of bombing donations

The Oklahoma City Community Foundation managed the Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund for nearly 20 years, but it transferred most of the remaining money to a private trust company in late 2014.

InvesTrust, the Oklahoma City trust company that now controls most of the remaining money, says it cannot disclose how much of it remains or how much has been distributed to survivors.

“For those individuals with significant, long-term disabilities resulting from the bombing, individual special needs trusts were established in their name to provide ongoing future support,” InvesTrust said in a written response to questions. “Each of these individuals is aware of the availability of these funds and the case manager who has been working with them since the beginning continues to provide support for their cases.”

In addition to the separate trusts set up for survivors who were deemed to have the most severe disabilities, there’s also a “separate trust for the collective benefit of all other persons who have needs which directly arose out of the bombing,” InvesTrust said in the statement.

Under the Community Foundation’s control, the Disaster Relief Fund had been required to file tax returns that were open to public inspection, according to IRS rules. The tax returns at least gave some basic information about how much of the funds remained and how the money was being spent.

But InvesTrust is subject to no such reporting requirements.

There’s also no public information about what fees InvesTrust charges for managing the Disaster Relief Fund money.

In written responses provided to The Frontier, InvesTrust said it “provides a generously discounted rate from our normal fee schedule of 100 basis points.”

“This is based on the market value of the trusts,” InvesTrust said. “We feel that it is an honor to be helping the survivors and take pride in our efforts. The deep discount from normal fees reflects our commitment to public service for our community and trust beneficiaries.”

Bombing survivor P.J. Allen is one of a small number of people who has been awarded a trust from Disaster Relief Fund money to pay for his long-term medical needs. Allen was one of a handful of small children from the daycare center inside the Murrah building who survived. His lungs were severely damaged in the blast and he still struggles to breathe.

The Disaster Relief Fund is also providing money for Allen’s college education. But Allen’s grandmother, Deloris Watson, who raised him, remains unsatisfied with how the funds have been distributed.

When Allen was a child and the Disaster Relief Fund was still under the Community Foundation’s control, Watson says it would not pay to have Allen’s tracheostomy tube removed. It also refused to help pay the $15 a night it cost Watson and her grandson to stay at a Ronald McDonald House when they had to travel out of state for medical treatment, she said.

Watson said she was notified about two years ago that Allen was one of six people who had been awarded trust funds from the Disaster Relief Fund, but she doesn’t know who made the decision to award her grandson a trust over other survivors.

“If we were at the top of the list and we’re not happy, I know these other people at the bottom of the list were not treated fairly,” Watson said.

Watson said she was dismayed to learn that if Allen dies, his family will not inherit the money from his trust.

The funds will instead revert back to the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, which can decide how to distribute the money to other bombing survivors — if they have qualifying needs.

In response to questions about the arrangement, InvesTrust said any excess funds remaining after the death of a survivor who was awarded a trust are “legally required to be paid over to a 501(c)(3)”—the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.

“Once all bombing survivors are deceased any excess funds could be used for other tax-exempt charitable purposes,” InvesTrust said. “The corollary is that, if a trust beneficiary/survivor’s trust runs low on funds, OCCF will replenish that trust with other funds to assure that the beneficiary’s qualifying needs are met throughout lifetime, even if they exceed the original principal amount of his or her trust.”

Community Foundation hangs on to earnings from bombing fund

About $1.5 million from the Disaster Relief Fund was reallocated to the Oklahoma City National Memorial in 2005 BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
The Community Foundation retained some of the money from the Disaster Relief Fund to continue to pay for college scholarships for the children of those who died or were permanently disabled by the bombing. It’s still possible to find out how that money is being spent.

In the 2017 fiscal year, the Community Foundation granted $258,000 for educational needs and $93,000 to pay the case manager who oversees survivor needs.

The Community Foundation has also kept some of the investment earnings that the Disaster Relief Fund generated over the years, although a 2013 audit recommended the foundation reconsider that decision.

In 2012 and 2013, a public uproar ensued after it was discovered that $4.4 million in earnings from the Disaster Relief Fund had been reallocated to other causes, including “the Oklahoma City National Memorial, long-term studies, community support and community infrastructure.” The funds were diverted while some survivors were told funds for living expenses were running low and a stipend available for graduate students was cut in half, the audit found.

Most of the money, while earmarked for other purposes, had not been spent and remained on the books at the Community Foundation, according to the audit.

“The decision to reallocate the funds, while laudable in its intent, was potentially a problem from a public and donor perception standpoint,” the audit found. “…The OCCF Trustees and the DRF Trustees may need to revisit at least some of the $4.4 million reallocation to determine if there is a permitted or appropriate use for the money related to the bombing.”

It is legal for the Community Foundation to use the interest and investment earnings the fund had generated for other purposes, even if the principal of the funds is restricted to benefit survivors.

“If at any time there is a shortfall in any of the trusts for the benefit of the survivor group or any other medical or mental health needs of the survivors, the principal of these funds may be utilized on a proportionate basis to provide support for these needs,” the Oklahoma City Community Foundation said in a written response to questions about the money.

Survivors still struggle

Daina Bradley sits with her 1-year old great niece, Wisdom. Bradley’s mother, son and daughter died in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
The living room of Joyner’s small house in northeast Oklahoma City is filled with cardboard boxes. She says she lives off about $400 a month in social security and is moving because she can no longer afford the rent. Her 1-year old granddaughter, Wisdom, roams the halls.

Joyner says that 23 years later, she still hasn’t recovered financially from the bombing.

She was working and attending school, but all that changed April 19, 1995.

“I was doing the right things, but the rug got pulled out from under me when I walked into that building,” she said. “I went through all of that to be treated like nothing.”

Joyner said InvesTrust recently declined to pay for blood and iron transfusion she says she needed for medical needs related to injuries she sustained in the bombing. Three years ago, she got a new prosthetic ear she says the Red Cross paid for — not the Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund.

Joyner said she never received any college scholarship money from the Disaster Relief Fund, but the Red Cross had paid off some vocational courses she took.

Under InvesTrust, Bradley says she has been denied money to pay for a new prosthetic leg she said she needed after changes in her weight.

In response to questions about the denials, InvesTrust said privacy laws and confidentiality rules prevent it from discussing individual cases.

“We can tell you that each and every request we receive is followed up on by our case manager who has been working with these individuals for more than 20 years,” InvesTrust said in its written response. “This case manager has worked with these individuals and families since the immediate aftermath of the bombing, providing them with personal contact on a consistent basis.”

A trust officer at InvesTrust reviews requests for money from survivors relayed through the case manager. Requests over a certain dollar amount are reviewed by a committee of all InvesTrust’s trust officers that meets once a month.

“We do our best to facilitate the payments and also provide helpful resources for the survivors. We realize that there are situations that do not fall under the distribution terms of the trust agreement,” InvesTrust said in a statement. “As a result, we work with support organizations in the Oklahoma City metro area as well as governmental agencies to maximize services for the beneficiaries.”

InvesTrust said it has established guidelines to help determine which requests are eligible for funding to put what remains of the money to the best use.

“Each claim is evaluated to determine if it is directly related to the mental and medical health needs of the survivor group as a result of their injuries sustained in the bombing,” InvesTrust said. “While many of these requests are funded, some are denied if they do not fall within these guidelines.”

There’s also an appeals process for survivors whose requests have been denied, InvesTrust said.

On this day, Bradley arrived at her sister’s house for the interview wearing Pac-Man leggings and carrying a microwave burrito in a plastic grocery sack — her lunch, she said.

It’s hard to imagine surviving one-fifth of what Bradley has lived through — losing a mother, a daughter, a son and a leg in one day.

It’s amazing she survived all of that — that she’s breathing, walking, eating microwave burritos.

The morning of the bombing, the Bradley family was at the Murrah building to get a social security card for 3-month old Gabreon.

The blast pinned Bradley’s right leg under a slab of concrete and rescuers had to perform an emergency amputation to free her. The doctor completed the job with a pocket knife after his other instruments dulled or broke.

Bradley later testified at Timothy McVeigh’s trial about seeing a yellow Ryder truck pull up outside of the building that morning.

It took her 20 years to visit the National Memorial that sits on the former site of the Murrah building. It was too hard to visit any sooner.

