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Congresswoman Betty McCollum

Representing the 4th District of Minnesota

McCollum Urges USDA, GAO to Investigate Government Contracts with Planet Aid, Affiliated Organizations

August 17, 2016
Press Release

Congresswoman Betty McCollum (DFL-Minn.) called Wednesday for the Government Accountability Office and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General to investigate the prominent non-governmental organization Planet Aid and affiliated groups following media reports that allege the groups’ may have misused taxpayer dollars.

“I urge you to begin a comprehensive inquiry immediately,” Congresswoman McCollum wrote in a pair of letters to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro and USDA Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong. “I hope that such an investigation will be thorough and draw upon whatever resources are necessary to ensure that the issues surrounding this global organization are fully examined.”

Recent media reports from the Center for Investigative Reporting and the British Broadcasting Corporation have suggested that Planet Aid and its affiliates may have played a “shell game” with funds received from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. In light of these and other reports, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, both suspended funding to a Planet Aid affiliate.

Additionally, these media reports indicate that Planet Aid is connected to a global organization, the Teachers Group, which has been described as a “cult” and has been investigated by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and foreign law enforcement. In a 2001 document obtained by journalists, an FBI investigator noted that the Teachers Group diverted funds “for personal use. Little, to no money goes to the charities.”

“Every person or entity performing work for the U.S. government has the moral and legal responsibility to fulfill their obligations in an open and transparent manner,” Congresswoman McCollum wrote. “This responsibility is even more critical when the contracts being performed are intended to meet the food security needs of some of the poorest people on Earth.”

The full text of the letters to the Comptroller General and the USDA Inspector General is below.

Letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro

Dear Mr. Dodaro:

I am writing to request that the Government Accountability Office begin an immediate and thorough investigation of Planet Aid, a non-governmental organization, and its possible misuse of federal funds provided under contracts with several U.S. government agencies.

To help improve global health and advance food security around the world, the United States government contracts with various organizations to deliver humanitarian assistance through a variety of Congressionally-mandated programs. In recent years, several U.S. government agencies have contracted with Planet Aid and its affiliates to provide services in furtherance of these goals.

Recent media reports by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) suggest that Planet Aid and its affiliates have engaged in a “shell game” with funds received from contracts with the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  In addition to an opaque contracting and financing structure that passes federal money to affiliated subcontractors, journalists have found evidence that suggests Planet Aid may have failed to fulfill its contractual obligations to the FAS on several projects in Malawi.

Similarly disturbing, media reports indicate that Planet Aid is connected to a global organization, the Teachers Group, which has been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and foreign law enforcement for fraud and corruption. The senior leadership of the Teachers Group is wanted by the International Criminal Police Organization. Former members of the group have described it as a “cult.” Finally, in a 2001 FBI report obtained by CIR, investigators noted that the Teachers Group diverted funds “for personal use. Little, to no money goes to the charities.

Following the investigations by both CIR and the British Broadcasting Corporation, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and the United Nations Children’s Fund -- two highly respected international development and humanitarian relief organizations -- suspended funding to a Planet Aid-affiliate known as Development Assistance from People to People Malawi.

Planet Aid maintains an active contract with the FAS to provide services in Mozambique under the McGovern–Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. The USDA has responded to media inquiries about its relationship with Planet Aid and its affiliates by stating that annual audits and site visits have uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing by Planet Aid or its subcontractors.

However, media reports indicate that “visiting auditors [were steered] to Potemkin village farms that looked prosperous but were merely for show.” Given the alleged sophistication of the Teachers Group, it is plausible that USDA auditors have not been given the access they need to fully investigate the performance of Planet Aid and its affiliates.

While recent media reports have focused primarily on the possibility of misconduct with FAS contracts, Planet Aid and its affiliated organizations have significant relationships with other U.S. government agencies.

For instance, Planet Aid is registered as a private voluntary organization with the U.S. Agency for International Development. And at least one Planet Aid affiliate has received funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for services related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Given the evidence that has been uncovered by investigative journalists and the decision by international partners of the United States government to suspend funding to a Planet Aid affiliate, it is clear that a more thorough investigation into how American taxpayer dollars that flowed to this organization and its affiliates are being spent now and how they have been spent in the past.

