Six months ago, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting disclosed that the U.S. government had allocated at least $133 million for a charity linked to an alleged cult, despite warnings that the group was run by an international fugitive on Interpol’s global most-wanted list.

The federal agency granting money to Planet Aid – the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service – repeatedly maintained that it had no indication the money was misused.

But records withheld by the agency until Reveal sued for them show otherwise: A member of the USDA’s own staff who had visited the southern African nation of Malawi had raised serious concerns and urged closer scrutiny of projects run by Planet Aid and its subcontractor Development Aid from People to People, commonly known as DAPP.

The USDA official returned from a 2013 inspection tour to report that a Malawi program receiving at least $24 million in taxpayer aid was ineffective and “not transparent” about movement of some U.S. funds out of the African country to another organization connected to Planet Aid and DAPP. He also wrote that he did not trust Planet Aid’s claims about the success of U.S.-funded farm projects.

“These visits appeared highly staged, and I do not know if DAPP staff coached these lead farmers prior to my visit,” USDA program analyst Colin Miller wrote in a final trip report discussing an April-May visit to Planet Aid projects in Malawi. “I don’t think we can trust this data whatsoever,” he added in a June 11, 2013, email to USDA staff discussing the Planet Aid-Malawi visit.

Miller no longer works for the USDA. When contacted, he said he had no comment. The USDA, in a response to numerous questions, stated in an email that “The Foreign Agricultural Service is not at liberty to discuss matters related to Planet Aid at this time.”

When Reveal visited farm sites in the same Malawi districts in 2015, farmers and managers told similar stories of staging. One strategy: line roads with healthy plants to give a better impression. Another: show visitors successful farms and farmers that were not actually part of the USDA program.

According to his 2013 inspection report, the USDA program analyst also questioned $1.8 million in funds meant for USDA projects that had been paid to an organization called the Humana Federation, an “umbrella organization,” Miller wrote, that includes Planet Aid and DAPP.

In a draft version of his report on the Planet Aid Malawi visit, Miller wrote: “In my opinion, the services that were described to me did not merit this cost.”

In the final version, he wrote: “In my opinion, these services are difficult to value, and it is unclear whether they are worth $1.8 million.”

Reveal provided detailed questions and asked to interview officials with Planet Aid, DAPP and the Humana Federation. Planet Aid responded through a law firm, demanding to see the related USDA documents. When Reveal complied, Planet Aid referred questions to a firm specializing in crisis communications. Rather than answering the questions, the firm noted that 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.

In its investigation published in 2016, Reveal obtained documents showing $2.7 million billed to DAPP by the same Humana Federation, a Geneva-registered partnership co-founded by Planet Aid’s chairman, Mikael Norling. Current and former DAPP employees told Reveal these were not legitimate expenses.

“You could see the way they’d been doing the reporting of the accounts, it’s not done in a normal way,” former DAPP controller Harrison Longwe told Reveal.

Working with Reveal, the BBC sent a separate team to Malawi and reported in August that the U.K. government also funded DAPP programs, which like the USDA programs were managed under the auspices of a Danish cult-like organization known as the Teachers Group. In response to the stories, the U.K.’s Department for International Development, which had sponsored DAPP teacher training colleges along with the USDA, suspended funding and sent its own investigator to Malawi.

UNICEF, which had backed DAPP projects in Malawi, also began scrutinizing grant funding after the investigation by Reveal led that organization to demand proof that grant money was being properly spent on aid workers’ salaries. In May, DAPP employees sent a letter to UNICEF about concerns that included employees’ contributions to the Teachers Group. The BBC went to a project site with a DAPP whistleblower and a UNICEF official, who said of the Teachers Group wage deductions: “It’s unacceptable, it’s abhorrent.” UNICEF then announced it had suspended funding to DAPP Malawi.

Aid groups at center of global investigation

Teachers Group and its affiliates have been under global scrutiny for decades by law enforcement and the media.

