Give and Take

The Oscar Hernandez saga demonstrates the benefits and risks of fundraising through the media.

"I live by a principle," says Congressman Tom Tancredo. "And it's that no good deed goes unpunished."

Tancredo, a Republican from District 6, should be accustomed to punishment by now. For the past several months, he's been pounded by columnists and editorial scribes for, among other things, his position in regard to Jesus Apodaca, a Mexico-born honor student who came to the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service after Tancredo read a story about him in the Denver Post ("What's Left?" October 3, 2002). But attempting to aid Oscar Hernandez, a five-year-old leukemia sufferer, seemed less likely to stir controversy. Oscar desperately needed a bone-marrow transplant, but his illegal-immigrant parents, Pedro Hernandez and Susana Nieto, lacked insurance and weren't eligible for Medicaid. Joining KHOW talk-show host Peter Boyles and other prominent citizens, such as Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, to raise money for Children's Hospital of Denver to perform the procedure couldn't possibly backfire, could it?

As it turns out, Tancredo earned praise in many quarters for his efforts on behalf of Oscar. But these reactions were countered by charges of exploitation of the sort leveled at him by commentator Ramón Del Castillo in the January 16 edition of El Semanario, a weekly that specializes in "News for Colorado's Latino Community." Del Castillo wrote: "Tancredo's theatrics are the epitome of disgrace, a duplicitous attempt to salvage his own political hide before he gets another scolding from Papa Bush" -- i.e., President George W. Bush, whose immigration policies aren't as strict as Tancredo would prefer.

Peter Boyles has questions about Oscar's fund.
Anthony Camera
Peter Boyles has questions about Oscar's fund.

Such assaults on his character don't bother Tancredo. "I'm certainly not surprised by that accusation," he says. "But it's of no consequence what anybody else thinks. I didn't do it for the purpose of creating an image, destroying an image or anything else. I did it because it was the right thing to do."

More troubling to Tancredo are the events that took place after a tower of greenbacks was gathered on Oscar's behalf; the Rocky Mountain News estimates that the pile is $408,000 high. First, Tancredo learned from a Post article that even as fundraising was taking place locally, a proposal by Children's Hospital and Research Center at Oakland -- a facility in California's Bay Area -- to do a bone-marrow transplant free of charge was already on the table. Next he discovered that donated money he thought was being funneled into a trust, with any extra funds earmarked for Children's Hospital of Denver, was actually going into a simple savings account. He's also disturbed by delays on the part of BankOne in establishing a real trust for Oscar.

After the first of the year, a cone of silence that settled over the matter made the situation even more confusing. Tancredo says BankOne president Wayne Hutchens told him that details of the trust and the identity of the trustees "would never be made public." A call to Hutchens that was redirected to BankOne community-relations manager Gigi Reynolds seems to confirm this version of events. "The trust is a confidential agreement with the Hernandez family," Reynolds says. "I'm not at liberty to divulge any information." The folks at Children's Hospital of Denver are just as reticent with comments; Children's spokeswoman Rachel Robinson refers questions to the Hernandez family.

But answers are tough to come by. Ralph Torres, the attorney representing the Hernandezes, kept the press at arm's length for weeks prior to January 25, when he commented for a Karen Abbott-penned News offering headlined "Oscar Will Have Transplant in Denver." But he apparently didn't speak to the Post, which had been an instrumental player in the initial donations flood, and also shunned Westword. Torres failed to respond to well over half a dozen messages from yours truly, including several left four days before the News article ran and another placed two days after its publication. KHOW's Boyles knows the feeling. "I must have phoned him fifteen times, and he's never called me back," he says.

Like Boyles, Tancredo can't understand why the various players in what appears to be a classic feel-good story would be so stingy with information, particularly in light of the media's role in getting the word out about Oscar. "When no one would call me back, and when no one would call Peter back, and no one would call the Denver Post back, and when everyone lawyered up, it just struck me as odd. You say to yourself, 'What is it about any of this that you would not want totally public?'" He pauses before adding, "I can't imagine a single thing that would not be appropriate for public review and scrutiny. It makes you wonder, 'Oh, my goodness. What could be going on?'"

Oscar first came to the public's attention in late November, when Univision, a Spanish-language network, shared his plight with viewers. Channel 4, which maintains a loose working partnership with Univision, joined the chorus on December 9; the next day, Post staffer Karen Auge checked in with a story headlined "Family Risks Deportation for Life of Son, 5." In her piece, Auge wrote about how Pedro Hernandez placed wooden boxes he built himself in stores and restaurants throughout his neighborhood in an attempt to collect the $314,000 Children's Hospital of Denver said would be needed to transplant bone marrow from Jonathan Hernandez, another of Pedro and Susana's children, into Oscar. The article, which said around $22,000 had been rounded up at that point, concluded with an address to which readers interested in reaching out to Oscar could send donations.

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