Last September at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, officials from Liberia, Jordan and Italy plied the halls of the Sheraton hotel near New York’s Times Square, alongside Bill Gates, Madeleine Albright and TV chef Mario Batali.
Glad-handing her way through the throng was Marie Lichtenberg, a tall, dark-haired Danish woman and fundraiser for two Africa-focused charities, Planet Aid and Humana People to People. She hugged retired Congolese NBA star Dikembe Mutombo and later pecked at her phone while Chelsea Clinton spoke on stage.
Despite the familiarity on that day, the dignitaries gathered in New York likely had no idea of one critical fact about Lichtenberg: her close ties to Mogens Amdi Petersen, an international fugitive from Denmark wanted for embezzlement and tax evasion.
Now 77 and reportedly hiding in Mexico, Petersen is the founder of a secretive organization called the Teachers Group, which former members, academics and the Danish media have likened to a cult. Lichtenberg is a longtime high-level member.
In the United States, Lichtenberg is known for her persistence in wooing government officials, and her charities are lavished with money. Over more than a decade, U.S. taxpayers have granted more than $133 million to Planet Aid, a Massachusetts-registered nonprofit. The money was supposed to improve health and education and better equip dirt-poor farmers in Malawi and Mozambique.
Interviews with former Teachers Group employees, aid workers and government officials, as well as thousands of documents obtained by Reveal, show that a network of interlinked groups has misled donors and the U.S. government.
One group in Africa that received U.S. government funds compelled employees to kick back portions of their salaries to a bank account controlled by their Teachers Group overseers. It also paid millions of dollars for questionable invoices that its own accountants and project managers say were fabricated to cover up charity work that was never performed.
Farmers who were promised help from Planet Aid say they have been shortchanged yet were told to put a happy face on their projects. Interviews in Africa show a Planet Aid subcontractor controlled by Teachers Group members would steer visiting auditors to Potemkin village farms that looked prosperous but were merely for show.
Amid the craggy rolling hills of Chiradzulu District in southern Malawi lies one such Planet Aid “demonstration plot,” where the U.S.-based nonprofit promised villagers would learn advanced farming techniques.
Today, the plot serves a less lofty purpose: to store drying mud bricks. Instead of improved irrigation, freshly planted trees, livestock, better yields and higher income – as Planet Aid touted in glossy brochures and detailed reports to the U.S. government – farmers in the district say one goat and one pig were all that ever arrived, and both died before they could reproduce.
As for the trees supposedly planted with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and funneled through Planet Aid, most had been there long before Planet Aid took credit for them.
Jackson Mtimbuka, a former USDA Planet Aid farmers program manager in southern Malawi, left his job in 2009 after a dispute over expenses. Like many others, he now is disillusioned with the USDA program that funded Planet Aid.
“The money was not used on the intended purpose,” he said. The stakes, he explained, are high: “If kids are not getting a balanced diet, then their health cannot be good.”
For more than a decade, the U.S. government has been warned repeatedly about Planet Aid and its ties to Petersen; again and again, those warnings have been overlooked.
In 2001 and 2002, Danish authorities gave the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles detailed information drawing a clear line between Planet Aid; charities under the leadership of the Teachers Group, also known as Tvind; and Petersen.
Despite this, on Aug. 26, 2004, the USDA and Planet Aid signed their first grant agreement, allocating $8.5 million for education, farms and food distribution in Mozambique.
Eighteen months later, the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service received an email from a U.S. freight agent working with the USDA, warning about a court case in Denmark against Petersen and his associates. The subject line in the email chain, shared with multiple officials within the Foreign Agricultural Service, contained a clear warning: “TROUBLING NEWS – Planet Aid – USDA.”
The email outlined the links between Petersen and a global network of charities that includes Planet Aid, and it highlighted allegations of embezzlement and tax fraud in a case brought by the Danish government. It cited Lichtenberg’s association with the Teachers Group, noting her parents joined when she and her brother, Simon, were children. (The Lichtenbergs’ household records from the 1980s, obtained by Reveal, show the family’s finances were managed by Petersen lieutenant Poul Jørgensen.)
Yet the USDA continued to allocate humanitarian relief funds to Planet Aid – tens of millions of dollars’ worth. Less than six months ago, the Foreign Agricultural Service posted a Web page announcing aid programs, including $31.6 million allocated to Planet Aid for programs in Mozambique.
To this day, USDA officials say they see nothing wrong with Planet Aid. Reveal sent the Foreign Agricultural Service a letter describing these investigative findings in detail and followed up with a list of detailed questions asking why the agency continued funding Planet Aid despite the warnings of possible fraud.
The agency sent back a note saying it takes its project review process seriously: “None of the formal compliance reviews, ad-hoc reviews, site evaluations or audits FAS has conducted of Planet Aid projects have yielded any significant findings or concerns.”
Attorneys and individuals close to Petersen, the Teachers Group leader and international fugitive, declined to comment. Lichtenberg also has declined to talk to Reveal. During a brief encounter with a Reveal reporter at the Clinton Global Initiative conference, she directed all questions to an outside public relations firm before conference security guards intervened.
In a statement, Lichtenberg’s PR spokesman, Andrew Rice, wrote: “Planet Aid has a long and successful track record managing U.S. government projects in Africa. Government agencies continue contracting with Planet Aid precisely because they have seen the positive results in the field, and they have conducted extensive financial reviews of these programs.”
After Reveal’s radio version of this story aired in March, Charity Navigator put Planet Aid on its watch list, a designation it uses to warn potential donors. In response, Planet Aid sent Charity Navigator a letter faulting Reveal for focusing on a few of its Farmers’ Clubs and not on other projects, such as the teacher training colleges that recently earned UNESCO recognition for a work-study program.