Based on information from Danish police, in 2001, the FBI stated that Planet Aid, DAPP and Humana were part of a global money laundering and tax evasion scheme organized by a Dane named Mogens Amdi Petersen. Petersen is now on Interpol’s most-wanted list and is sought by Danish authorities.

Despite the scrutiny, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service allocated separate grants to Planet Aid for southern Africa programs in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2015 – for a total of $133 million.

The USDA has been aware since 2006 of the allegations of fraud involving Planet Aid and the Teachers Group. Internal emails show that staff members repeatedly warned superiors about this problem, only to be sidelined.

Emails also show that in 2012, frustrated staff members tried to get the USDA’s security office to contact the FBI to learn more about Planet Aid. USDA staff that year also sought to get the USDA’s inspector general to investigate the group.

“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 of USG (U.S. government) resources,” wrote USDA official Jamie Fisher in a July 19, 2012, email to agency staff.

Neither request went anywhere, internal USDA records show. And publicly, the USDA continued to portray Planet Aid as a valued foreign aid partner.

When Reveal asked USDA officials in 2015, and again in 2016, about Planet Aid and DAPP’s management of Malawi farm programs, they falsely stated that site visits had revealed no concerns.

The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service distributes billions of dollars in food aid, the name given to a policy through which U.S. commodities are shipped overseas to be sold locally by private aid contractors. The proceeds then are spent on relief programs. Repeated U.S. government audits and investigations have described significant flaws in these programs, particularly when it comes to private aid contractors.

The newly released records revealed information that runs counter to USDA public statements.

On Dec. 1, 2012, Kate Snipes, the USDA’s southern Africa representative based in Nairobi, Kenya, sent an email to Washington D.C., staff saying the agency had committed $100 million between 2006 and 2015 to Malawi. But the USDA did not have staff based in Malawi.

The local ambassador “continues to be baffled by our lack of presence,” Snipes wrote.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, widely known as USAID, is a separate department that, unlike the USDA, has full-time staff in Malawi. Snipes wrote about USAID concerns regarding DAPP in a December 2012 email.

“The AID mission has a lot of issues and a clear bias against them,” wrote Snipes, urging her Washington, D.C., handlers to order an inspection of Planet Aid’s Malawi projects, “but I believe aside from over persistence, they seem to be unfounded.”

In early 2013, the USDA’s foreign aid branch assigned Colin Miller, the program analyst, to inspect projects in Malawi carried out by Planet Aid.

The elusive inspection report

Reveal filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests with the USDA beginning in 2014, producing thousands of pages of documents. But the Miller report was not among them. It took a FOIA lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in November to spring that loose.

In both draft and final reports, Miller praised USDA-funded teachers training colleges run by DAPP. Reveal did not examine those colleges directly or report on them. Instead, we focused on farms in Malawi because in March 2015, Planet Aid had reported to the USDA that those programs had produced dramatic, long-term improvements.

But BBC’s August report found that the colleges were “recruiting grounds” for the Teachers Group.

When Miller delved into DAPP’s finances, and visited farm project sites in the Malawi districts of Chiradzulu and Dowa, he noted discrepancies.

For instance, the draft and final evaluation reports stated that Planet Aid did not have a good explanation for why it had diverted $1.8 million to Humana People to People.

In a final report that stated Planet Aid’s “Relationship with the Federation is Not Transparent,” Miller described an arrangement in which U.S.-based Planet Aid was merely a “pass-through entity,” meaning it solicited U.S. grants but didn’t actually perform work on U.S. programs. Instead, Planet Aid’s “implementing partner,” he said, was DAPP Malawi, which then sent some of the funds to the Humana People to People Federation.

When Miller asked what the money was for, he wrote, he was told it paid for “curriculum and the Farmers Clubs’ training manuals.”

“The Federation also organizes frequent meetings in Zimbabwe for Federation members to ‘network and share lessons learned,’ ” he wrote.

Miller also wrote in his final report that his DAPP-guided tour of U.S.-funded farm aid projects appeared set up just to impress him, casting doubt on the contractor’s claims of a 95 percent success rate teaching water-saving techniques to impoverished Malawian farmers.

