You've probably seen Planet Aid's bright yellow bins around town, asking for your clothing donations. But what you might not realize is the federal government is also giving millions of dollars to the charity, headquartered in Elkridge, Maryland, despite receiving warnings for more than a decade about the organization's possible connection to an international fugitive named Mogens Amdi Petersen.
Planet Aid brings in as much as $50 million a year, according to its financial filing with the Internal Revenue Service. As much as $42 million comes from selling your clothing donations. But a joint investigation with Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting found the U.S. Department of Agriculture has allocated at least $133 million to Planet Aid in the past 12 years.
The grants come from the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, which supports food programs outside the United States. "A lot of what they do is distribute food around the world on the condition it will be sold to finance schools, to finance programs to educate farmers," Reveal reporter Matt Smith said.
But internal emails obtained through an open records request show USDA officials have been repeatedly warned about Planet Aid's connection to a controversial Danish organization which some European countries have label a "non-religious cult."
Originally called Tvind and often referred to as the Teachers Group, it was founded by Mogens Amdi Petersen, who is currently on the run from Interpol after being charged with charities fraud and tax evasion in Denmark.
The USDA emails show staffers growing increasingly concerned about Planet Aid's relationship with Petersen, with some asking for "an in-depth investigation" in 2012 because of hints of "potential fraud and abuse" and "the number and frequency of complaints that we have been receiving."
But the records show the USDA kept awarding Planet Aid money even after the group's main fundraiser, a woman named Marie Lichtenberg, acknowledged to USDA staffers that she was a member of Teachers Group, according to an internal USDA memo.
Lichtenberg has never been charged with a crime. Court records obtained by Reveal show she is closely tied to Petersen, named as a possible character witness in his extradition trial and listed in Danish court records as one of "The Six," or a high-ranking member of Teachers Group.
"If they are really sending all that money to Africa, I think that the results would be better," said Meredith Crocker, who said she worked for Lichtenberg at Planet Aid headquarters for a year in 2013.
She explained how she made a 2013 promotional video as part of her job at Planet Aid that shows one of the USDA officials who privately worried about Planet Aid publicly applauding the group's work.
Crocker said she left about a year later after becoming uncomfortable with Planet Aid's grant-writing process, when she asked Lichtenberg for proof of results but never received any.
"My greatest concern when writing the grants was to notice that as we were writing them, we needed up-to-date information, the actual numbers," Crocker said, explaining how the USDA and other funders "need to see that there's some sort of improvement, or where the money is going and they're just going off the numbers from two years before."
Crocker said she does not believe the "results" reported by Planet Aid to the USDA are "accurate or truthful" and accuses the organization of "making up" and "exaggerating" the numbers it reports in its grant applications.
According to a 2015 report, Planet Aid told the USDA it installed "500" water "pumps," distributed more than 5,600 pigs and goats and created 195 "model fields" in Malawi.
Reveal's Matt Smith and Amy Walters went to Malawi and said they interviewed some of the same people featured in Planet Aid's reports and promotional videos. "What little livestock was there had died," Smith said. "The demonstration plots that were supposed to be revolutionizing their local agriculture were quickly abandoned after everybody left."
The villagers Smith interviewed told him they were totally embarrassed that they had been part of what they said was a totally fraudulent piece of propaganda.
Villagers told Smith Planet Aid only provided a single, substandard pump to each community and made them buy the rest at prices they couldn't afford. "They felt like what was supposed to be a benefit turned into a money making scheme for the organization that was supposed to be helping them," Smith said.
No one from the USDA would talk on-camera, but in a statement the USDA told the I-Team, "While none of the formal compliance reviews, ad-hoc reviews, site evaluations or audits ... yielded significant findings or concerns," the agency admitted it did "not have the authority or the means to conduct background investigations into individuals who work for" private organizations like Planet Aid.
But as a result of what Reveal found in Africa, the USDA told the I-Team, "We take these allegations of illegal activity very seriously and have asked USDA's Office of the Inspector General to investigate" Planet Aid.
Marie Lichtenberg and Planet Aid declined our request for an on-camera interview as well, but did provide a statement through their public relations firm that said, "Planet Aid has managed projects that improve nutrition, strengthen education and prevent disease in the developing world for nearly two decades. We greatly value our relationship with the U.S. Government, and the success of our work with U.S. Government agencies has been well documented. We will always cooperate fully with official audits and reviews of our projects, but we are unaware of any proposed or pending investigations."
Tuesday on News4 at 6, we'll take a look at the millions of dollars Planet Aid makes using clothing donations, why some call Teachers Group a cult and we will show you where Petersen may be hiding in plain sight.
The USDA gave the I-Team the following statement:
The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) takes very seriously its duty to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and to conduct food assistance programs that not only provide nutrition and educational opportunities to vulnerable children around the world, but also help developing countries modernize and strengthen their agricultural sectors in order to help prevent future food insecurity.
FAS has policies and procedures in place to evaluate proposals by private voluntary organizations (PVOs) for funding through its food assistance programs, including Food for Progress and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. Once funding has been awarded, FAS conducts ongoing monitoring and oversight to ensure successful program implementation and to prevent waste, fraud and abuse. However, FAS does not have the authority, or the means, to conduct background investigations of individuals who work for the PVOs that receive program funding.
None of the formal compliance reviews, ad-hoc reviews, site evaluations or audits FAS has conducted of Planet Aid projects have yielded significant findings or concerns. As far as oversight of the Planet Aid Food for Progress project in Malawi, in addition to regular review and auditing of required performance and financial reports, FAS conducted four site visits: Three were by FAS Washington-based staff, in June 2011, May 2013 and April 2015. Reports from those visits were provided in response to the Center for Investigative Reporting's FOIA request. A fourth visit was conducted in November 2012 by staff from the FAS office in Nairobi, Kenya, which covers Malawi.
While our own oversight did not identify any major issues with Planet Aid's implementation of the FAS-funded project in Malawi, we take these allegations of illegal activity very seriously and have asked USDA's Office of the Inspector General to investigate further.
Planet Aid gave the I-Team the following statement:
Planet Aid has managed projects that improve nutrition, strengthen education, and prevent disease in the developing world for nearly two decades. We greatly value our relationship with the U.S. Government, and the success of our work with U.S. Government agencies has been well documented. We will always cooperate fully with official audits and reviews of our projects, but we are unaware of any proposed or pending investigations.
Reported by Tisha Thompson, Matt Smith and Amy Walters with Reveal, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper.