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U.S. victims of mass shootings seek control over donations

Lighted angels hang from a tree in Monroe, Connecticut January 14, 2013, on the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook elementa
Lighted angels hang from a tree in Monroe, Connecticut January 14, 2013, on the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook elementa

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Survivors of mass U.S. shootings have united to provide victims of future tragedies greater control over donations made after such events and to prevent nonprofit groups from holding onto money intended for families of the dead and wounded.

A group representing families of those killed at the Columbine, Virginia Tech and Aurora mass shootings wants to ensure any unspecified funds raised as a result of the Newtown shooting go directly to victims and their families.

Newtown, the Connecticut town where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, has identified more than 60 funds raising money on behalf of victims or projects related to the shooting.

The families of some mass shooting victims want a National Compassion Fund established to manage future donations.

"Going back to Oklahoma City, we've seen families who have had to endure not only horrific loss, but also the unimaginable task of wrestling with Byzantine nonprofit bureaucracies to access financial relief intended for them," the families said in a statement. "It's time to stop the madness. We cannot watch this happen, yet again, in Sandy Hook."

The informal group, so far unnamed, has initiated talks with senior White House officials and two members of Congress about establishing an official fundraising operation for such tragedies, said Caryn Kaufman, a spokeswoman for the families. She declined to name the officials out of concern it might jeopardize the project.

The group is examining whether legislation or an executive order would be needed to create a federal or nonprofit entity that would coordinate donations after any future tragedy.

The project has won initial support from Kenneth Feinberg, the influential Washington lawyer who administered funds for victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks and several mass shootings.

Jerri Jackson, whose son Matt McQuinn was killed with 11 others in the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, wants it to be easier for future victims to receive aid.

"It's not a matter of if something else happens, it's when something else happens," Jackson said. "Immediately, a fund would be set up. It would be a trusted fund that people would feel they could give to and the money would go to the victims."

Jackson said she was forced to "jump through hoops in the midst of tragedy" to receive money raised in her son's name.

Nearly $5.9 million in Aurora donations were channeled to the Community First Foundation. When victims' families publicly complained about the pace of disbursement, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper called in Feinberg, who oversaw the disbursement within 45 days. The victims' fund was later shut down.

After the 2007 Virginia Tech University shooting that killed 32 people, more than $10 million spontaneously flowed to the university's fundraising foundation, university spokesman Larry Hincker said.

Because that foundation was only authorized to spend money on the university, an executive order from the governor was needed to disburse the funds to victims, Hincker said.

Michael Pohle, a member of the group whose son was killed at Virginia Tech, said: "What was so insulting was we had to fill out documents, have them notarized, and basically beg and apply for dollars."

Feinberg recognized some grieving survivors were upset but defended the disbursement process following both tragedies, noting the highly unusual circumstances, complex legal requirements and emotional strain on the families.

FAMILIES BAND TOGETHER

The ad hoc group of 64 people lost relatives in tragedies such as the September 11 attacks, the 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University and the Sikh temple shooting last year at Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

The group has not involved the Sandy Hook families regarding the distribution of Newtown funds, saying it was too soon for those still grieving. Even so, the group was concerned about the confusion caused by having dozens of nonprofit groups collecting money in Newtown, said Kaufman, the group's spokeswoman.

Some of the Newtown funds were designated for a specific purpose, such as creating a playground or scholarship. In other cases, the funds refer to more general goals of supporting the victims. The group believes that money should go to the victims' families.

Feinberg has overseen disbursements of funds following September 11, the BP oil spill and several mass shootings. Though he is not affiliated with the group, he supports the concept Of having a protocol in place when a future tragedy occurs.

"I think it's a great idea," Feinberg said. "The question is: Is there the political will to do it?"

(This story was corrected in paragraph 12 to clarify that victims' fund, not foundation, was closed)

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Stacey Joyce)

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