NEW ORLEANS – By all accounts, the group of nine was a religious powerhouse: Their ranks included rabbis, imams and ministers, including the man hailed by some as the next Billy Graham. But as of Thursday, seven of the nine religious leaders serving on a committee created by the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund to disburse money to churches destroyed by Hurricane Katrina had quit their posts, claiming their advice was ignored.
Four out of nine board members confirmed their resignations on Thursday. Last week, two others — Bishop T.D. Jakes, the prominent Dallas megachurch pastor, and the Rev. William H. Gray III, former president of the United Negro College Fund — resigned as co-chairs.
And Gray and Jakes say they have received the resignation letter of a seventh board member, the Rev. William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA. He did not immediately return a phone call Thursday night.
Departing members of the interfaith advisory committee say the fund's Washington staff disregarded their advice, cutting checks for Gulf Coast churches without properly investigating the institutions.
"I've been in ministry for 30 years and I don't think I've ever resigned from anything. I'm a loyalist to a fault. But what's happened is unacceptable," said Jakes who was named one of the 25 most influential evangelists by TIME Magazine.
The fund's co-chairs, former Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans and former Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, issued a statement thanking Jakes and Gray for their leadership. A fund spokesman declined to comment on the resignations of the others or discuss their allegations.
The fund, created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has so far raised more than $125 million, of which approximately $20 million was earmarked for rebuilding faith-based organizations along the Gulf Coast. The interfaith advisory committee was charged with determining which churches, synagogues and mosques were in greatest need.
Initially, Gray said, the committee assumed it would make around 500 awards, each for $35,000. But as the applications began trickling in, staff members in New Orleans realized there were far fewer applicants than they had initially assumed. That meant they could increase the award amount, and the board agreed in consultation with the co-chairs of the fund that the grant ceiling would be increased to $100,000, Gray said. They also agreed each of the churches or religious institutions receiving the charity's money would first be inspected, he said.
Numerous disagreements ensued, but Jakes and Gray said the last straw was the fund's decision to cut checks to 38 houses of worship, each for $35,000 and without first conducting an audit to ensure the church exists.
Imam Abdelhafiz Bensrieti, another committee member who resigned, said the Washington staff wanted the religious leaders to "rubber stamp" their decisions. "They had their agenda and that's unacceptable," he said.