Officials charged with stealing Christian humanitarian funds

Three former officials with a Christian humanitarian organization have been accused of massive fraud involving more than $1 million worth of U.S. aid to Liberia, stealing food and construction materials meant to help people of the African nation recover from a 14-year civil war.

The officials who worked for World Vision in Liberia are accused of directing a scheme to take food aid intended for relocating Liberians, sell it in local markets and keep the profits for themselves. They are also accused of using construction materials meant to restore war-ravaged communities to build multiple homes for themselves, with labor provided by U.S.-funded aid workers.

Investigators say the alleged fraud was so vast that World Vision could verify that only 9 percent of the food aid was ever delivered to the people it was intended to help.

The three officials have been charged with 12 criminal counts, including fraud, theft, lying to investigators and witness-tampering.

Joe Bondo, a Liberian who was manager on the project, has been in a Washington jail since his arrest May 20, and documents filed with the U.S. District Court in Washington suggest a plea deal is in the works. A call for comment was not returned by the court-appointed attorney representing Bondo, who had been living in the Baltimore area since February.

The names of the other two officials were blacked out in charging documents, and the Justice Department would not comment on their status. But an exhibit filed in the case identifies them as Morris Fahnbulleh and Thomas Parker, commodity officers with the program.

Their alleged scheme began in 2005, the year after Liberia began to emerge from the civil war that killed more than 250,000 people, displaced millions, demolished the country’s infrastructure and nearly collapsed its economy.

World Vision was implementing a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development in which commodities, like surplus U.S. wheat and oil, were to be given to Liberian communities in exchange for residents’ work on rebuilding roads and latrines and other construction projects.

World Vision, which has its international headquarters in Monrovia, Calif., got $1.24 million to deliver 3,250 metric tons of food intended for 6,400 Liberian families resettling in the country’s three northernmost coastal counties, along with funds to buy construction materials for the building projects.

In early 2007, World Vision got an anonymous tip that its food deliveries were being diverted and sent auditors to 258 Liberian towns that supposedly benefited from its program. The auditors found 91 percent of the food was not delivered and 34 of the towns didn’t even exist.

World Vision calculated that $884,681 worth of food was missing, with a total loss including ocean freight expenses to ship the food to Liberia of $1.45 million. The United States spent an additional $300,000 for construction materials, most of which were never used on the intended projects.

Prosecutors say the three men accused in the case built three to four houses each in the area around the capital, Monrovia, and bought new vehicles every few months. Outside Bondo’s house was a water pump that prosecutors say was intended for a World Vision project.

George Ward, senior vice president of World Vision’s International Programs Group, expressed regret over the case and support for efforts to bring the officials to justice in a written statement.

USAID’s program "was designed to provide food and work for people emerging from the long civil conflict in Liberia, which created a challenging and unstable civil and social environment," Ward said. "World Vision conducted its own detailed internal inquiry that uncovered the nature and extent of the alleged violations and furnished extensive documentation that assisted the U.S. government’s subsequent investigation."