Published November 20, 2014
Some Californians who lost parents or spouses in the Sept. 11 attacks were unaware of a scholarship program funded by fees from a specialty memorial license plate, while millions of dollars from the plates went to plug the state's persistent budget deficits.
An aspiring lawyer and an unemployed single mother are among those who say they would have signed up to receive a $5,000 scholarship had they known the program existed.
Other parents say they were told their children did not qualify for the funds, although they appear to have met the criteria.
After the September 11 attacks, lawmakers in California, where all four jetliners were bound when they were hijacked, established a special memorial plate emblazoned with the words, "We Will Never Forget."
The money raised through the sale of the plates was to provide scholarships to the children of California residents who perished in the attacks and to help fund anti-terrorism efforts.
The Associated Press reported in May that only $20,000 of the $15 million collected since lawmakers approved the "California Memorial Scholarship Program" has been paid out in scholarships.
About three dozen California residents died in the attacks and the state identified 42 people who were eligible for the program.
Documents obtained from the State Treasurer's Office through a California Public Records Act request show that only 16 individuals from six families signed up by the 2005 deadline. Of these, four have used their scholarships.
In the years since the program closed to new applicants, Gov. Jerry Brown and his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, borrowed $3 million of memorial license plate money to help plug the state's budget deficit.
Neither loan has been repaid.
Millions more raised by the plates have been spent on budget items with little relation to direct threats of terrorism, including livestock diseases and workplace safety.
The Associated Press surveyed 23 people who appear to have been eligible for the scholarship and found that 13 did not know about the program and four were told they did not qualify.
Kia Pavloff-Pecorelli, who was pregnant when her husband's flight back to their Los Angeles-area home was hijacked, said she would have remembered hearing about the scholarship. Now living near her parents in Michigan, she struggles to pay for private school and therapy for her 10 year-old son, who has persistent fears of being orphaned, she said.
"If you didn't sign up for it, it should just be automatic," she said of the scholarship fund. "It's like you raised these funds, why are there so many limitations?"
The 2002 legislation that established the memorial license plates specified that the state would "identify all persons who are eligible for scholarships" and notify them or, in the cases of minors, their parents. Anne Gordon, a spokeswoman for the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, said the agency mailed Pavloff-Pecorelli a letter informing her of the program.
In some cases, the claims board appears to have sent letters to the parents of adult children but not to the children themselves.
Neda Bolourchi, 45, said that had she known about the scholarship she would have used the money to complete law school, which she started attending shortly after her mother was killed in the attacks.
"I'm sure my mom would have been really happy if I'd finished it. But because it's so expensive, I've put my dreams on hold to pay the bills," she said.
Gordon said the state sent two letters to Bolourchi's father, an Iranian immigrant who is now 84. But Bolourchi would have had the state contact her directly.
"There's no excuse to say they can't find us," she said "They have all of our information. The FBI, the coroner, the examiner; we had to submit our DNA samples in case they found any body parts."
She hopes the state will re-open the program to new applicants. Dependents are eligible for the scholarships until 2015 or their 30th birthday and the specialty plate fund continues to take in $1.5 million a year.
Dannette Lopez, 32, is also hoping that the state will revisit the program. She started community college in Southern California the year after her father was killed.
The state sent a letter to her mother, but by the time she found out about the program, the deadline had passed. Lopez estimates that completing her three concurrent degrees will cost about $5,000 over the next two years.
"I kick myself for not looking sooner. It would pretty much have helped me finish my education," she said.
In 2003, the claims board sent about 250 letters notifying an inclusive list of families associated with the attacks about the program, Gordon said. However, the letter stated the scholarships would pay for only college tuition when they were actually available to cover a range of education expenses.
In 2005, the state sent 20 more English-language letters reminding families they might qualify for the program. This letter clarified that the money could be used for an array higher education expenses, including vocational, technical and graduate programs.
Asked about the discrepancy, Gordon said in an email, "The 2005 letter was more complete in describing the scholarship program."
Some parents said they tried to enroll their children in the program shortly after the attacks but were told they were ineligible.
Among them is the widow of Christopher Newton, a third generation Californian who was a few weeks into the process of moving his family and business to Virginia when his plane was hijacked.
Amy Newton found out about the memorial scholarship program through Department of Motor Vehicles registration forms for a car she kept in California.
The DMV has advertised the license plates with the slogan, "Be a patriot," and stated the revenue will "fund scholarships for the children of Californians who died in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and helps California's law enforcement fight threats of terrorism."
The department removed the reference to the scholarship program last month in response to the investigation by the AP.
Newton said that when she contacted the claims board, she was told that she was ineligible for residency reasons. But in its 2003 letter, the board stated that dependents of any victims who lived in California for the year immediately preceding the attacks qualified.
Newton's son is entering his final year at the U.S. Naval Academy, which is tuition-free, but she worries about how she will pay for her teenage daughter to attend Texas Christian University next year.
"I want her to go wherever she wants to go; she should be able to do that because that's what her dad told her," Newton said.
The claims board declined to comment on Newton's situation, but said it had been diligent in contacting people eligible for the program.
"We verify, we double verify, we check what we're doing," spokesman Jon Meyers said. "We went above and beyond what I think is reasonable to notify people."
The board declined a Public Information Act request submitted by the AP seeking information about the families it had contacted, citing privacy concerns.
Californians have bought or renewed the plates, which cost $50, more than 200,000 times since 2002.
Families that did take advantage of program call it a godsend. Deena Burnett Bailey signed her three daughters up after their father was killed aboard a flight bound for their home in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"Originally, that was one of my greatest concerns when I lost my husband: 'How was I going to educate my children?' To know that California had set up that fund for their college education was an answer to prayers," she said.