Steve Levy: The 9/11 fund is very important but it needs oversight. Don't demonize senators asking questions

It’s been said that the third rail of politics is messing with people’s entitlements. But perhaps nothing can place a bigger target on the back of a politician than daring to ask questions about how money will be allocated to compensate victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in lower Manhattan. Just ask Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee.

Let me begin by noting that I was a member of the New York State Assembly on that tragic day and had many constituents – some I knew well – perish when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed. The bravery exhibited by our first responders is now legendary. The term “hero” was meant for those courageous patriots, not ballplayers.

As the smoke was still simmering from the piles of concrete and steel rubble, I heard then EPA Director Christie Todd Whitman proclaim that it was safe for the responders to delve into the wreckage to search for survivors. I, like most everyone, knew that there was no way of verifying that, and that the statement was made out of necessity to save lives. But I recall telling a friend at the time that this was the making of the biggest workers’ compensation case we would ever see.


Many were going to be inhaling clouds of toxins, masks or no masks. Deep down, the first responders probably knew it too. What’s so amazing is that it didn’t deter them. They were putting their future health on the line for the sake of duty and honor. Thank God for these brave souls. So, it’s only right that we take care of those who indeed contracted debilitating diseases resulting from their exposure. The creation of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund was unquestionably the proper and moral thing to do.

But if you’ve followed government for even a nanosecond, you have to realize that the potential for abuse and fraud when bureaucrats control billions of dollars is immense (see the Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund). So why is it so evil for Paul and Lee to simply want oversight for the allocation of these funds?

Comedian Jon Stewart has become a self-anointed arbiter of morality on this issue. He has been lauded as a hero for lobbying so aggressively to ensure that the fund is replenished to cover illnesses over upcoming decades. His work and dedication to the cause is commendable, but his self-righteous attack on legislators daring to seek oversight is disappointing.


Everyone, including most editorialists, are quick to jump on board any resolution that calls for funding related to 9/11 first responders. But is anyone taking the time to really read the bill? Obviously, the devil is in the details. And a program that is 90 percent wonderful, may still have 10 percent awful elements that could result in hundreds of millions of dollars not being accounted for.

Sunday, just days after the Senate passed the continued funding resolution, I saw a commercial sponsored by lawyers who called upon ANY individual living in lower Manhattan who contracted ANY type of cancer to contact their office. Is this what the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund was originally meant to do?  In fact, when you look at what illnesses are eligible for compensation, over 50 types of cancers are covered.


Is it un-American or even anti-first responder to simply inquire who is eligible to tap the fund? If you think it’s solely a police officer, firefighter or ambulance responder, you’d be wrong.

Thus far, 70,000 first responders have enrolled in the program. Over 20,000 people have received grants. The average grant from 2001-2003 was over $2 million for those who died, and ranged from $500 to $8.6 million for those injured. The bill passed last week is meant to cover eligibility through 2090, with $10 billion being allocated for the next decade.

Is it un-American or even anti-first responder to simply inquire who is eligible to tap the fund? If you think it’s solely a police officer, firefighter or ambulance responder, you’d be wrong.

How much it will cost after that is not known.

There are tens of thousands of additional claimants that could be added into the mix. And no, not all are first responders.

Obviously, the law of averages suggests that a certain percentage of people exposed, or just living in this area, during this period would likely have developed some type of cancer over several decades, regardless of the terrorist attack. We will have to rely on physicians’ evaluations to determine where a proximate cause was evident. I imagine they’ll get it right most of the time.

Then again, doctors were complicit in the notorious Long Island Rail Road disability scam, where an astounding 97 percent of retirees were diagnosed as being eligible for disability payments. The lack of proper oversight wound up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. If a lower Manhattan resident with skin cancer (with no relation to the terrorist event) reaps hundreds of thousands from the fund, is less available for the cop or firefighter who rushed into the burning buildings? I don’t know, but it’s worth asking.


Congressman Paul can be a grandstander, and often a naysayer to generate attention. But this isn’t the first time he’s raised concerns about spending. Congressman Lee has been a reliable fiscal conservative. So, while Stewart accused the two of hypocrisy as the Senate was adopting record debt and deficits, the charge is misplaced with these senators. They shouldn’t be demonized; they should be applauded for seeking offsets and oversight.

Let’s get our brave first responders the care and compensation they need and deserve. But let’s never stop asking questions. The officials Stewart lauds today for voting for things sight unseen (or simply because they were too scared to make waves) may one day be excoriated by another celebrity if it comes to pass that millions of dollars were misspent because safeguards were eschewed.