(1st Add: Includes comments by Russell Bergeron, spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.)
(CNSNews.com) - A spokesman for a New York victims' rights groups Friday said it is "reprehensible" that a portion of the charity funds aimed at helping the victims, is instead being used by a group defending individuals who have been detained by the U.S. government in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
According to Joe Diamond of the Center for The Community Interest in New York City, "the thought of donations for the victims of September 11th being used to help those detainees is reprehensible."
A $171,000 grant was awarded to the Legal Aid Society out of money donated to the September 11th Fund, which was created by the United Way and the New York Community Trust.
Diamond described Legal Aid as a "champion of criminals."
"Why the hell would the United Way be giving them money in the first place? I would demand my donation back immediately."
Diamond also said his group is offering "pro-bono representation" to any individuals who wish to get their donations returned by the September 11th Fund.
Legal Aid is funded through a combination of government and private grants. Last year, the state of New York gave Legal Aid $2.3 million in state funds.
Sol Stern, a writer with the City Journal in New York City, has investigated the Legal Aid Society and its ideology. "I am shocked, I don't understand the connection between helping the victims of September 11th and giving more money for the group's social advocacy programs," Stern said.
In Stern's 1995 report, titled 'The Legal Aid Follies,' he pointed out that the group's choice of Daniel Greenberg as executive director "strengthened legal radicalism that has been the organization's signature since the 1960s."
Stern wrote that the Legal Aid Society has been "the driving force behind many of the endless court mandates that have multiplied [New York] city's social pathology and caused its welfare costs to skyrocket."
His article quoted Michael Letwin, president of the union representing the Legal Aid Society's lawyers, as saying, "Almost by definition, Legal Aid tends to attract radical sixties types."
Stern said the grant from the September 11th Fund could have been more wisely spent.
"There are other ways to give to more neutral lawyer groups," he said.
The Legal Aid Society's Steven Banks told CNSNews.com the allegations against the group are "utterly irresponsible." Banks also defended his group's actions on behalf of the individuals detained by the government.
"Because an immigrant has been detained subsequent to September 11th... does not mean that they are being investigated or have any relationship to the horrible events of 9-11," he stated.
The men are being held in isolation on immigration violations at the Special Housing Unit of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. But, Banks pointed out that they have been "detained, not charged." Immigration and Naturalization Service detainees are not entitled to government appointed counsel unlike people actually charged with a crime.
However, Russell Bergeron, spokesman for the INS told the Wall Street Journal, "The fact that they're charged only with immigration violations at this point in time shouldn't be looked upon as some form of clearance in terms of their involvement in this investigation."
Ken Boehm of the watchdog group, The National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) countered. "I am certain families and victims don't want the money going to them. The money is not going out fast enough to help families."
Boehm alleged that Legal Aid used "bad judgment to provide limited resources as opposed to helping the real victims" and added that "donors wanted to help the victims of September 11th, they didn't want to help people who were picked up on immigration law violations.
"The victims should have first claim on these resources," Boehm said.
The spokeswoman for the September 11th Fund, Jeanine Moss, told the Washington Times the grant money has a "very narrowly defined focus... and they report back to us on a regular basis on who they helped and in what amount."
Boehm disagreed, saying the funds awarded to the Legal Aid Society are "fungible" and there is no accountability for the group. "Who is going to know? Who can go into the Legal Aid Society and see timesheets? All their records are protected by attorney-client privilege," he stated.
Banks said the $171,000 grant from the September 11th Fund was used to help "more than 500 men, women and children with the funds that were provided to us."
Daniel Greenberg, Legal Aid's executive director told the New York Law Journal that the grant from the September 11th Fund was earmarked for training lawyers who volunteered to help victims of the attack. Greenberg also said the Legal Aid Society is awaiting approval for continuous grants from the September 11th Fund.
See Earlier Story:
Sept. 11 Charity Gave Money to Group Defending Terror Suspects (8 Nov. 2001)