May 19, 2017

Government officials warned colleagues the charity was a cult - to no avail

Matt Smith
May 11, 2017

Workers at the U.S. Embassy in Malawi sought to raise the alarm about an organization seeking U.S.-government funds that it labeled a cult. But a foreign aid official rejected the information as “clear bias” and the government allocated $31.6 million to the group, led by followers of an Interpol fugitive last seen hiding in Mexico.

Christine Djondo, an education specialist stationed in the African country of Malawi with the Agency for International Development (USAID), in 2012 warned a co-worker via email about a secretive organization lurking behind two intertwined groups.

“I have diplomatically been able to avoid them,” she wrote in documents USAID released only after Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting filed suit against the agency. Djondo’s comments related to the U.S. charity Planet Aid, and its subcontractor Development Aid People to People Malawi (DAPP).

“I would just like not to see USDA, the embassy, and (Malawian President) Joyce Banda get caught up in something they might regret,” she added.

Both Planet Aid, and DAPP, have been identified by the FBI and the Danish State Prosecutor for Serious Economic and International Crime as fronts for the Teachers Group, a reputed Danish cult whose leaders are on the run from fraud and tax evasion charges. Reveal previously reported that Malawi farmers who were supposed to have benefitted from U.S.-funded projects run by Planet Aid and DAPP remained impoverished.

By the time of Djondo’s email in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service had already allocated more than $102 million to Planet Aid projects in Malawi and Mozambique, despite multiple whistleblower warnings about a Danish charities fraud investigation tied to Planet Aid.

Across the ocean at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. staff were separately getting similar warnings.

“We have been growing increasingly concerned about the number and frequency of the complaints that we have been receiving about Planet Aid. There are hints of potential fraud and abuse,” read one of a flurry of 2012 internal staff emails expressing concern about Planet Aid’s cult ties.

Internal emails from U.S. government staff based in Malawi don’t indicate whether staff there was aware of the unease in Washington. However, at least four Malawi-based USAID officials separately raised their own concerns.

In a 2012 email, USAID staff member Cybill Sigler blamed the USDA for ignoring DAPP’s troubled history. “It’s their mess to deal with but because USDA doesn’t have a country presence here it becomes our problem. Ugh!!” she wrote. In response to one of several emails in which Djondo complained about fielding DAPP inquiries Sigler wrote: “I feel your pain.

USAID Malawi mission director Doug Arbuckle sent this advice via email to three of his staff: “My suggestion would be to just delete their emails without reading.”

Planet Aid representatives have repeatedly declined to be interviewed by Reveal, stating, “Planet Aid has not engaged in any illegal or illicit activities.” Planet Aid sued Reveal and two of its reporters in August, alleging a conspiracy to interfere with business relationships. Reveal is contesting the lawsuit and believes it is without merit.

The newly disclosed documents indicate DAPP and Planet Aid’s reputation made the rounds of the southern African community of foreign aid agencies.

Djondo wrote to Arbuckle that she’d heard that “DAPP is a cult” from the USAID’s German counterpart. In Europe, the Teachers Group is famous as the subject of fraud scandals, criminal trials and moves by governments including the UK and Denmark to halt funding.

“Doug warned me we will never fund them,” Djondo wrote in a June 2012 email to USAID co-workers. “I am not sure if USDA and the embassy are aware of their history and reputation.”

Dane Mogens Amdi Petersen in the early 1970s began teaching his followers that they should fight imperialism by stripping wealth from the bourgeois west. By the 1990s they had set up a global network of fake charities and offshore shell firms as part of a fraud conspiracy, according to 2002 filings in Los Angeles federal court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which was helping Denmark seek Petersen’s extradition.

Planet Aid’s international partnerships director Marie Lichtenberg was extraordinarily persistent in befriending foreign aid officials, according to former USDA officials and Planet Aid staff members who spoke to Reveal. USDA had no staff in Malawi.

But in November 2012, Kate Snipes, the USDA’s representative for southern Africa stationed 1,200 miles away in Nairobi, Kenya, briefly traveled to Malawi and stood beside Lichtenberg at a Planet Aid/DAPP school ribbon cutting ceremony. Snipes had also met with USAID staff and discussed Planet Aid and DAPP’s requests for additional funds.

In a December email to the USDA’s Washington, D.C. staff titled “Malawi roundup,” Snipes said the ceremony “was very well-done,” adding that “the USAID Mission has a lot of issues and a clear bias against them, but I believe that aside from over persistence, they seem to be unfounded.”

In 2015, the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service announced it had allocated an additional $31.6 million to Planet Aid for programs in Mozambique.

Reveal showed the emails to Kris Alonge, a Kansas bookkeeper who had sought to inform the USDA about Planet Aid’s past in a series of calls and letters to top aid officials between 2006 and 2012.

“These emails were very disturbing. The USDA arrogantly ignored red flags from the FBI, the Danish government, news articles, private citizens (including me!) … and now we see that they ignored the USAID’s warnings as well,” she wrote in an email to Reveal. “Because of the USDA’s foolishness millions in tax dollars were wasted. Worse, aid did not reach the people in need.”

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