Responding to nearly three months of criticism from grieving families and the media over its handling of the money donated to the United Way and other major charities since Sept. 11, Franklin Thomas, the chairman of the United Way's September 11th Fund, announced a new $75 million "Cash Assistance Program" Wednesday.
The program is designed to help "those who were injured, lost loved ones, or lost their homes or jobs as a direct result of the Sept. 11 tragedy." The United Way says that the fund will "allow victims to get access to cash assistance quickly and easily." The group plans to distribute the money by the end of the year.
Thomas was joined at a press conference in New York by actor George Clooney, who participated in a telethon for Sept. 11 families called Tribute to Heroes.
Since November, Clooney has been in a highly visible media feud with Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly over whether celebrities who helped raise funds for victims' families have a responsibility to see that the money actually is used as it was intended.
In a letter sent to O'Reilly in early November, the actor said "because of your unsubstantiated, untrue statements about the September 11th Fund, you, Mr. O'Reilly will be taking money away from people who need it."
Responding to the letter on The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly pointed out how little of the money raised had been distributed and said he believed "that all the celebrities involved in fundraising for the families have a responsibility to care about what happens to the money they asked for. Mr. Clooney can call me any name he wants, but facts are facts. And his letter is silly."
Clooney has since gone on to criticize O'Reilly on the Today show and Late Night With David Letterman.
At the press conference Wednesday, Clooney praised the fund.
"Nothing we can do can change the events of Sept. 11, but our hope is that we can alleviate some of the financial burden and help victims begin to rebuild their lives," he said. "As one of the participants in the telethon, and as a concerned citizen, I'm proud to come here today and support the tremendous work that the September 11th Fund has already done and is continuing to do."
O'Reilly responded to the press conference on The Factor Wednesday night: "I have always felt that Mr. Clooney was well intentioned, but I do believe he does not grasp the big picture here. All the facts we have reported on The Factor have been accurate — and the pressure we have brought to bear on the charities has paid off for the families — that's obvious," he said.
"The Red Cross turned around fairly quickly, releasing $275 million dollars to the families after its president was scorched here on The Factor," O'Reilly said. "But the United Way took three months to turn around."
The criticism of the United Way and other major charities has come from both the media and from grieving families, who have complained that they have been reduced to "begging" charities for cash assistance and spend long days simply trying to navigate their way through the charity bureaucracy.
The prime mover in the media has been O'Reilly, who has interviewed several of the "9/11 families" on The Factor and questioned them about what kind of assistance they've received. To the surprise of many Americans who gave generously to the charities, the family members continue to reveal that they had received little of the more than $1.4 billion that has been collected since the attacks.
The special United Way September 11th Fund has received $347 million in donations since the terror attacks. The $75 million in funds that was announced Wednesday will come primarily from the September 11th Fund.
Thomas said the fund wants to make sure people who lost jobs or homes in the collapse of the World Trade Center are not overlooked. Two-thirds of the first distribution of donations will go to victims in that category. Each will get $2,500.
The rest of the $75 million will go to families of those killed or injured, with each family getting a check for $10,000.
According to the organization, "the September 11th Fund was established on Sept. 11 by the New York Community Trust and United Way of New York City to meet the immediate and longer-term needs of victims, families and communities affected by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11."
More than $100 million for the fund was collected through the Tribute to Heroes telethon. According to the United Way, that money is held in a separate fund.