NEPTUNE — The Sandy relief fund chaired by New Jersey first lady Mary Pat Christie has raised more than $32 million so far. But four months after the superstorm, none of that aid has reached storm victims yet.
In an interview, Mary Pat Christie pointed to the logistical challenge of starting a charity from scratch, the relief fund's focus on addressing long-term recovery needs, instead of short-term relief, and her own "methodical" approach to putting the proper resources and safeguards in place, as reasons for the delay.
It was never the intent for the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund to quickly provide monetary aid directly to storm victims, she noted. Instead, the plan was to lend support to reputable nonprofit groups that will be providing victims with financial assistance and other services in the months and years to come. The relief fund plans to distribute $1 million in grants this week, with another $5 million to follow several weeks after that.
"I have taken excruciating steps to make sure that we give the money out in a really judicious way," Mary Pat Christie told the Asbury Park Press.
"You want accountability, you get accountability when you go through a methodical structure," she said. "So, in three years when I'm still distributing money at Hurricane Sandy Relief, ask me if we're doing enough."
Mary Pat Christie's defense of her charity's performance, however, comes on the heels of the pointed barbs her husband, Gov. Chris Christie, has hurled at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Speaker of the House John Boehner, among others, for what the governor sees as inexcusable delays in helping the state's residents, businesses and communities still reeling from the Oct. 29 storm. Christie famously called Congress' holdup of Sandy relief "disgusting."
The deliberate pace of Mary Pat Christie's 4-month-old charity contrasts with the Robin Hood Foundation's rapid turnaround of the $67 million raised by the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief.
To date, Robin Hood has awarded more than $50 million in grants to dozens of nonprofit groups, with nearly 40 percent of the funds earmarked for relief efforts in New Jersey. The foundation expects to commit almost all of the remaining concert money by the end of the month.
Mary Pat Christie, however, says the comparison is unfair. Robin Hood has 25 years of experience and 85 employees, while her charity has only four people on staff.
Mary Pat Christie's former chief of staff and director of protocol, Cam Henderson, who had no prior experience running a charitable foundation, has been tapped to serve as the fund's executive director, at an annual salary of $160,000. The average compensation for top executives of nonprofit organizations with budgets between $25 million and $50 million in 2009 was $309,466, the charity noted.
"We have a very, very thin staff, really hard workers. We get everything we can on a pro bono basis," Mary Pat Christie said, as she sat at a conference table in the charity's spartan headquarters in Harding, located on the top floor of a converted barn. A local firm, Hampshire Real Estate Cos., is donating the office space.
Mary Pat Christie's relief fund announced on Dec. 27 that it was making an initial commitment of $1 million in startup funds for long-term recovery committees that will be coordinating relief programs at the county level for the next several years.
However, those funds hadn't been released as of last week. The delay stems from the fact that the recovery groups were subsequently required to submit formal grant requests to the relief fund for review by Feb. 15.
The charity's grant committee, which Mary Pat Christie is not a member of, met two weeks later to vote on the grant amounts, which were publicly announced March 6. The six county committees receiving the grants, including the groups serving Monmouth and Ocean counties, should have the funds on hand sometime this week, the charity said.
But that $1 million in aid represents just 3 percent of the amount the charity has raised. That doesn't sit well with storm victim Gigi Liaguno-Dorr.
"That's absolutely 100 percent unacceptable, because we want help yesterday," said Liaguno-Dorr, of Middletown, who is still at battling her insurance company over the destruction of her Union Beach restaurant, Jakeabob's Bay.
"She's the governor's wife. If anybody can push it through, she can," she said. "Let's move it."
After her husband asked her to chair the relief fund and become its chief fundraiser, Mary Pat Christie said she put her full-time job with a Wall Street hedge fund on hold for two months to concentrate on getting the charity off the ground.
She spent that time soliciting advice from charity experts, making calls to wealthy individuals and corporations, seeking sizeable donations, and assembling a small staff and a bi-partisan operating board. She also helped recruit celebrities to join an honorary advisory board, which now includes Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi and Bono.
Mary Pat Christie, who has since returned to her hedge fund job, said the charity has come a long way since she sat in the Drumthwacket governor's residence just days after the storm watching the charity's newly activated Facebook page and Twitter account come to life.
"I remember Justin Bieber retweeted us, and we were so excited. I mean, this was really back of the envelope, at the kitchen table with the generator going (that) first weekend," she said. "I kind of marvel at what we did in six weeks."
The relief fund will target four specific areas: housing assistance for displaced low- and moderate-income homeowners and renters; social services, including mental health assistance; financial literacy and legal aid; and workforce development, to help those who lost their jobs because of the storm.