It was inappropriate to evaluate the success of the farm programs because “there were no ongoing USDA-supported Farmers’ Club projects for them to see in Malawi,” said the April 5 letter, signed by Planet Aid President Ester Neltrup.
Reveal visited the farms in Malawi because, in March 2015, Planet Aid had reported to the USDA that those programs had produced dramatic long-term improvements.
In Denmark, ongoing support for Planet Aid and its linked organization, Humana People to People, is baffling to officials involved in the government investigation of the Teachers Group and Petersen.
Among them is Knud Haargaard. He led the Danish government’s investigation of Petersen’s network in the 1990s and 2000s. Although Petersen was acquitted of embezzlement and tax evasion in 2006 in a small regional Danish court, he was placed on Interpol’s most wanted list in 2013 after charges had been refiled in a higher court. By then, two of his top associates had been sentenced in the fraud.
Why, Haargaard asked in an interview with Reveal, didn’t the Americans get in touch?
“I think U.S. authorities could write to the Danish police,” he said. “It would be possible for them to see what we have in our evidence. They could get a copy of our case.”
Haargaard’s investigation included an ambitious police raid across Denmark on April 25, 2001, seizing 81 computers. The target: the Teachers Group. Famous in Denmark, the group is made up of the most committed of Petersen’s followers. They pledge their money, their time, even their free will to the orders of the collective.
The Danes passed on their evidence to the FBI, which determined that Petersen had been hiding in Miami condominiums purchased by offshore shell firms he controlled.
The agency’s internal report named five charities as part of Petersen’s fraud network. They included Humana People to People, Development Aid from People to People and Planet Aid – the trio that a few years later would become humanitarian partners with the U.S. government.
“In each of these organizations the funds are ultimately controlled” by leaders of Petersen’s organization, the FBI report said. They “divert the money for personal use. Little, to no money goes to the charities.”
A ‘twisted access path’
If anyone needed a road map to how the Teachers Group and its charities are linked, they need look no further than Mogens Amdi Petersen himself. (In some documents, his last name is spelled “Pedersen.”)
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According to documents uncovered in the Danish court case, Petersen wrote a letter to Teachers Group followers in 1995 outlining how to structure the organization’s network of offshore financial companies: “The funds are placed so that at any time they are available to us, that they are never available to others, that they are protected from theft, taxation, and prying by unauthorised persons, that the joint ownership is ensured.”
He added that he wanted to “lay down a twisted access path with only ourselves as compass holders.”
The Teachers Group had its roots in Denmark in the 1960s as an antiwar commune. That begat an experimental traveling high school, which expanded into an organization dedicated to collecting used clothing in Europe. Eventually, it was providing support to 1970s revolutionary movements in southern Africa, former members said.
Petersen looks like a bespectacled Clint Eastwood: 6-foot-6, rail thin and with piercing blue-gray eyes. He long has had a reputation for controlling followers through charisma and fear. Defectors say he informs his followers that they are the chosen vanguard of a revolution poised to overtake Europe. They described an overwhelming sense of acceptance and community – as long as they were inside the group.
Petersen began by recruiting youthful followers and teaching them to use the tools, and money, of Western powers to create an idealized communal society. In Europe, he’s repeatedly been the subject of newspaper stories, documentaries, even radio plays. He’s portrayed as the leader of an authoritarian cult that defectors say has left their lives in tatters.
Denmark for a time officially banned his organization from obtaining public funds. Today, there are support groups for ex-members who meet and attempt to make sense of the years they lost to this man.
“It really is like Jim Jones and Jonestown, where everybody is in the same reality and everybody is in a parallel world, and they have sworn an oath to create a better world,” said Danish attorney Poul Gade, who prior to entering private practice was the chief prosecutor in the charities fraud case against Petersen.
In the U.S., the Teachers Group is known for its used clothing donation boxes in parking lots across the country. They include boxes marked Recycle for Change, Gaia Movement USA, Institute for International Cooperation and Development, Planet Aid and USAgain, many imported from Teachers Group companies in China and often painted green or yellow. These boxes generate more than $50 million a year in revenue, according to public charities documents.
By the late 1990s, officials say, Petersen’s organization operated charities, private companies and financial shells in at least 55 countries. Those organizations, U.S. and Danish law enforcement officials allege, include a network of financial fronts with dozens of overlapping shell companies in the British Virgin Islands, Isle of Man, the Cayman Islands and at least a half-dozen other offshore jurisdictions.
Planet Aid’s U.S. power broker
In the corridors of power in Washington, the most prominent face of Planet Aid and its affiliated charities is fundraiser Marie Lichtenberg. She has been the main contact between the USDA and Planet Aid, even though she is not listed on the charity’s website. She is known as one of the more hard-charging advocates in a city rife with funding-hungry nonprofits. Her co-workers say she is blessed with an eccentric, hippie-idealism-tinged charm.
Lichtenberg reports her title on U.S. government contracts as liaison officer for Humana People to People in Zimbabwe and principal contact and negotiator for Planet Aid and, in corporate records, as a former director of Humana People to People South Africa – all charities linked to the Teachers Group.
Lichtenberg is so close to the officials who distribute U.S. aid money that one former Africa aid manager said he asked her for permission before responding to a Reveal reporter. After she agreed, Joe Kitts – who was a U.S. Agency for International Development Africa program manager from 2008 to 2012 – referred questions about Planet Aid funding back to Lichtenberg.
According to internal USDA records, Lichtenberg serves as U.S. officials’ guide when they prepare to fly to Africa to check on the work done using taxpayer funds. Lichtenberg spends her days meeting with U.S. and African government officials, corporate foundation officials and philanthropists, records show.
“If she goes after a funding, she will do anything. If she wants a grant, she will park there for three years,” said Naila Ahmed, Planet Aid’s former manager of agriculture partnerships.
