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The Politics of Giving

The announcement that a Denver victims' assistance board is providing $50,000 to aid victims of the Oklahoma City bombing has created a schism among local advocates: While they agree that Denver should welcome the victims with open arms, some are balking at opening the city's pocketbooks to them as well.

"The people from Oklahoma, they deserve everything--the best," says a former lobbyist and longtime victims' advocate who asked that her name not be used because of the touchy nature of the issue. "There's got to be a federal resource for these people. If the feds can spend $700 on a hammer and they can't take these people and treat them first-class, something is very, very wrong. But to take $50,000 of Denver's dollars when our funds are limited--it's not right. We can use every dime we get our hands on for our own crime victims."

But drawing artificial boundaries for aid is wrong, too, counter those who support the spending. "It's territorial nonsense," says Steve Siegel, who helps administer the fund for victims. The bombing, adds Kathy Winkler, a spokeswoman for the Denver Victims Service Center, "affected us as a nation. It touched all of our lives. Resources are not so scarce that we cannot help them."

At the center of the debate is the advisory board of Denver's Victims Assistance Law Enforcement (VALE), which was established as part of the Colorado Crime Victim Compensation Act of 1984. That law mandates that surcharges collected from people convicted of felonies, misdemeanors and certain traffic offenses be placed into a fund controlled by the court administrator and the district attorney of each of the state's 22 judicial districts. Five-person boards--whose members are appointed by the chief judges of the districts--are authorized to provide compensation to victims and award grants to victims' assistance agencies. Eligible persons and agencies apply for funds to the VALE board in the judicial district in which a crime was committed.

The fund has proved to be a boon to various aid groups. The Denver VALE board collects approximately $1 million yearly, says Siegel. That board alone bestowed $540,000 to victims' assistance organizations in 1994, $665,000 in 1995 and $881,000 in 1996.

But even that amount hasn't been enough. Not every agency that applies for funds receives a grant. And those organizations that are given money generally do not receive all that was asked for.

When it was announced last year that the Oklahoma City bombing trial would be held in Denver, hundreds of Coloradans stepped forward with offers of help, promising everything from free exercise classes to housing, meals and transportation to the courthouse for the victims and their families. In March, Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter and U.S. Attorney Henry Solano announced the formation of the Colorado-Oklahoma Resource Council, which was to coordinate donations and head off the potential for profiteering by other agencies.

Robin Finegan, former director of the Rape Assistance and Awareness Program, was tapped to head the organization. (Finegan's husband, Cole, an attorney with the Denver law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland, is the chairman of the Oklahoma City Trial Downtown Task Force and former chief of staff for Governor Roy Romer.)

In a unanimous vote several months after the resource council was formed, Denver's VALE board awarded it $50,000 to help pay for start-up costs and salaries for two staffers. Another $50,000 has been allotted for the council in 1997.

"There is a potential of hundreds of people coming up here [for the trial]," says Siegel, who administers the board as part of his duties with the Denver District Attorney's office. "There's going to be a lot of trauma for those people. It's not going to be a very easy experience for them. [The council] is all about providing and coordinating supportive services for them--feeding them, sheltering them, providing for medical or counseling needs.

"And I guess from the [VALE] board's philosophical point of view, the victims of the worst mass murder in the history of the United States are coming to our city by no choice of their own. When you analyze where they were victimized versus the issue of needs and the fact that they'll be in our city, it was a fairly easy choice for us.

"In our analysis, the pain of a crime victim is not based on some arbitrary border. If there is suffering in our city, we want to be there to support them." In addition, Siegel notes, with only one exception (an emergency grant to a statewide domestic-violence group), every program that the Denver board funded in 1996 is to receive as much or more in grant money in 1997.

"The issue," says Robin Finegan, "is not whose victims they are, but that a tragic thing happened to a community that we are hosting in the trial process. I would hope that a community would also do this for Denver if we suddenly had a huge amount of victims displaced. I hope they would come forward with the same kind of assistance."

But the director of a Denver-based victims' organization says the real issue is that the members of Denver's VALE board have turned their backs on new local programs in order to help the Oklahoma victims.

Two years ago, the woman says, her nonprofit organization was turned down for a VALE grant, purportedly because the board was not going to fund any new programs. ("We are trying to develop a relationship with the VALE board," the woman says, requesting anonymity for herself and her group.)

The denial "had a major impact on us in terms of growth," she says. "It's disappointing. Now that they're funding the Oklahoma council, I'm not as optimistic as I had been about getting VALE funds in 1997.

"It seems like a great idea to have some support in Denver for those victims, but it seems like private sources of funds could be tapped into if people want Denver to look like it's a friendly place."

Her sentiments are echoed by the former lobbyist, who believes that funds to help the Oklahoma City victims should come from other sources--most notably, the federal government.

"There is no reason why the victims of one of the most horrendous crimes in U.S. history have to go begging to the Denver VALE board for money," she says.

In fact, money has been pouring in from all directions to serve the bombing victims and their families. The Oklahoma Crime Victims Compensation Board has set up a special fund to defray the expenses of the bombing victims. According to the Dallas Morning News, more than two dozen relief funds have been established for the children of those who died in the bombing. The Oklahoma governor's office alone raised $1.7 million for the relief effort. And the federal counter-terrorism bill passed just this year authorizes the allocation of additional funds for victims of terrorism or mass violence.

"There are funds in Oklahoma for helping these crime victims," Siegel concedes, "but it's nowhere near the amount of money needed. Some of these people are going to need ten years of surgery. How long does it take to counsel a family that had two children murdered? You can't even begin to estimate the amount it will take to return all of them to some level of normalcy.

"We're just throwing a small pittance into a bucket. While they're here, we want them to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve as crime victims."

"There's never enough money to go around, ever," stresses Denver VALE boardmember Robert Preston. "And there won't be until victims are treated with the same compassion as those who are accused and convicted of crime. There's always money for that. Always.


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