STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- The New York attorney general is investigating a complaint by dozens of families displaced by Superstorm Sandy who say the American Red Cross promised them financial help to rebuild homes or pay for rent, furniture and appliances, then reneged.
The investigation coincides with a larger review of spending on Sandy relief by more than 50 charities. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Thursday his office has received more than a dozen complaints related to charities' spending.
Of the $575 million raised for Sandy, $238 million -- 42% -- remained unspent. In some charities, it is unclear how -- or even if -- money was spent. Twenty of the organizations had spent only 25% of donations. "That's disturbing," he says.
The complaint against the Red Cross says the agency changed the criteria for who was eligible for assistance and applied the program unevenly. It was filed by the watchdog group Disaster Accountability Project and includes a petition signed by more than 150 people across New York City and Long Island.
"This complaint definitely raised concerns," says Matt Mittenhal, a spokesman for the attorney general. "It may be part of answering the question of whether funds raised for Sandy relief were properly used."
The Red Cross received more than $300 million in donations, by far the most of any charity. As of June, it had spent $225 million, says Sam Kille, a spokesman for the Red Cross of Greater New York.
Ben Smilowitz, who heads the Disaster Accountability Project, says the Red Cross told families they would get help through the Move-in Assistance Program, which gave people up to $10,000 for rent, home repairs, furniture and appliances. To be eligible, Smilowitz says families were told they had to meet one of four conditions: their homes were destroyed, they stayed in a FEMA-funded hotel, they received the maximum $31,900 grant from FEMA or they received nothing at all from FEMA.
Later, Smilowitz says, the Red Cross said people who lost their homes had to also meet one of the three other conditions to qualify for the Move-in program. That change made as many as 1,000 people ineligible, he says.
"We think the Red Cross wronged Sandy survivors and donors," Smilowitz says. "We still have people who waited for months and jumped through hoops and they are getting nothing."
Claire Watson and her wife, Allison Galdoris, say they turned to the Red Cross for rental assistance in February because their Staten Island bungalow was inhabitable after it was flooded during the storm. Galdoris says the caseworkers assured them they'd get help. But in May, the Red Cross told the couple they were ineligible.
"If they knew back in February we were not eligible, then why didn't they stop wasting our time?" Watson asks.
Kille says the program criteria never changed. However, he says, the relief organization updated the program overview in February after realizing that training documents and a separate checklist confused the caseworkers about eligibility guidelines.
"We did have some caseworkers who included people in the program who weren't eligible," Kille says. "Caseworkers have been provided additional training to ensure this is corrected moving forward."
He says the national Red Cross and the local New York and New Jersey chapters developed the guidelines with help from FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help the people most in need. He says the people with the greatest need would have been those who received nothing from FEMA or people those who received the maximum grant. Those who received the maximum had homes that were completely destroyed and no insurance.
"We are trying to help as many people as possible," he says.
Families who were promised help and then denied say they are angry and frustrated with the relief group.
Gloria Barre says Superstorm Sandy's wind blew chunks off the roof of the ranch-style Staten Island home she had lived in for 51 of her 56 years. More than 6 feet of water flooded the house.
Barre turned to the Red Cross because she did not have the money she needed to repair her house. She spent months calling the relief organization and faxing various documents related to the repairs.
Barre and her contractor, Richard Stanton, say they spoke with a caseworker the first week of May who told them the Red Cross would send a check for $10,000 to help pay for her roof, which cost $17,000. Stanton says he did the repairs because of that assurance. But two weeks later, Barre says, the caseworker called to say she was not eligible because she had not received the maximum grant from FEMA. She had received $16,000 of the maximum $31,900 grant.
"At this point, I don't trust anybody at the Red Cross," says Barre.
Some families who did not meet any of the criteria still received assistance. Jeffrey Savitt, 45, of Woodmere on Long Island, says the Red Cross gave him $10,000 to help fix the siding on his ranch-style house, which had been flooded by up to 4 feet of water. He says he received $4,000 from FEMA, and he and his wife and two young children stayed with family instead of in a hotel after the storm.
"I think their intent was good," he says of the Red Cross. "But there are too many inconsistencies. Some families got it. Some families didn't get it. Some families were promised. You can't have these inconsistencies and label the program a success."