If a mayor slips a government paving contract to his son-in-law’s company, that’s an easy-to-understand effort to beat the system.
Prosecutors say the Teachers Group, a reputed cult operating charities in at least 43 countries, has refined this technique by creating overlapping and interlocking organizations that move money among themselves.
Below is a list of people, organizations and relationships, with links to annotated documents, that maps the flow of U.S. money from Planet Aid, a U.S.-based foreign aid contractor, to a subcontractor in southern Africa called Development Aid from People to People (widely known as DAPP), and then to a Teachers Group partnership in Geneva. Taxpayers ended up paying for charitable projects with questionable results, as an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found last year in when it visited U.S. Department of Agriculture programs in Malawi.
Court documents going back to the early 2000s say the Teachers Group has established “allegedly ‘benevolent’ organizations which were, in fact, little more than front organizations to funnel money back to the Teacher (sic) Group,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Sloan wrote in a June 20, 2002, legal brief assisting Denmark in extraditing Mogens Amdi Petersen, the Teachers Group’s founder.
Seemingly separate charities and companies sent bills to each other posing as independent contractors or consultants, when in fact they were all aliases for a small group of Petersen aides, Sloan claimed in his filings.
Petersen “set up an elaborate chain of overlapping companies, trusts, and other entities,” wrote Sloan, who cited a 1995 letter Petersen had written to his followers stating his desire to disguise the Teachers Group’s finances from authorities by laying down “a twisted access path with only ourselves as compass holders.”
In January, Brazilian prosecutors got the green light to move forward with a money laundering case investigating the Teachers Group’s maze of charities, targeting the Geneva-based Federation for Associations connected to the International Humana People to People Movement, commonly referred to as FAIHPP.
FAIHPP is Swiss partnership of five Teachers Group members who have had roles obtaining, spending and banking U.S. foreign aid money. FAIHPP was registered in 2004 with an address at a six-story building near the Geneva airport.
Below are details of a number of relationships connected to U.S. government funding. Keep in mind as you read that “FAIHPP” and “Humana People to People” are treated as interchangeable in their own documents.
- When the U.S. government allocated $133 million in foreign aid for Malawi and Mozambique beginning in 2004, Marie Lichtenberg was the USDA’s main contact for the grant recipient, Planet Aid, a Massachusetts-registered nonprofit. A USDA document from 2006 states, “Principal contact and negotiator for Planet Aid, Inc.: Marie Lichtenberg, International Partnerships, Planet Aid, Inc. and Humana People to People.” Lichtenberg is a longtime Teachers Group member.
- Humana People to People describes itself publicly as a “network of 31 development organizations, located in Europe, USA, Africa, Asia and Latin America.” Humana People to People’s headquarters is in a Teachers Group compound near the farming town of Shamva, Zimbabwe. But as of this month, Humana People to People’s web page said it was registered in Switzerland under FAIHPP’s commercial registry number: 14453/2004. This is one of a number of records showing Humana People to People and FAIHPP as being one and the same. In other countries, Lichtenberg has presented herself as representing Humana People to People, Humana People to People in South Africa and Argyll Smith Properties of South Africa Ltd.
- Mikael Norling is a Teachers Group member who on Jan. 28, 1997, founded Planet Aid as the charity’s president. On Dec. 10, 2004, Norling co-founded FAIHPP as a vice president. This was part of a career serving as the public face of a variety of Petersen-linked organizations.
- Maria Darsbo is a Teachers Group member and a founding director of Planet Aid. She was founding president of FAIHPP. She also refers to herself as chairwoman of FAIHPP and chairwoman of the Humana Federation. These organizations are referred to in Planet Aid’s internal memos as “HQ.” Darsbo in 2002 registered as a trustee and secretary of DAPP in Malawi.
- DAPP Malawi has served as Planet Aid’s USDA subcontractor, receiving millions of dollars to carry out U.S. taxpayer-funded projects in the country.
- Lisbeth Thomsen, DAPP Malawi’s country director, received her salary from FAIHPP. Internal DAPP accounting records indicate that FAIHPP not only receives money from DAPP, but also pays the salaries of DAPP’s key staff.
- FAIHPP charged DAPP project contractors $2.7 million in expert consulting fees in 2013 and 2014. Separately in 2013, a U.S. government inspector identified $1.8 million in U.S. foreign aid fees paid to FAIHPP as “not transparent.” Reveal has reported that payments to FAIHPP were met with skepticism by DAPP’s own financial controller and other DAPP financial insiders.
- DAPP and Planet Aid have made numerous additional payments to FAIHPP. In 2005 and 2006, Planet Aid made $5.3 million in payments to FAIHPP described as contributions to international programs. In 2008 and 2009, Planet Aid reported paying $2 million in annual FAIHPP membership dues.
- Planet Aid explained yet another fee arrangement with FAIHPP in a July 2007 submission to the U.S. government, stating: “Planet Aid has through its membership of FAIHPP access to the resources of FAIHPP to provide General Support and Supervision to development assistance programs worldwide.”
- Ajuda de Desenvolvimento de Povo para Povo Angola is another organization with Teachers Group links that received U.S. foreign aid funds – more than $10 million in grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
- Rikke Viholm is the longtime country director of the Angola organization, as well as a founding vice president of FAIHPP. She also has been a trustee of DAPP since 2001, according to public documents on file in 2015. Viholm is identified in court documents as linked to the 2002 Danish embezzlement and tax evasion case that forms the basis for charges against Petersen and his placement on the Interpol fugitives list.