After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, attorneys in Newtown and across the state promised to assist the town and the victims’ families any way they could.
So far, one major contribution has been to help manage the money from donations that have poured into the town from across the country. Rob Morris, chairman of Pullman & Comley, is the pro bono counsel for the My Sandy Hook Family Fund, which has so far raised $1.4 million for family members of victims of the December massacre.
Morris got involved when one of the fund’s Newtown founders called a Pullman partner and asked for legal advice. The partner referred the organizers to Morris. "I met with the group a few days after the fund was set up," Morris said.
Also at the meeting were representatives from the state Attorney General’s Office and Department of Consumer Protection, who were there to make sure the money was being distributed in accordance with state law. "The last thing [the organizers] wanted was for anyone to get into trouble," Morris said.
Morris said he was able to give organizers input as they wrote a protocol for handing out the money. There were also questions about taxes. Everyone was fairly sure the families wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on the donations because the money was a gift, but the fund’s organizers wanted to be sure.
"So we wrote to the [U.S.] Secretary of the Treasury," Morris said, adding that about two weeks ago he got a response saying that the money will not be taxed. "The IRS recognized this was a gift. They put it in writing."
Some of the victims’ families have already received distributions, while others have not accepted the money yet. Some want to talk to other family members about how to divide up the money. Others want to consult financial advisors. Still others have had their own questions for the Internal Revenue Service.
Some other Sandy Hook-related fund-raising efforts are giving money to assist gun control advocates, create permanent memorials and provide counseling for first-responders. The My Sandy Hook Family Fund was set up solely to address the needs of the immediate family members of the 26 victims.
One of the issues that came up during the discussions, said Morris, was, "How do you define need?"
Morris said some families may need money for basic living expenses, because they haven’t been able to return to work yet. Others may need a vacation — for emotional healing, or to grieve with a family member who lives across country. "The people who started the fund decided they don’t want to have to define what ‘need’ is for each family," Morris said. The bottom line, he said, is families are allowed to do whatever they want with the money.
Because Pullman & Comley’s name is on the My Sandy Hook Family Fund website, some people who want to donate first call Morris’ office. "There are scams out there," Morris explained. "I tell them it’s legit."
Morris said that a separate fund, set up through the United Way of Western Connecticut, has raised about $8 million, but the organizers have not yet decided how to use the money.
Another lawyer involved with donations is Jim Gaston, who is a Newtown resident and a member of the town’s Board of Selectmen. As chairman of the Newtown Charities Coordination Committee, Gaston’s job is to keep track of the multiple funds being set up.
"We are not doing vetting [of groups conducting fundraising], but we contact people out there," Gaston said. He added that in four or five instances, when he contacted people about their fund-raising efforts, those efforts turned out to be "suspect" and were soon discontinued.
Gaston has also been doing pro bono legal work for the Newtown Memorial Fund, which has distributed $10,000 to the families of each victim. In addition, money from the fund will be used to construct a memorial honoring those who died and to create scholarships in the victims’ names.
Gaston, who also praised the efforts of fellow lawyer and selectman Will Rodgers, estimated that he spends 30 hours per week on efforts connected to the Sandy Hook shootings.
Also providing pro bono help for the Newtown families are attorneys from Cohen and Wolf, which has offices in nearby Danbury, as well as Bridgeport, Orange and Westport. The firm is representing a new advocacy group called the Newtown Action Alliance, which is looking at ways to help communities avoid gun violence.
Cohen and Wolf attorney Monte Frank and a colleague are helping represent one of the mothers of a child who was killed. "I’m also working with another lawyer in my office drafting wills and doing trust and estate work for the parents of one of the teachers killed," Frank said.
Frank led a group of expert cyclists from Newtown to Washington, D.C., this month to try to build support for gun safety legislation. "A lot of people are doing a lot of good work," he said.•