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.

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.

Other news organizations would do likewise in the days that followed; especially involved was KJME-AM, a Spanish-language radio station on which Pedro Hernandez made pleas for assistance. But it was the Post account that caught Boyles's attention, prompting him to raise the subject on his KHOW morning-drive program. "The whole thing was a really great, philosophical open-lines topic for talk radio," Boyles says. "This boy's nationality -- did it matter when it came to saving his life? And some people said it did. We had callers saying, 'Ship him out of here,' even though that would have been a death sentence. Then, in the middle of a break, it came to me: Why not try to save his life? And the only person I thought of who could give a campaign like that legitimacy was Tancredo."

Boyles has known Tancredo since the early '90s, when the latter -- then the president of the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank -- would frequently appear on Colorado Inside Out, a panel discussion on Channel 12 that Boyles hosts. Although Boyles stresses that he often disagrees with Tancredo on specific issues, he views him to be a pal. Appropriately, no media forum was more welcoming to Tancredo than Boyles's show during the fallout from the Apodaca matter.

Even so, Boyles insists that his reasons for thinking of Tancredo in relation to Oscar Hernandez had as much to do with the boy as the man. "I would be a fool to say my friendship doesn't help Tom -- but I wasn't trying to clean up his act. I'd been listening to people say, 'Deport the kid and let him die,' and maybe some of them thought Tom would feel the same way. But I know Tom's heart, and I knew he wouldn't let this little boy die."

As for Tancredo, he describes himself as "a shmaltz -- I cry at commercials." But beyond simply wanting to do his part for Oscar, he says he enlisted in Boyles's crusade because he thought that, this time around, his public persona would be a lightning rod in a positive sense. "I have a very high visibility on the issue of immigration, so I thought it would naturally attract the kind of attention that might lead to additional support."

After Tancredo signed up, Boyles moved forward with plans to pass the hat for Oscar on December 18 outside the BankOne branch at Colorado and Yale. But he also went to pains to make sure everything was on the up and up, because he's been burned at least once by people he tried to help. In 2000, Boyles saw a news report about the traffic death of four-year-old Alexis Dixon, whose family wasn't sure if they could scrape together enough cash to give the child a proper funeral. After September and Denise Dixon, Alexis's mother and grandmother, told about their loss on the air, KHOW listeners responded by donating over $30,000. But there were no controls on the money, and while some of it went to a funeral, the rest was spent on items like a used Blazer for September that was stickered at $14,000. In an interview with Westword almost a year later, Boyles was still miffed, saying, "The listeners did the right thing, and [September] misused it. She broke a trust. People gave in a spirit of love. I have no idea in what spirit she took it" ("Collision Course," April 19, 2001).

With these thoughts in the back of his mind, Boyles quizzed representatives of BankOne and Children's Hospital of Denver; he says he was told "they'd created a trust in the name of Oscar Hernandez that was controlled by Children's Hospital -- and that if, God forbid, something happened, all the money would go to Children's for the next sick kid who needed it." Boyles repeated this regularly on December 18, and also on December 20 during a previously scheduled pre-holiday fundraiser for Children's Hospital, which KHOW has sponsored for many years. Children's CEO Dori Biester was a guest on the December 20 program, and, Boyles recalls, "never once did she or anyone else say there wasn't a trust. I didn't get the facts until the Post did a story where Children's said they weren't part of the trust."

The Post's December 25 revelation about the Oakland offer was even more startling. The article, credited to Marsha Austin and Michael Riley, stated that Children's Hospital in Oakland "has just opened a state-of-the-art bone-marrow transplant center, and doctors there need to perform 25 transplants in the next year to get accreditation from the state of California." To that end, the hospital told the Hernandez family that it would treat Oscar gratis. Children's Hospital of Denver received this news on December 13, sharing it with the family, but not with any of the other people who'd rallied round Oscar. The deck of a December 27 News headline spoke volumes: "Hospital Says It Had No Duty to Tell Public of Free Surgery Offer."

In the days that followed, Susana Nieto was quoted as saying the Hernandez clan didn't immediately take advantage of Oakland's largesse because the hospital hadn't contacted them directly, making them wonder how legitimate the offer was, and because people in Denver had already been so generous. To its credit, Children's Hospital in Oakland didn't respond to these odd rationalizations by slamming the door. Vanya Rainova, acting spokesperson for the hospital, says a letter was sent out the week of January 6 "reiterating that we would be happy to do the procedure. But we have not heard from the family since then."

