Red Cross Leadership at Issue

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2005

A leading Capitol Hill Republican yesterday questioned the effectiveness of the American Red Cross's leadership, including whether its governing board "meets the high level of competence and engagement that Congress and the public should expect."

In a five-page letter to the board chairman, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) sought information about Red Cross operations. Among the areas of interest to Grassley, the Finance Committee chairman, are the organization's governance structure, executive compensation and spending on public relations.

The move by Grassley signals his determination to get to the bottom of the turmoil at the 125-year-old organization, aides said, and could lead to dramatic changes in the leadership of the Red Cross, which operates with little governmental oversight.

In recent years, Grassley has pushed a number of measures through Congress to curb abuses by nonprofit groups.

"Given the turnover at the top of the Red Cross and indications that it's related to the board," Grassley said in an e-mailed statement, "it's pretty obvious that Congress and the organization need to seriously look at the effectiveness of the board today."

The multibillion-dollar charity has come under increasing scrutiny from Congress in the past three months because of what many regard as its stumbling performance after Hurricane Katrina and because of its rapid turnover in leadership. Marsha J. Evans resigned as Red Cross president in mid-December, becoming the fourth chief executive to depart in six years.

Red Cross officials said Evans had problems communicating and coordinating with the 50-member Board of Governors.

But former Red Cross managers said Evans was attempting to push through reforms that displeased some board members.

Former Red Cross president Bernadine Healy, who resigned under pressure in 2001 after clashing with the board, and others have complained that the board interferes in daily operations. They say the board is dominated by the local chapters, which control 30 seats on the governing body and are resistant to change.

Evans has been unavailable for comment.

In his letter, Grassley asked McElveen-Hunter to explain Evans's reform efforts and the board's response.

"The American public deserves more than a papering over of the reasons for her departure," Grassley said in his letter.

In response, the Red Cross issued a statement that it welcomed Grassley's inquiry "as well as the opportunity to respond to his concerns" and that it would reply by his deadline of Jan. 30.

Because of the recent turmoil, there are more and more calls from public officials and others for Congress to reconsider the federal government's designation of the Red Cross as the nation's primary disaster-response agency.

"After witnessing the American Red Cross's struggles during Katrina and Rita," said Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) at a committee hearing two weeks ago, "I am not sure it is prudent for Congress to place such great responsibility in the hands of one organization."

Elizabeth T. Boris, director of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, said yesterday that responding to an increasing number of large-scale disasters might be taxing the organization too much.

"It can't be only the responsibility of the Red Cross," she said. "We need to find a way to bring in government oversight and more charities."


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