Lichtenberg’s strategy involves presenting herself to African leaders as a longtime partner of the U.S. government. The resulting African alliances then become leverage to push for more U.S. funds, allowing her to pitch herself as the person with a finger on the pulse of African political leaders, according to internal memos from Planet Aid.
Hundreds of emails from Lichtenberg, and among government officials and others, are included in USDA records obtained by Reveal under a Freedom of Information Act request. In one exchange on May 19, 2011, Lichtenberg emailed senior officials with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, boasting of a meeting she had had with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“In our meeting last week with Secretary Vilsack, I did mention the great efforts happening on the ground to align and integrate food aid with African Government’s priorities and thus ensure country ownership,” she wrote. “Secretary Vilsack was very happy to hear these comments.”
You are forcing (people) to do something which you don’t want. Slavery was the same thing.” — A project manager for Development Aid from People to People, or DAPP
Records from Lichtenberg’s own files, from a source whose identity Reveal has agreed to protect, reflect a systematic approach to fundraising. One 2013 partnership log book tracks the fundraising activities of Lichtenberg and others in Malawi. It describes how they worked to convince U.S. government officials that they had the backing of top members of the Malawian government.
The end result: a proposal “to USDA with 10 letters of support – a very good proposal,” according to an Aug. 1, 2013, log entry attributed to Lichtenberg.
Lichtenberg’s records also indicate that an important platform for her fundraising is her membership in the Clinton Global Initiative. Last July, she was on the schedule for a presentation about training teachers in Africa during a conference at the initiative’s offices in New York. Her records document a strategy to parlay that access into donations from foundations, governments and wealthy individuals.
“ ‘Persistent’ I think is the best descriptor for Marie,” said T. Patrick Hynes, who worked for the Clinton Global Initiative from January 2012 to November 2014, most recently as deputy director of member relations.
A Teachers Group-related charity, Humana People to People, has given between $100,001 and $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation, which reports dues, program sponsorship and donation amounts only in ranges. Lichtenberg’s annual budget in 2012, 2013 and 2014 includes $20,000 each year for membership in the Clinton Global Initiative, plus as much as $5,000 for hotel rooms and travel to meetings.
A look at Marie Lichtenberg
Internal Planet Aid files and former staff portray the Clinton Foundation as a linchpin of Lichtenberg’s fundraising efforts with private and government donors. An Oct. 25, 2012, fundraising “Master Plan” from Planet Aid documents cites the Clintons’ nonprofit 20 times in as many pages, stating: “Clinton Global Initiative will contribute by providing access to selected private partners and wealthy individuals.”
“The Clinton Global Initiative is Marie’s baby,” said Ahmed, the former Planet Aid manager who is also a development economist. “She has pictures of herself with Hillary, and she flashes those pictures in Africa.”
The Clinton Foundation website touts Humana programs in Mozambique, Malawi, Congo and Zambia, including a 2010 Humana People to People Commitment to Action, in which the USDA provided funds for farmer programs in Malawi.
Hynes was Lichtenberg’s main liaison when she first approached the foundation. Not only was he unaware of her links to Petersen and the Teachers Group, but he also was surprised to learn of her focus on the Clintons as a means to raise funds. Reveal showed him Planet Aid’s Master Plan.
“It’s pretty clear. I mean, it’s pretty stark, the way in which she represents the organization’s membership with the Clinton Global Initiative and places an explicit and almost exclusive emphasis on that fundraising piece,” he said.
A spokesman for the Clinton Foundation said in a statement that a legal team vets members by researching “publicly available information.” That Humana People to People-linked projects received taxpayer money was viewed as evidence that it is a legitimate organization, the statement said.
“The fact that an organization receives US government funding is a data point that we use in validating the effectiveness of an organization as the US government has resources that we don’t to ensure that their grantees are effective,” the statement said.
Petersen’s inner circle
Danish law enforcement officials describe Marie Lichtenberg as part of an elite Teachers Group unit charged with managing financial operations around the globe. Poul Gade, the Danish prosecutor, said his investigation revealed that “Marie Lichtenberg was able to funnel funds wherever they were needed.”
Her privilege came from her position in the Teachers Group. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lichtenberg was a member of a unit called “The Six,” Gade said. These were managers and fixers assigned by Petersen’s inner circle to tasks as needed around the world.
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“These six persons had the power to direct money and make agreements, even though they weren’t formally the chairman of the board of an entity,” Gade said. “They were able to dispose of the money in the organization as a whole. Marie was one of them.”
Knud Haargaard, the chief Danish investigator on the case, said Lichtenberg enjoyed status resembling royalty within the Teachers Group.
“I know that Marie; her brother, Simon; and Jonas Lichtenberg, their father, as well as their mother – they have a great relationship with Mogens Amdi Petersen. They have known each other maybe 40 years,” he said. “Where would Marie get money to make this big operation work? It’s Tvind money, from the Teachers Group account. That’s how Planet Aid started.”
It isn’t just Danish law enforcement officials who say Lichtenberg has a central role in Petersen’s financial operation. Petersen himself counts Lichtenberg as a Teachers Group insider.
In 2002, Petersen was in a Los Angeles courtroom fighting extradition to Denmark to face charges. As part of his defense, he proposed gathering together more than 100 witnesses from around the world to advocate on his behalf. One of those witnesses was Lichtenberg.
In a July 3, 2002, court filing, Petersen’s attorney, Robert Shapiro, proposed that Lichtenberg and the others would “trace the funds expended by and for these projects and explain Mr. Petersen’s involvement, if any.” (Shapiro also was one of O.J. Simpson’s attorneys in his infamous murder trial.)
Lichtenberg’s name appears again and again in court documents, characterized as playing key financial roles within Petersen’s organization.
With his defenses crumbling, Petersen ultimately volunteered to be extradited in September 2002. While Petersen awaited his Denmark trial, Lichtenberg settled into her lobbying role, pursuing U.S. government and private institutions for international relief funds.
A web of subcontractors
Documents and interviews reveal a complex web of organizations that pass around money secured by Marie Lichtenberg and funded through the USDA.
The USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service allocates funds – with the mission to improve the lives of southern Africans – to benefit its relief partner in the group, Planet Aid. Records show that Planet Aid then uses a subcontractor, Development Aid from People to People in Malawi, widely known as DAPP.
But DAPP, Reveal’s investigation has found, has in turn passed millions of dollars in project fees to another subcontractor called the Federation for Associations connected to the International Humana People to People Movement, known within the Teachers Group as “the Humana Federation,” according to internal documents. The federation is registered in Switzerland under the names of several prominent Teachers Group members.
Until recently, these organizations and others were directed by Maria Darsbo. Records show that she played a key behind-the-scenes role in multiple Teachers Group organizations that have obtained USDA funds over the years.
Darsbo was listed as a 1998 director of Planet Aid and was a controlling officer of the Humana Federation. According to Knud Haargaard, the Danish investigator, the federation provided about $500,000 to fund the launch of Planet Aid in 1997.
I was so sad because I was forced to sign for it. I wanted to secure my job.” — Marko Zebiah, former project manager for a USDA-funded farmers project, on a contract to donate part of his salary to the Teachers Group
And the case against Mogens Amdi Petersen reveals that a high-ranking Teachers Group member and Petersen associate named Poul Jørgensen was instructed to issue orders to Darsbo. These messages were revealed in a May 14, 2000, email contained in court documents. The mission was to shift $100,000 in funds meant for charity to a Copenhagen bank account designated for Petersen and his girlfriend’s personal use.
Poul Gade, the Danish prosecutor, said the orders made it clear that Darsbo was “part of a fraud,” and “she will do it without asking any questions because she knows how it works.”
Records show that $100,000 was taken from Total Control of the Epidemic, an anti-AIDS program in Africa also run by the Teachers Group.
That case implicated the Teachers Group in fraud, but it did not stop the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service from funding Total Control of the Epidemic programs. Records show a 2004 USDA grant, which involved the allocation of $8.5 million to Planet Aid, includes money to “educate 200,000 people in HIV/AIDS-affected communities about the disease and prevention methods” using Total Control of the Epidemic.
As Planet Aid was applying for and rolling out its first USDA grant, Petersen and seven of his associates stood trial in Denmark for fraud. In 2006, a municipal judge acquitted all but Petersen’s financial supervisor Sten Byrner, who admitted that he had helped use charity funds to buy Miami apartments. The acquittals immediately were appealed to a higher court in Copenhagen. But Petersen and several of his associates fled.
Jørgensen was convicted in 2009 of tax fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to two and half years in prison. Petersen and his fellow fugitives were sentenced in absentia on fraud and embezzlement charges in 2013.
Neither Jørgensen nor Darsbo could be reached for comment. Multiple sources said Darsbo is no longer the public face of Teachers Group programs in Africa and is likely in Mexico living at Petersen’s coastal estate in Baja California, a futuristic compound made of marble and glass called Las Pulgas, or “The Fleas.”
Where does the money go?
The Poul Jørgensen letter outlining the $100,000 transfer is one of the few documents suggesting a direct link between the Teachers Group charities and a bank account for Mogens Amdi Petersen’s personal benefit. For the most part, even prosecutors and people who have worked for the Teachers Group don’t know where the money eventually ends up.
One early acolyte, Britta Junge, said she repeatedly transported cash out of Africa on her stomach and handed it over to deposit into the Teachers Group “privat økonomi,” as it’s referred to by insiders – the Teachers Group’s secret financial system.
Junge, today a public school instructor in the western Danish town of Ringkøbing, was responsible for finance, budgets and fundraising for Teachers Group operations in southern Africa between 1980 and 1995. She was an employee of the Teachers Group organization Development Aid from People to People, or DAPP.
Part of her job was to focus on grants that came with big Western-level salaries, she said. Junge, like other Teachers Group members in Africa, said she never got paid, even though line items in the grant proposals funded by Western donors indicated she was salaried. Instead, the money went into Teachers Group accounts, she said.
This plan – that is definitely from the level of Amdi (Petersen) – (was) to generate more income to the Teachers Group.” — Britta Junge, former Teachers Group member
Recent interviews with a dozen Teachers Group members in Africa show the practice still exists – and what might have been easy to dismiss as an artifact of hippie idealism among Danes looks far more exploitative when it involves impoverished Africans. An estimated 400 Malawians are Teachers Group members, many of them also giving up large portions of their meager salaries to the organization, interviews show.
Marko Zebiah was one of the collectors of that salary tax. He once was a project manager for a USDA-funded farmers project in Dowa, in central Malawi. He still keeps a pile of collection and deposit slips showing where the money went: to the personal bank account of Teachers Group members who controlled DAPP Malawi.
Zebiah said he was among the Africans who upon joining the Teachers Group was pressured to sign a contract, often called a “deed of contribution.” In it, members agree to donate a portion of their salary – anywhere from 20 to 100 percent. The contracts contain a promise never to ask for the money back.
“I was so sad because I was forced to sign for it. I wanted to secure my job,” Zebiah said.
The Teachers Group’s insistence that he become part of their communal family turned onerous, Zebiah said. He left because the group did not want him to go to church or spend time or money on his wife and children.
Zebiah’s story is backed up by a dozen current and former Teachers Group members Reveal spoke with in Africa, including a DAPP project manager who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job. She said the Teachers Group diverts USDA money meant for salaries in two stages.
Even before the Teachers Group pressures members to hand over money to their bosses, funds are extracted by writing paychecks much smaller than reported to the USDA. In this way, her employers were siphoning $250 from her $350-per-month salary, she said, and then applying pressure to kick back even more. Zebiah said the DAPP project manager’s story conforms with DAPP policy in Malawi.