“I have PTSD really bad. I don’t like buses. I don’t like closed-in spaces. I don’t like none of that shit,” Bradley said. “Some days, you feel totally devastated. You wake up in the morning, and nothing has changed. You’re in the same fucking boat you were in the day before and you can’t get out of bed.”

When the Oklahoma City Community Foundation transferred the money to InvesTrust, Bradley and others said they received a lengthy questionnaire that asked for information on topics ranging from sensitive medical information to whether they owned a video game system. Bradley and Joyner said they believed the purpose of the questionnaire was to help decide how to divide up what remained of the money. Some survivors said the questionnaire just made them mad.

“I thought it was rude — I thought it didn’t concern them,” Bradley said.

Tim Hearn was going to college at the University of New Mexico on a basketball scholarship, but had to quit school and return to Oklahoma to raise his minor brother and sister after the 1995 bombing. Hearn’s mother Castine Deveroux worked at the federal Housing and Urban Development office in the Murrah building and died in the explosion.

Tim Hearn walked away from his college basketball scholarship to care for his minor brother and sister after his mother died in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. He now operates a custom embroidery business. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

Hearn said the Oklahoma City Community Foundation eventually paid for him to attend some classes on heating and air conditioning maintenance after initially denying him the funds. He still struggles to get by financially and said he was told policies on qualifying expenses changed to preclude anything other than mental health or medical needs directly related to the bombing when the funds moved to InvesTrust.

Hearn is self-employed. He runs a custom embroidery shop and and has a stall in the Old Paris Flea Market in Southeast Oklahoma City. He asked for help from the Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund for help paying his rent in June after missing work due to illness, but said he was denied because the expense wasn’t directly related to the bombing.

But Hearn said everything in his life is directly related to the bombing. It forever altered the course of his life.

“When you lose a breadwinner in a family, it changes the whole foundation of everything,” Hearn said.

Evolving views on distributing money to survivors

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress created a $7 billion fund to compensate victims’ families. It took just 33 months to distribute all that money. Most families received payments of more than $2 million.

In the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, the One Boston Fund, took just 75 days to distribute $61 million in charitable donations to more than 200 survivors.

Survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing received no such compensation.

Back then, an idea existed that the families of victims should attain self-sufficiency and not become too reliant on charity, according to a 1997 story from the Wall Street Journal.

We have to be extremely careful,” Traci Bartley Ashworth, relief coordinator for Catholic Charities told the Wall Street Journal in 1997. “The challenge is making sure we’re doing right by people, but not doing too much.”

“If too much assistance is provided for too long, ‘we could be creating a whole new class of citizens in Oklahoma City,’” said Mark Garvey, a construction worker who sat on the Resource Coordination Committee.

Some Oklahoma City survivors still speak bitterly about remarks Nancy Anthony, executive director of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, made to the Chicago Tribune in 2005, comparing them to heroin addicts.

“The perception of people unfortunately is that you need to give people money and that money will make them feel better,” Anthony said. “Well, it probably does make them feel better. But heroin makes them feel better for a short time too. . . . But it’s the services that really help them go forward. That’s what we really focused on: What services do we need to put in place for people to help them begin to turn their lives around and go forward.”

Attorney Kenneth Feinberg is considered one of the foremost experts in the field of compensating disaster survivors.

Unless donors specifically ask for money to be retained for long-term medical needs or educational purposes, it’s best to distribute the funds as quickly as possible, Feinberg said.

“The Oklahoma City situation is unique in my experience in terms of ongoing mandate,” Feinberg said. “It’s not usually the way these funds are designed.”

Over the past 30 years, Feinberg has overseen about a dozen such funds including the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. He helped distribute millions of dollars in payments to survivors and relatives of victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas in a matter of months.

“People in grief need the money.” Feinberg said. “It’s not my money. I’m just an agent and I never second-guess what victims want to do with it.”

After the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, one family told Feinberg they were going to use a payout from charitable donations to go to Disney World to celebrate their dead son’s life.

“If that’s what they want to do with the funds, then so be it,” he said.

Feinberg, asked if he’d ever heard of charitable donations for survivors being put into a private trust, as with the case of the Oklahoma City Disaster Relief Fund, said no.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” he said.

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Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com
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