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Congressman Presses Red Cross CEO For Answers On Impact of Downsizing

Rep. Bennie Thompson said it is “critical” for the Red Cross to act quickly in response to problems reported by ProPublica

A key congressman who sits on a committee that oversees the American Red Cross is pressing the group’s chief executive for information about how layoffs and other cuts have affected its ability to respond to disasters.

In a six-page letter sent Wednesday, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss, cites ProPublica’s recent reporting on Red Cross Chief Executive Gail McGovern as well as previous coverage by us and NPR on the charity’s responses to Superstorm Sandy and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

“Given the Red Cross’ important role in responding to both domestic and international disasters, it is critical that it acts quickly to address the serious problems ProPublica, NPR, and the GAO uncovered this year,” Thompson wrote, referring to a Government Accountability Office report that found the charity would benefit from more scrutiny from the federal government.

“As Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security, I have a responsibility to ensure that Federal response and recovery partners are able to carry out their missions,” he continued.

The Red Cross was chartered by Congress over 100 years ago and has a formal role working alongside the government when disaster strikes.

Thompson’s letter gives the Red Cross a deadline of January 27 to answer a series of questions focusing on how changes under McGovern – including the closure of hundreds of local chapters – has affected the group’s disaster response services. Since McGovern was appointed CEO in 2008, the Red Cross’ workforce has shrunk from around 36,000 to around 23,000.

“In light of the chapter closures and staff reductions, what efforts is the Red Cross undertaking to ensure that it can respond to major and small-scale disasters, particularly in small towns and rural areas?” the letter asks.

Thompson has requested copies of any internal Red Cross after-action reports assessing the group’s responses to the recent Valley Fire in Northern California and disasters in West Virginia, which have been the subject of localcriticism. For major disasters, the Red Cross typically produces after-action reports but does not release them to the public.

Thompson also asks how chapter closures have affected the Red Cross’ ability to raise money and recruit volunteers, about reports of low employee morale, and about the organization’s spending on marketing.

McGovern, a former AT&T executive and Harvard Business School marketing professor, has stressed marketing as a way to grow fundraising and other revenue, such as fees from Red Cross CPR classes. As we reported this month, those efforts have fallen short and the charity has been running deficits in the tens of millions of dollars.

On the international front, Thompson is requesting more information about what the Red Cross has done in Nepal following the April earthquake. McGovern recently wrote a blog post stating that the charity “played a leading role in supporting relief operations in Nepal.”

Thompson has asked for details on how much money the Red Cross raised for Nepal and what it has been spent on. “How did the lessons learned from the Red Cross’ response to Haiti inform its activities in Nepal?” it continues.

This isn’t the first time Thompson has pressed the Red Cross to explain itself or to be more transparent. Earlier this year he introduced the American Red Cross Sunshine Act, which would require regular government audits of the charity’s finances and its response to disasters.

The Red Cross did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Update, Dec. 24, 2015: A Red Cross spokesperson said the charity will respond to the congressman's letter after they have reviewed it.

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