“You are forcing (people) to do something which you don’t want,” the project manager said. “Slavery was the same thing.”
She said she supports her three children, her mother and her grandmother.
“And now, you are taking that little amount of money and paying it back to the organization,” the woman said. “That’s why every month, I’m having to borrow money. Because I have children. And they need money for school fees.”
A few years before the USDA began funding Planet Aid, another branch of the U.S. government was raising alarms about this practice of siphoning off salaries.
In FBI memos documenting the 2001 Teachers Group investigation, investigators said Planet Aid, DAPP and other affiliated charities within Petersen’s organization submitted bogus invoices for salaries as a way to move public money into private offshore accounts.
“The money was laundered out of the Trust by paying high salaries to Tvind teachers in Africa and else where who in turn sent the money to a bank in Switzerland,”and then on “to a bank in the Cayman Islands owned solely by” the Teachers Group, according to a June 18, 2001, FBI memo. Tvind is another name for the Teachers Group.
Former Teachers Group member Junge also described large amounts of money made from used clothing sales. Those items are donated in the United States and Europe – including through the big green and yellow parking lot bins – and shipped to Africa for sale.
Junge said that when she belonged to the Teachers Group in the early ’90s, the group was piling up so much money from used clothing and donations that cash became difficult to transport.
“We hired local planes to transport the local currency every week,” she said of her time in Angola. “I had to organize transport for local currency in two, three suitcases from Huambo to Luanda, from the airport to the exchange house, to transfer local currency to hard currency.”
After the currency exchanges, she said, she and other Danes routinely flew between southern Africa and Denmark carrying the money in bags taped to their stomachs.
“This plan – that is definitely from the level of Amdi (Petersen) – (was) to generate more income to the Teachers Group,” Junge said. She and other former Teachers Group members said the U.S. grants flowing into Africa have served as a powerful recruitment tool for the organization, including allowing it to offer jobs to Africans.
“Most people here in southern Africa are coming from poor backgrounds. They join the Teachers Group with the hope that maybe there will be a change, where maybe their income will be more, maybe they will get good jobs,” said Akim Mvula, a Malawian teacher who belonged to the Teachers Group from 2001 until 2007, when he said he quit because he wasn’t allowed to visit his sick wife.
To this day, Junge said, “many Africans are members, are full-blood members of the Teachers Group. They are organized in common time, common economy, and they have sort of given in their whole time and their finance to be part of the Teachers Group.”
Unusual accounting raises suspicions
Internal financial documents from the Teachers Group and sources who worked in key financial positions within charities associated with Planet Aid and DAPP said the charities also did business in ways that are highly unusual. And they resemble the operation described by Danish investigators.
USDA money was transferred from one Teachers Group charity to another, they said, in exchange for goods and services that may or may not have been provided.
Harrison Longwe in 2014 and 2015 was the financial controller of DAPP Malawi, the charity carrying out the U.S. programs. He said he became suspicious of his employer’s financial activities after seeing unusual payments flowing from Malawi relief projects to accounts outside the country. He never could get straight answers, he said.
“I’ve been an accountant for more than 10 years,” Longwe said. “I’m a qualified accountant. But you could see the way they’d been doing the reporting of the accounts, it’s not done in a normal way that things are supposed to be done.”
He said many of the invoices paid by DAPP Malawi were from the Federation for Associations connected to the International Humana People to People Movement, which operated out of the Teachers Group compound in Zimbabwe. Once money entered the Teachers Group network of organizations, he said, it never seemed to leave.
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Bills for expert consultants, book translation, travel, medical care and training, he recalled, all went to another Teachers Group organization. Longwe was among a half-dozen DAPP insiders who told Reveal that they found these charges suspicious. He became concerned that working with DAPP might damage his reputation, he said, and left the organization after a little more than a year.
Longwe and the other insiders who had access to the organization’s financial information told Reveal that they believe at least half of the donor funds meant for humanitarian projects was shuttled out of the country. While the purpose of the transactions is unclear, Longwe and others say they added up to fraud intended to reroute aid money to other purposes.
Humanitarian aid from Western donors actually was transferred to Teachers Group-controlled bank accounts around the globe, DAPP insiders said. Glimpses of these transactions can be found in internal documents.
For example, the Teachers Group maintains a bank account titled “DAPP Malawi Expenses” at Edmond de Rothschild Private Bank in Geneva, according to documents obtained by Reveal.
Between January and May 2014, the DAPP Malawi Expenses bank records show $334,861 in transfers to other Teachers Group-controlled accounts in far-flung locations, including $17,162 to Planet Aid and $143,000 to Banco Português de Investimento, an account in Lisbon, Portugal, held in the name of the Teachers Group-affiliated Federation for Associations.
Another $100,000 is spent on a “DAPP Malawi Membership Fee.” DAPP Malawi is a member of the federation. And $53,131.78 was transferred to a Hong Kong-registered trading company run out of the Shanghai offices of Simon Lichtenberg, the brother of chief Planet Aid fundraiser Marie Lichtenberg.
Another set of spreadsheets that Reveal obtained show quarterly transfers totaling nearly $2.7 million from the Teachers Group charity DAPP Malawi to the Zimbabwe Humana Federation, the Teachers Group’s headquarters in Zimbabwe that charges fees as a subcontractor to DAPP.
Chiku Malabwe is the former chief purchasing agent for DAPP Malawi. He was in charge of buying project supplies with money from the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. He said he routinely received instructions to pay invoices submitted by Teachers Group-controlled companies overseas.
“We would have to transfer the money out of the country,” Malabwe said. He left DAPP in 2014 after his employers accused him of misusing the organization’s tax-free nonprofit status. Many of the items he was asked to buy overseas “would have been cheaper to buy locally,” he said. “It would have been very much cheaper.”