Specifically, I am requesting the Government Accountability Office investigate the following:

1. Have all federal funds disbursed to Planet Aid and/or its affiliates been spent appropriately, including by subcontractors?

2. Did federal agencies that contracted with Planet Aid and/or its affiliates meet their legal responsibilities in overseeing these agreements?

3. Is the FAS annual audit and site visit process, as it currently functions, sufficient to determine whether federal contracts overseas are being properly executed?

I urge you to begin a comprehensive inquiry immediately. I hope that such an investigation will be thorough and draw upon whatever resources are necessary to ensure that the issues surrounding this global organization are fully examined.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Letter to USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong

Dear Ms. Fong:

I am writing to request that the Office of Inspector General begin an immediate and thorough investigation of Planet Aid, a non-governmental organization, and its possible misuse of federal funds awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).

Planet Aid has received approximately $133 million through numerous contracts with FAS. At least one of these contracts, a project in Mozambique under the McGovern–Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, is still active. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID) have both recently suspended contracts with a Planet Aid-affiliated entity as a result of allegations of misuse of funds.

Recent media reports from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) have raised serious questions about the completion of specific projects in Malawi that were supposed to be carried out under FAS contracts with Planet Aid. For instance, the journalists found that managers working on USDA-funded projects did not believe they had received the full number of water pumps they had been promised. 

The investigative journalists at CIR uncovered evidence that suggests Planet Aid has played a “shell game” with federal contracts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). After obtaining contracts for projects in Malawi, Planet Aid has apparently engaged a subcontractor known as Development Aid from People to People in Malawi (DAPP). This organization subsequently passed these funds to other subcontractors, which CIR investigations have shown share a common command-and-control structure with Planet Aid and DAPP.

While this contracting and financing structure is opaque, possibly by design, it raises serious questions about whether American taxpayer dollars provided to Planet Aid were actually used as intended to achieve the maximum benefit for their target beneficiary: Malawian farmers and communities living in extreme poverty.

Similarly disturbing, media reports indicate that Planet Aid is connected to a global organization, the Teachers Group, which has been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and foreign law enforcement for fraud and corruption. The senior leadership of the Teachers Group is wanted by the International Criminal Police Organization. Former members of the group have described it as a “cult.” Finally, in a 2001 FBI report obtained by CIR, investigators noted that the Teachers Group diverted funds “for personal use. Little, to no money goes to the charities.”

In light of the investigations by both CIR and the British Broadcasting Corporation, DfID and UNICEF have suspended funding to DAPP. To date, the USDA has not taken similar action. The USDA has responded to media inquiries about its relationship with Planet Aid and its affiliates by stating that annual audits and site visits have uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing by Planet Aid or its subcontractors.

However, media reports indicate that “visiting auditors [were steered] to Potemkin village farms that looked prosperous but were merely for show.” Given the alleged sophistication of the Teachers Group, it is plausible that USDA auditors have not been given the access they need to fully investigate the performance of Planet Aid and its affiliates. Clearly, a more complete investigation into Planet Aid’s activities with FAS contracts is needed.

Every person or entity performing work for the U.S. government has the moral and legal responsibility to fulfill their obligations in an open and transparent manner. This responsibility is even more critical when the contracts being performed are intended to meet the food security needs of some of the poorest people on Earth. With Malawi’s government having recently declared a food emergency in much of the country, fraud involving American humanitarian assistance to the country is unconscionable and must never be tolerated.

Allegations of fraud and waste involving American taxpayer dollars have surrounded Planet Aid and its affiliates for more than a decade. Internal communications that have been publicly reported show that employees at FAS raised concerns about potential fraud by Planet Aid at least four years ago and proposed an investigation at that time.

I urge you to begin a comprehensive inquiry immediately. I hope that such an investigation will be thorough and draw upon whatever resources are necessary to ensure that the issues surrounding this global organization are fully examined.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.