Miller’s DAPP handlers showed him a farmer who had adopted the conservation farming technique, and who was able to describe what he learned, Miller wrote.

“However, as we walked past approximately 40 neighboring maize plots, I did not observe a single farmer utilizing (conservation farming). When asked, DAPP staff explained those 40 plots did not belong to Farmers’ Club members. I then asked to visit a non-lead farmers’ (conservation farming) plot, and DAPP field staff noted that all examples were ‘too far away to visit.’

“I am reluctant to believe this information because we were accompanied by dozens of Farmers’ Club members who appeared to live and farm in the immediately surrounding community,” Miller continued. “As a result of these field visits, I cannot confirm the accuracy or integrity of Planet Aid’s performance data.”

Miller told his superiors there was a risk that farmers could have been induced to exaggerate how effective the programs had been.

“The project involves significant material handouts to farmers,” Miller wrote in the draft report, adding that “they may even be incentivized to significantly exaggerate outcomes.”

Miller’s findings related to finances track closely with Reveal’s earlier stories.

The Reveal investigation described in detail money charged as expenses to DAPP Malawi by Teachers Group-linked companies in different parts of the world, including transfers of donor funds billed by the same organization cited by Miller: the Humana Federation.

A dozen current and former DAPP workers told Reveal they had been required to make frequent trips to Zimbabwe, which Miller also described. They said they were sent to an exclusive Teachers Group headquarters compound there, 50 miles northeast of Harare.

But while Miller’s DAPP Malawi handlers reported the trips were for workers to “network and share lessons learned,” DAPP workers told Reveal the Zimbabwe trips were set up for them to be reminded of Teachers Group’s doctrine, which required them to give control of their time, their salaries, even decisions over family life, to the Amdi Petersen-led group.

“It has nothing to do with DAPP. It has nothing to do with (Humana People to People). It has nothing to do with Planet Aid. It is strictly a Teachers Group place. The people who are going there, they are only Teachers Group members,” said Darrick Ndamyo Mpeta, a former project manager at a DAPP Malawi vocational school.

Farmers told Reveal that they had been given agricultural materials as an inducement to exaggerate the success of the Planet Aid-USDA program – just as Miller’s report warned.

In August 2015, Reveal contacted Snipes – the woman who had urged USDA’s Washington, D.C., staff in an internal email to send an inspector to Malawi prior to Miller’s visit.

“Everything that I saw – and I know (from) our monitoring – I get feedback: It was on the up and up,” Snipes said in an interview.

Another Reveal media partner, NBC Washington, D.C., presented our findings to the USDA’s headquarters.

The agency responded with a statement that said: “None of the formal compliance reviews, ad-hoc reviews, site evaluations or audits FAS (the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service) has conducted of Planet Aid projects have yielded significant findings or concerns.”

Matt Smith is a reporter for Reveal, covering religion. Smith's two-decade career in journalism began at The Sacramento Union in California. He went on to positions at newspapers in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Twin Falls, Idaho; Fairfield, California; and Newport News, Virginia. Between 1994 and 1997, Smith covered Latin America as a reporter in Dow Jones & Co.'s Mexico City bureau. For 14 years, he was a lead columnist at Village Voice Media in San Francisco. He came to Reveal from The Bay Citizen. Smith holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Before his career in journalism, Smith was a professional bicycle racer. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Amy Walters is a reporter and producer for Reveal. She began her career as a broadcast journalist in the Middle East. In 2000, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work for NPR’s flagship shows, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." A Southern Californian native, Walters returned to the Golden State as a field producer for NPR in 2003. Her work was honored with the Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting, the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award, two Peabody Awards and two Robert F. Kennedy Awards. Throughout her career, Walters has continued to cover the world, including the U.S. war with Iraq in 2004, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya, and the U.S. war with Afghanistan. She also has reported from Ethiopia, Kenya and Iran. In 2014, Walters was based in Doha, Qatar, as a producer for Al Jazeera English before returning to the United States. Walters is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.