Records obtained by Reveal also show what appear to be multiple bills for the same purchase involving computers for DAPP Malawi.
The first invoice is from Planet Aid’s Massachusetts headquarters, dated Jan. 28, 2014. The invoice billed DAPP’s Malawi office for $4,725.40. The following day, Jan. 29, there is another invoice from Planet Aid to DAPP Malawi. This one was for $32,095.75 and requested that checks be made payable to Planet Aid. The total of the two bills was $36,821.15.
Just over 11 months later, on Dec. 30, Humana People to People invoiced DAPP’s Malawi office for $36,821.15 – the same amount as the January transactions – for computer equipment purchases. It asked that the check be sent to Humana People to People’s bank account in Mauritius.
To Knud Haargaard, the Danish investigator, this system of invoicing looked familiar. It was a page out of the same playbook he uncovered and submitted into evidence to charge Teachers Group members with fraud more than a decade earlier.
“A lot of the money comes from external foundations,” he said. “The profit in the related companies would in the end go to the Teachers Group and not to the project in Malawi.”
The Teachers Group, he wrote in a follow-up email, “is doing the same way of business as they’re always doing.”
Stefan Cassella retired in 2015 as chief of the asset forfeiture and money laundering section of the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland. Reveal asked him to review the financial data from inside DAPP Malawi.
“It’s certainly smoke, and it’s certainly a launching pad,” Cassella said. “It’s something an investigator would look at. Why are these tens of millions of dollars in government funds going to an umbrella organization that seems to be dispersing it all over the world to entities that are related?”
“The next step you would take is what are they getting in return,” he said. “Are these services actually being performed?”
Officials in Africa who work for Teachers Group-affiliated charities insist that the money there is being spent wisely. At a Sept. 9 AIDS conference in Lilongwe, Malawi, Lisbeth Thomsen – the country director for DAPP Malawi – told Reveal that aid money had reached its intended targets.
“We are definitely not stealing any money,” she said, adding, “the programs we chose to implement have been implemented with a very good outcome. Farmers have been assisted in becoming food secure, and that I can assure you.”
When asked if her organization operates under the ultimate guidance of Petersen, she laughed.
“I don’t want to have this interview,” she said.
Promised aid doesn’t pan out
As it continues to pursue grants from the U.S. government, Planet Aid is outspoken about promoting its work in Africa. Its livelihood depends on it.
One video on the charity’s YouTube site features Jackson Mtimbuka, the former program manager in Malawi. Released in 2009, the video promotes Planet Aid’s partnership with the USDA.
“We are working in Zomba, Chiradzulu and Lilongwe,” Mtimbuka says. The USDA and Planet Aid, he adds, are “training in leadership, and we will be working hand in hand in agriculture.”
In another video from 2010, a narrator extols the group’s Farmers’ Clubs in Malawi: “Eight thousand farmers are now growing more than four different types of crops,” she says. “Two hundred forty Farmers’ Clubs have been established with 12,000 members.”
According to Planet Aid’s grant proposals, these clubs would make village cooperatives flush – thanks to USDA funding – with seeds, fertilizer, training, saplings, demonstration gardens, livestock and other benefits.
The video portrays an oasis of abundance in the Chiradzulu District village of Njuli, about 20 miles northeast of Blantyre, Malawi’s second-largest city. The optimistic scene echoes official Planet Aid reports to the U.S. government that Malawian farmers’ yields improved by more than 50 percent.
“Abundance” is not a word anyone would use to describe Njuli today.
Another character in the 2010 video was Njuli’s village chief, identified as Chief Mfunu Mbwana. “My wife and I grew tomatoes and raised about $1,000,” he boasts on camera.
The chief’s real name is Witness Chibwana. When we showed him the video, he said the name change was not the only lie. Chibwana was growing those tomatoes long before he knew there was a Farmers’ Club. He made the statements on camera, he added, in hopes of receiving farm equipment and fertilizer that never materialized.
In hindsight, Chibwana said, “I am ashamed that I took part. … As chief, I should not have done this.”
Documents supplied by Planet Aid to the USDA list Chiradzulu as one of six Malawi districts targeted for aid. In its 2015 report to the agency, Planet Aid said it installed 576 water pumps throughout Malawi. Mtimbuka, the Farmers’ Club manager, said he had thought 25 of those pumps were targeted for Njuli.
In Njuli, Reveal reporters found the village had only two pumps. One was given to the village. The chief bought his, he said, with a $100 loan that took him two years to pay off.
His Planet Aid pump turned out to be nothing like the sturdy metal models installed by the Malawian government. It was PVC pipe, polyethylene rope and a used bicycle wheel. After five years of use, Chibwana’s pump was barely functioning.
Enock Chikaonda, a village leader and Farmers’ Club member, was the only villager given a pump by Planet Aid. In an interview, Chikaonda motioned toward a creaking well pump, powered by a hand crank. It’s the only source of water for a cluster of dusty villages housing about 2,000 people, who typically line up before dawn in hopes of drawing water before it runs out. Some days, there are fights, he said.
Chikaonda described a daily struggle to provide his family with two portions of corn paste and greens.
“People here can’t afford three meals per day. They go hungry. And they get sick regularly because their bodies are not strong,” he said. “Malaria is a problem. People get diarrhea and coughs. The farmers here don’t have seeds, manure, fertilizer or a steady supply of water. So we don’t have food.”
Westerners occasionally did come to see how their funds had been spent, according to Mtimbuka. DAPP treated those occasions like all-hands-on-deck emergencies, he recalled. Money would be deposited in a special Teachers Group bank account, with the aim of creating an agricultural version of a Potemkin village.
