Former U.S. District Court Judge Alan H. Nevas will join two Newtown residents on a committee to decide how survivors and victims of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting will be compensated. After the tragedy, an outpouring of national sympathy and generosity created more than $11.1 million in donations through dozens of separate charities. The largest of these is the United Way of Western Connecticut.
Most of the money is being directed to the families of the victims, wounded teachers, and pupils who escaped but were traumatized. The rest is being distributed by the United Way, for community purposes in Newtown. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and more recent tragedies, charitable organizations have been under pressure to distribute funds directly to the immediate survivors and victims, and to do so quickly. Controversy has developed in past distribution efforts, with the charities favoring slower distribution to a wider range of recipients.
The charity distributing the funds for survivors is The Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation Inc. Nevas, now a special counsel at Levett Rockwood in Westport, will chair a panel of three, including Dr. John Woodall, a psychiatrist with special expertise in post-traumatic stress disorder and related studies, and Joe Smialowski, a banker who is a 32-year Newtown resident.
A national expert in disaster fund distribution, Kenneth Feinberg, will assist the panel, said Nevas, who last week discussed his new duties with Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey.
LAW TRIBUNE: Have you looked at the history of 9/11 distribution as a kind of roadmap of what to do and what not to do?
ALAN H. NEVAS: I certainly am aware of it. And also the fact that Ken Feinberg is going to be working with us — you couldn’t have a better resource than that.
LAW TRIBUNE: He’s been involved in very large projects of this sort… tell me a bit more about him.
NEVAS: He’s got a national reputation for working with terrible disasters, in terms of claims made. He was involved in 9/11, he was involved in the BP oil spill, [after the shooting at] Virginia Tech. I think he’s been asked to work in Boston now. He’s the national go-to guy.
LAW TRIBUNE: Unlike a courtroom setting, you don’t have as many resources helping you, it seems. How do you proceed? Tell me about the process.
NEVAS: There’s a committee of three. We plan to have two public hearings in Newtown [on May 7 and May 8]. People will be invited to attend and speak. If anyone would prefer to meet with anyone privately, we will accommodate them.
LAW TRIBUNE: You chaired the state’s investigation into the causes of the Feb. 7, 2010, explosion at the Kleen Energy power plant in Middletown, Connecticut, another tragedy. In that matter, then-judge Robert Holzberg made a point of meeting personally with as many of the survivors as possible. Will you do the same?
NEVAS: I think that’s essential — for us. It’s optional on their part. We’d like to meet with them, but I wouldn’t impose on them or make it a requirement. I would never do that. It’s their choice.
LAW TRIBUNE: Have you ever done anything close to this?
NEVAS: There’s nothing comparable to this. It’s going to be difficult, but I will do it.
LAW TRIBUNE: What’s your timeframe for this?
NEVAS: We’d like to [distribute the funds] by the end of May. We’re in agreement that it should be done as quickly as possible.
LAW TRIBUNE: Are the community groups seeking funds being represented by counsel?
NEVAS: I don’t know. This has all happened so fast. I’ve met with the other two committee members and we’ve had a number of conference calls.
LAW TRIBUNE: How many people are you going to be trying to help?
NEVAS: There are 40 claimants. That is the 20 children who died. The six teachers who died. There were 12 children who were there and got out, and there were two teachers who were wounded.
LAW TRIBUNE: There seems to be some confusion about what the money was being raised to accomplish — whether it was to help the families of the dead, the physically injured, the psychologically injured, or the Newtown community as a whole.
NEVAS: Gifts were made. I know what we have to work with. The two members of the committee are excellent. One is a psychiatrist and he’s very knowledgeable about and sensitive to these issues. The other fellow is with Citibank, and is a very smart and able guy. We’re going to do the best we can. Ken Feinberg will be working with us, too. He will be there for those hearings.
LAW TRIBUNE: Is all the focus on individual victims and survivors, or is it a fund to help Newtown heal?
NEVAS: There’s an allocation of 70 percent, $7.7 million, which will be distributed to those 40 families. Thirty percent of the funds will be reserved and used for future community uses in Newtown. •