No transplant has been done to date, but that isn't suspicious in and of itself: Oscar must be in remission before doctors can move forward, and no published report has yet said he is. But Tancredo was concerned about numerous other developments, including several that popped up in a January 1 News piece by reporter Bill Scanlon. The article declared that "any money remaining from the $380,000 given by Coloradans to the Oscar Ivan Hernandez Trust will go to the Children's Hospital Foundation of Denver for the medical needs of other illegal immigrant children fighting cancer, according to the trust agreement finalized Monday."

This last contention may be a bit shaky. BankOne President Hutchens gave Scanlon the information about the trust's finalization, but Tancredo says Hutchens told him the paperwork wasn't completed until January 21, nearly three weeks later -- a period during which Tancredo made a handful of fruitless phone calls seeking updates. Moreover, the announcement that extra funds would go toward other cancer-stricken illegal-immigrant children made Tancredo uncomfortable, because this had never been part of the pitch for donations. "That wasn't the reason we told people they should give money," he says. "It may be that everybody would have contributed exactly the same way or even more, but that's not what we were told or what we told people. I'm not sure you should change the rules in the middle of the game."

Adds Boyles, "It's not in the spirit in which we were doing this. It wasn't about nationality or about his immigrant status. It was about helping a sick little boy."

The only allusion to Oscar's condition in the January 25 News article was the prediction that he would probably receive a bone-marrow transplant "during the second week of February" at Children's Hospital of Denver, for which the Hernandezes had opted two days earlier. Other details were in short supply. Considering that the article looks to have been a Torres-delivered exclusive, it was awfully brief (less than 400 words) and didn't receive prominent play. But Torres's extreme selectivity regarding responses to press inquiries about Oscar implies that he's not terribly interested in mass exposure anymore.

This may seem callous considering that there are now thousands of Denverites who were made to care about the youngster, among them plenty who demonstrated their compassion with cash. But Boyles isn't inclined to be overly judgmental. He notes that the Hernandez family could have simply withdrawn over $300,000 from the bank in December, as the donations were placed into a simple savings account, but they didn't do so, "which says something very nice and good about them. To the best of my knowledge, not one dime of the money has been touched so far. It's all there, ready to help Oscar. Pray God he gets better."

That's the bottom line for Tancredo, too: "I just want to have Oscar healed and that be the end of it." In the meantime, he feels that he's learned some lessons about the dispensation of charity in today's media age.

"This won't make me change my mind about a situation if I think I can help," Tancredo says. "But it will certainly make me more inquisitive about things on the front end. I'll definitely want to know more about the mechanics of how it will work. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

All in the family: The mid-air collision over northwest Denver on January 24 is the type of story television stations love, but such disasters are also magnets for mistakes -- and local outlets didn't escape unscathed. In the accident's immediate wake, for instance, several channels referred to an intersection at Moncrieff Place and 34th Avenue that doesn't actually exist.

Of course, the outlets had time to correct this error, because coverage was dragged out for hours with help from helicopters -- whose whooshing blades kept already traumatized neighbors up much of the night -- and analysts such as Greg Feith of Safety Services International, an aviation consulting firm, who was quizzed on Channel 9 by anchor Kim Christiansen, among others. During these interviews, Feith and Christiansen demonstrated an easy rapport for a reason not shared with viewers: They've been husband and wife for five years.

Patti Dennis, Channel 9's news director, thinks identifying the relationship between Feith and Christiansen was unnecessary, given Feith's long association with the station. "We've used Greg for at least fifteen years," she says, pointing out that Feith is a former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board who led the investigation into the 1996 crash of a Valujet DC-9 in Florida and many other high-profile catastrophes. "I'm sure somebody thinks it was improper that we didn't I.D. him that way, but I don't at all."

Christiansen goes further, saying that it would have been inappropriate to take the focus off the tragic events of the day: "Had this been an instance when no one was hurt, I might have mentioned it -- but since people were killed, it would have seemed unprofessional to me." However, she feels her many off-camera discussions with Feith added value to their on-air exchanges. "I had the advantage of knowing not to ask questions that make NTSB investigators cringe -- like, 'Why did the plane crash?', which can take months or years to answer. They hate that question more than life itself."

Fortunately, a collision on that issue was avoided.

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