Mtimbuka showed Reveal reporters the gray T-shirts farmers were asked to wear whenever it came time to convince visiting donors that the program was a success. On one side, it said, “Farmers Club,” and on the other, “Planet Aid, Inc. With DAPP Malawi in a USDA funded programme.”
He was told by Teachers Group bosses to obscure struggling plants with fresh, healthy ones he brought in to line the side of the road, so donors would see them as they drove by. Farmers’ Club managers were instructed to recruit the most successful farmers they could find – even ones with no previous involvement with USDA farm programs – and get them to credit their success to the Farmers’ Club.
The money was not used on the intended purpose. … If kids are not getting a balanced diet, then their health cannot be good.” — Jackson Mtimbuka, former USDA Planet Aid farmers project manager
Naila Ahmed, the development economist, described a similar kind of stagecraft.
In May 2011, Ahmed was hired in Maryland by Planet Aid as the manager of strategic partnerships, agriculture and food security, according to her online résumé. Soon afterward, she was sent to Africa on a monthlong fact-finding tour of Planet Aid’s USDA-funded projects in Mozambique and Malawi.
Visits by representatives of government and other funding agencies are choreographed carefully, Ahmed said, so that the visitors deal primarily with loyal members of the Teachers Group.
“They will take people from the USDA to Africa, and when they visit, they will be taken around by people from the Teachers Group,” she said. “And they will find nothing wrong.”
Back in the U.S., Ahmed said, Planet Aid didn’t want her expertise. She said she believed the organization intended to use her professional status as a cover for ginned-up, misleading reports to the USDA.
“When I came back, they said to submit all my papers and they would take it from there,” she said of her bosses at Planet Aid. “None of them know anything about agriculture. None of them know anything from the field. They just need the materials, and they will cook it up.”
Ahmed objected, and after six months at Planet Aid, she left.
“They said they fired me,” she said, “but I’m not so sure.”
Luxurious Mexico compound
For many involved with the Teachers Group who believe that the aid money wasn’t funding salaries and development projects, the question remains: Where did it go?
Some former Teachers Group members have their suspicions. Jackson Mtimbuka remembers a speech in an auditorium at the Teachers Group’s Africa headquarters in rural Zimbabwe. The event was called to announce a 2006 grant for $20.6 million that the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service had allocated for Planet Aid projects in Malawi.
Headlining the event was an important Teachers Group member, Maria Darsbo. “We have won,” Mtimbuka recalls Darsbo saying. “The donation has been approved.” And the crowd erupted, he said. “It’s a lot of money, so we celebrated, clapping hands, eating, drinking.”
But that wasn’t all. Darsbo explained that the Teachers Group was completing a new headquarters in Mexico, where leaders of the group – including Africans – would be invited for visits.
“We are going to enjoy the money. And our headquarters, it will be looking nice. And most of you will be able to go to Mexico,” Mtimbuka recalled Darsbo telling the group.
Today, with the help of a drone, a helicopter or the Internet, you can see the 494-acre compound on the coast of Baja California, 115 miles south of the U.S. border. The complex has marble offices, meeting rooms, 140 hotel-like bedrooms, a fitness center, a swimming pool, a spa, a cinema and restaurants, according to a 2013 article in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Seen from the air, it’s a sprawling, futuristic, architectural monument, a sparkling, marble-floored combination of Disney World, Club Med and the Taj Mahal.
In 2012, the Teachers Group made public documents suggesting it valued the complex at about $26 million.
Mtimbuka never made it to Mexico. After a dispute with the Teachers Group in 2009, he spent years looking for other work instead. One of Darsbo’s former employees, Farai Nyamuranga, did visit, though. Nyamuranga had worked for Darsbo in Zimbabwe and said she visited the Mexico complex several times. She saw Mogens Amdi Petersen there and recalls him speaking to the group.
“We know that he is the one who is in charge, because when they open the meeting, he is the one who gives the opening speech,” she said. “And there are some who joined before us, they talk about it; they say he is the owner of the whole empire.”
A citizen’s quest for information
Kris Alonge began looking closely at Planet Aid while helping her daughter with a homework assignment on charities. They had seen Planet Aid clothing donation boxes popping up in their hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. Their curiosity was piqued.
Kris Alonge follows the money
A bookkeeper for her husband’s construction business, Alonge has a knack for following money. She began her research on the Internet in 2008 and quickly found the connection among the boxes, a recently completed trial in Denmark and grants from the USDA.
She reached out to European investigative journalists, made public information requests and combed property and other commercial records.
“You don’t give millions of dollars to a group that is being investigated for fraud, tax evasion and pilfering of humanitarian funds,” Alonge said. “But that is precisely what the USDA did.”
She was tireless in her efforts to get someone, anyone, to take notice. She called journalists in Denmark and Britain and others who knew about the Teachers Group. She contacted the IRS and the USDA.
On Christmas Eve 2008, Alonge’s phone rang. It was Ron Croushorn, a senior USDA official. She recalls him telling her that the USDA was “very interested in learning anything I could tell them about Planet Aid.” On Dec. 26 and 27, she sent Croushorn at least 11 emails with multiple attachments about Planet Aid and Teachers Group operations, including documents from the Danish criminal case.
It was not the first time Croushorn had been alerted to troubling information about Planet Aid.
When early 2006 media reports in the U.S. and Denmark exposed allegations of fraud, Croushorn met with Marie Lichtenberg. Handwritten notes about a Feb. 24 meeting obtained via the Freedom of Information Act said that Mogens Amdi Petersen “has never been employed by the (Humana) Federation” and that the Teachers Group was “part of Humana People to People,” was an “informal group of people” and was nonreligious.
Notes from a follow-up March 3 meeting said the Teachers Group started in 1977 and aimed to “help (the) world see things differently – do something instead of protesting.” It also noted that “part of the leaders helped found Humana.”