Like the Robin Hood Foundation, the fund will distribute aid to nonprofit groups, not individual victims.
"Those organizations are people. Look, we can't cut checks for $100,000 to (give to) a person. That would be completely irresponsible," Mary Pat Christie said. "That happened after Katrina. People would take their checks and move to Texas. That's one of the things we've learned after other hurricane disasters, so we're not going to do that."
The overall goal is to help bridge the gaps in funding and services that are sure to arise after government aid and insurance settlements are fully paid out, which hasn't happened yet, Mary Pat Christie noted. The gap in rebuilding costs alone could reach $2 billion, she said.
With that start-up work largely accomplished, the process of awarding grants will accelerate, she said.
Grant requests can now be made directly through the charity's website, www.sandyreliefnj.org. The next round of funding, totaling $5 million, is under way, with applications due by March 15. At least 100 nonprofit groups have submitted requests so far.
"Admittedly we're learning how to do this, but I was also willing to take our time and be careful," knowing that other groups such as the American Red Cross and the Robin Hood Foundation were already providing aid, she said.
"I actually think that we're going to be distributing this money at a really opportune time, because some of those organizations will have moved on," Mary Pat Christie said. "We're planning to be around for two to three years, so we're not here for 60 days and gone. We're going to be here until the state is recovered."
The first lady dismissed the possibility that some major donors could view the relief fund as a way to curry favor with her husband's administration in a re-election year.
"I think that that notion is just absolutely ridiculous," she said. "It tells (me) that people don't understand me or my husband, and maybe don't have an appreciation for the sufferings that New Jerseyans are going through."
The relief fund's list of top donors is a veritable who's who of the state's largest corporations, several of which, including AT&T, Hess and Toys 'R Us, have pledged $1 million or more.
Among the fund's more than 26,000 donors are numerous state-regulated businesses, such as banks, insurance firms and utility companies that are prohibited from making contributions to political campaigns.
Political watchdog groups have been critical of similar funds connected to governors in other states. In recent years, for example, the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana's Children, headed by the wife of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, has come under fire because of the support it has received from oil companies and other industries that are regulated by the state.
Mary Pat Christie said she made it a priority to ensure the charity's operating board was politically diverse. Its members include attorneys William J. Palatucci, her husband's longtime confidant, and Jerry Zaro, another friend of her husband's who was the head of the state Office of Economic Growth under former Gov. Jon S. Corzine. Former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, a Democrat, is a member of the honorary advisory board.
Jeff Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, sees no problem with regulated corporations contributing to such a fund.
"Personally I think it's a great thing that people are contributing to this charity," Brindle said. "There's absolutely nothing illegal about it. We want to raise as much money as possible to help people down the Shore."
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton teamed up to create the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. The charity was launched in September 2005, the month after the storm, and by December of that year, the fund had awarded $90 million in grants.
In all, the fund distributed $131 million in aid to colleges, houses of worship and nonprofit groups throughout the Gulf region, said Dwanda Moore, program officer for the Foundation of the Mid South. The nonprofit organization, based in Jackson, Miss., has been managing the Bush-Clinton grants since the fund shut down in December 2007.
Without the same degree of clout that a pair of former U.S. presidents can exercise, Mary Pat Christie's charity has made great strides in its first four months, said Nina Stack, president of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, a Trenton-based nonprofit organization that works with the state's philanthropic community.
"They have established a very ambitious and aggressive timeline for the next round (of grants) while at the same time being smart about not moving so quickly that they won't learn from the process and continue to improve," Stack said in an email.
Mary Pat Christie said the last thing she wants is to fund a nonprofit that turns out to be fraudulent.
"I was careful four months ago, I'm careful now, and I'm going to be careful going forward," she said.
As part of the relief fund's initial disbursement of $1 million in aid, the Monmouth County Long-Term Recovery Group and the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Committee will each receive $250,000 from the fund. Both groups also have received commitments of $1.5 million and $2.2 million, respectively, from the Robin Hood Foundation.
Tim Hearne Jr., president of the United Way and treasurer of the Monmouth recovery group, said the start-up funds from Mary Pat Christie's charity will help the fledgling organization gear up to coordinate relief services for thousands of county residents. The group, comprised of representatives of many of the county's leading nonprofit organizations, expects to be ready to begin processing aid requests from 5,000 storm victims by the end of this month.
Mary Pat Christie said she knows the relief fund won't be able to meet all pressing recovery needs, but she feels an obligation to do whatever she can.
"It's amazing how resilient these people are," she said of the storm victims she's spoken with throughout the state. "Hopefully, people, at the end of the day, will have seen the good in what we tried to do."