TESTIMONY OF DANIEL L. GREENBERG OF THE LEGAL AID
SOCIETY BEFORE THE UNITED STATES SENATE COMMITTEE
ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS - September 24, 2002
My name is Daniel L. Greenberg, the President and Attorney-in-Chief of the Legal Aid Society in New York City. I welcome this opportunity to testify before this Committee about the Legal Aid Society=s vantage-point as a provider of legal services to New Yorkers affected by the tragic events of September 11 and as a major not-for-profit organization that has been displaced from its offices which were directly across the street from the World Trade Center.
We are very grateful for the assistance that we have received from Senator Clinton and the New York Congressional delegation to address initial problems which we encountered when we filed a reimbursement application with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. We also greatly appreciate the recent determination by FEMA to find the Legal Aid Society eligible for financial assistance, and the work of FEMA staff to expedite the review of our upcoming claim submission.
The Legal Aid Society in New York: The Legal Aid Society is the oldest and largest law firm for low-income persons in the United States. For more than one hundred twenty-five years, the Society has been part of the social fabric of New York City as a leading not-for-profit organization and provider of essential assistance for New Yorkers who cannot afford to pay for the legal help that they need.
From offices in all five boroughs of New York City and with a staff of 1,600, the Society handles 300,000 cases annually in the areas of civil legal assistance, criminal defense and appeals, and juvenile rights. Our lawyers represent individual and groups of clients at all levels of the State and federal courts, including a number cases that have been considered by the United States Supreme Court.
Contracts with City, State, and federal government support various of the Society=s criminal defense, criminal appeals, and juvenile rights services. State, City and federal contracts also support a portion of the Society=s civil work, but the Society=s civil legal assistance is substantially financed with private donations. Several years ago, our Board of Directors voted to forego funding from the Legal Services Corporation out of concern for the restrictions such funding would have had on our work. Our Board consists of leaders of the private bar, private industry, and private not-for-profit agencies in New York City. In partnership with the private bar, we operate an extensive volunteer attorney program to leverage our limited resources.
The Impact Of September 11th On The Legal Aid Society: Like all of you, we were horrified by the events of September 11th. More than 700 Legal Aid Society staff members, including both lawyers and legal workers, were housed in offices in Lower Manhattan just to the North of the World Trade Center. Some 400 of these Legal Aid Society staff members worked in our headquarters at 90 Church Street, literally 50 yards across the street from the North side of the World Trade Center.
The 90 Church building housed the Society=s main administrative offices and the entire staff of the Criminal Appeals Bureau and the Capital Defense Unit, the Juvenile Rights Division=s and the Criminal Defense Division=s central administration and special litigation and appeals units, and the Civil Division=s central administration, Civil Appeals and Law Reform Unit, Homeless Rights Project, Health Law Unit, Immigration Unit, and Consumer and Bankruptcy Unit. The Society=s central library and central computer system that supports the Legal Aid city-wide network were also at 90 Church Street.
Although plane parts landed on the roof, debris crashed through windows, and many staff witnessed the horrific events of that day, thankfully no staff members were lost or injured.
However, for the past year we have been unable to reoccupy our headquarters at 90 Church Street. The other tenants at 90 Church Street, a United States Post Office and the New York City Housing Authority, have been in a similar limbo status for this past year as plans have been developed to remediate the building and negotiations with the various insurance companies have proceeded.
In the meantime, in order to continue to provide legal assistance during this critical period for New Yorkers, we have expended substantial resources to rent alternative space and equipment, purchase replacement supplies and materials, arrange for the cleaning and storage of literally thousands of boxes of files, and address disaster recovery issues involving the 90 Church Street office space.
The Society=s Key Disaster Relief Role: Even as the Society itself was rendered "homeless" by the September 11th tragedy, the Society has played a leading role in providing disaster relief legal services in the aftermath of the September 11th attack. With the loss of an estimated 130,000 jobs in New York City after September 11th, substantial numbers of New Yorkers who were not eligible for or in need of our civil legal assistance on September 10th, desperately needed our help on September 12th and in the following weeks.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, our staff was there for New Yorkers who needed help. When the computer lines that ran below the World Trade Center were destroyed, vulnerable New Yorkers could not use their food stamps in their communities because local merchants could not confirm their food stamp case status. Society staff members worked with State officials to devise a "hold harmless" procedure so that merchants could allow New Yorkers to buy food. When thousands of New Yorkers who lost their jobs were left without heath care coverage, Society staff members worked with State and City officials to devise expedited procedures to enable New Yorkers to obtain Medicaid coverage.
When thousands of New Yorkers began to seek help in the FEMA Disaster Assistance Center in Lower Manhattan and in newly established City Disaster Centers, Society lawyers and paralegals were there to staff "Legal Services" tables to provide legal help. Even as the fires were still burning in Lower Manhattan, Society staff members were working on nights and weekends along side of FEMA, State, City, and charitable organization staff to meet the need for emergency help at the FEMA Center just blocks to the North of the World Trade Center site.
In the months following the closure of the FEMA Disaster Assistance Center, we have implemented a serious of outreach programs to provide help to affected New Yorkers at settlement houses, labor unions, and community agencies where large numbers of newly unemployed workers are seeking help. Altogether, our disaster relief services are directly benefiting some 5,000 New Yorkers through one-on-one help, client-specific consultations, and "know your rights" community education. The legal problems of these individual clients have included housing, unemployment benefits, Medicaid and other health care issues, food stamps, social security, rental assistance, and immigration. Literally, hundreds of thousands of additional New Yorkers have received health care or obtained food stamps through our post-September 11th joint work with government to devise new system-wide procedures to address the unimaginable circumstances that confronted New York City on the morning of September 12th.
FEMA Help For The Legal Aid Society: In December 2001, the Legal Aid Society itself turned to FEMA for help. The Society applied for Public Assistance from FEMA to cover the extraordinary costs associated with our displacement and planned recovery of the Society=s 90 Church Street headquarters
Unfortunately, based on FEMA=s initial interpretation of the Public Assistance criteria, in February 2002 FEMA found that the Legal Aid Society was not an eligible private not-for-profit applicant. Because we believed that FEMA was mistaken, we appealed the initial determination and provided supplemental information in April 2002 that included a series of supporting level from City and State government attesting to the essential nature of the Society=s services, particularly in the criminal justice and juvenile rights areas in which the City and State contract with the Society to provide constitutionally-mandated legal assistance.
We also sought the assistance of Senator Clinton and the New York Congressional delegation. Senator Clinton and her staff, particularly Kara Hughes, were in regular contact with senior FEMA staff who agreed that the Legal Aid situation should be reviewed.
We are pleased to report that earlier this month FEMA completed its review of our request for help and found that the Legal Aid Society is an entity eligible for reimbursement. FEMA and New York State Emergency Management Office staff members are now working very closely with us to ensure that the Legal Aid Society receives the assistance that we need. Both federal and State emergency management staff members have been extremely helpful in setting an expedited review for the Society=s claim.
Thank you again for this opportunity to discuss our experiences with you. We hope that the experiences of the Legal Aid Society as a provider of disaster relief legal assistance and as an applicant for FEMA disaster assistance are useful to this Committee=s consideration of the lessons learned following September 11th.
Daniel L. Greenberg
President and Attorney-in-Chief
The Legal Aid Society