The USDA blacked out the rest of the notes under an exclusion that includes protecting trade secrets.
Now, nearly three years after those meetings, Croushorn personally was reaching out to a citizen whistleblower. Alonge was heartened, but this early Christmas gift did not turn out as she’d hoped. USDA documents indicate Alonge wasn’t the only one with whom Croushorn was corresponding.
On Jan. 5, 2009, Marie Lichtenberg sent him an email: “Warm Greetings – I hope you had a nice and joyful Christmas,” she wrote. She proposed a meeting that week to finalize an agreement for more funding from the USDA. Croushorn agreed to meet Jan. 7, to which Lichtenberg responded, “Dear Ron, This is perfect.”
Four months later, on May 15, 2009, the USDA approved another grant: $24.6 million for Planet Aid projects in Malawi.
Alonge did not give up. Over the next three years, she continued to research Planet Aid and repeatedly sent documents and information to USDA officials, among them the FBI report from 2001.
Some USDA officials expressed alarm.
Jamie Fisher, chief of procurement for the Foreign Agricultural Service’s Food Assistance Division, wrote a memo to staff on July 19, 2012, calling for an “in-depth investigation.”
“We have been growing increasingly concerned about the number and frequency of the complaints that we have been receiving about Planet Aid,” Fisher wrote. “There are hints of potential fraud and abuse of (U.S. government) resources.”
Three weeks later, USDA compliance officer Vincent Fusaro emailed Fisher, with a copy to Croushorn. The agency’s inspector general, Fusaro reported, “said they did not have any contacts with the FBI,” adding that staff had asked someone from the USDA security office to try to contact the FBI, but the office had no luck with that attempt, either.
“Unless sufficient evidence of fraud or criminal activity is produced,” he wrote, “the (Office of Inspector General) won’t make a referral to another agency regarding initiating an investigation.”
By the end of September 2012, the money was flowing again: The USDA had signed another agreement with Planet Aid, allocating $21.4 million for programs in Mozambique.
A year and a half later, Planet Aid posted a celebratory video featuring a USDA official. It’s Croushorn, with a trim salt-and-pepper beard in blue shirtsleeves, surrounded by noisy Mozambican children happily eating. He praises Planet Aid as a trusted partner who “makes sure U.S. resources are used well.”
After an initial phone conversation with Croushorn, in which he explained the basics of U.S. food aid programs, he declined to be interviewed about the agency’s funding of Planet Aid. Neither Fisher nor Fusaro responded to interview requests.
No straight answers
Finding out who ensures that taxpayer money is well spent on the ground in Malawi is a circular undertaking.
Edward Monster, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Malawi’s capital, referred questions about Planet Aid to Kate Snipes with the USDA office in Nairobi, Kenya, over 1,000 miles away. Snipes, in turn, said the USDA has no monitoring and evaluation staff in Malawi. She said it is Washington’s responsibility to monitor Planet Aid projects there.
Snipes did visit Malawi once to open a school, she said. The USDA website features a Dec. 27, 2012, blog post from her describing a ribbon cutting for a DAPP school. It features a photo of her smiling alongside Marie Lichtenberg.
“Everything that I saw – and I know (from) our monitoring – I got feedback: It was on the up and up,” Snipes said. “But I’m supposed to route you to our public affairs office in Washington, D.C. I’m going to recommend you contact Sally Klusaritz.”
Klusaritz confirmed in an email that the USDA has no staff on the ground in Malawi. But she had a different view about who is responsible: Snipes. “Our operations there are overseen by our office in Nairobi, which Kate heads,” said Klusaritz, who has since left the agency.
It took more digging to find out that last April, the USDA’s Brian Dutoi traveled from Washington to Malawi to check on the DAPP projects Planet Aid had funded six years earlier. At the time of his visit, Dutoi had been employed by the USDA for nine months after serving as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
According to USDA emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Dutoi’s itinerary was coordinated in advance with the guidance of three Danish women: Lichtenberg, DAPP Malawi Country Director Lisbeth Thomsen – the woman who cut her Reveal interview short when asked about Mogens Amdi Petersen at the AIDS conference – and DAPP Malawi Partnership Manager Charlotte Danckert.
Danckert’s name appears in a document from Petersen’s embezzlement trial, identified as a Teachers Group member who contributed her salary to a nonprofit fund managed by Poul Jørgensen, the man who was convicted in the Denmark case of coordinating a fraud operation channeling charity funds to private businesses.
“Marie, It was a great visit, I was very impressed by the effectiveness and sustainability of each component,” Dutoi wrote in a follow-up email to Lichtenberg. “The DAPP team is very strong, as you know.”
Dutoi did not respond to a request for comment.
That leaves many questions unanswered – about the dusty, fallow fields and broken pumps in Njuli; the Africans angry over being forced to turn over their salaries; about the international fugitive, Petersen, and his luxury compound in Mexico; and about the recurring allegations of fraud and money laundering.
One question – about whether the U.S. would continue to support Planet Aid – was answered toward the end of last year, when the USDA announced on its website that it had allocated a new grant: $31.6 million to help Planet Aid support education, child development and hunger reduction in Mozambique.
In response to Reveal’s radio version of this story, which aired in March, the USDA reissued its statement defending the grant program. But the agency added that it would request an investigation by the USDA’s inspector general because it takes “these allegations of illegal activity very seriously.”
Then, on March 30, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten reported that Petersen had applied for Mexican residence on humanitarian grounds to avoid extradition.
Two weeks later, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto met with Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen during a state visit to Denmark. At a news conference after the meeting, Peña Nieto said Mexico had not granted Petersen’s request.
Reporter Kudzai Chimhangwa in Zimbabwe and Eva Jung and Morten Crone, investigative reporters with Denmark’s Berlingske newspaper, contributed to this story. It was edited by Robert J. Rosenthal, Robert Salladay and Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.