A History of Complaints Dogs Adventist Aid Agency

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Back and forth they volleyed under the Rwandan sun, the minister and the church auditor.

Too distracted to finish the match, the minister idled to the net. Pained, he began to reveal to the auditor what had gone so terribly wrong in the African nation's Seventh-day Adventist hunger relief program--the purloined food, the misappropriated U.S. taxpayer money, the wasted hopes.

The tennis court was a fitting site for the confessional, for it symbolized how far the church had strayed from its mission in Rwanda.

Not one but two courts were built with U.S. government relief aid--the second constructed so players would not have to squint into the sun. A tennis pro was hired with money kicked back to the Adventist group from local Rwandans who had improperly received huge amounts of government food intended for the needy, U.S. investigators would later find.

Adventist auditor Wayne Vail was disgusted by what he heard, he recalled in an interview. All the problems demanding attention--and cash--in a struggling Third World country, "and they were building a tennis court."

The Adventists settled the case with the U.S. government in 1993, pledging to clean up their operation and get more food into the hands of the hungry. Yet for all the reforms--real and promised--by the church since then, Vail was back on a plane last summer. His destination: poverty-racked Haiti, where U.S. officials were demanding to know, among other things, why employees had repeatedly visited Miami at government expense to buy supplies apparently available on the island.

The aims of the Adventists' overseas relief effort are no doubt righteous: bringing medicine to the sick, food to the hungry, schooling to the unlearned. For thousands of Adventist workers in developing nations, this is God's work.

But they are entrusted largely with public funds to do it, and that is the nub of many of the problems.

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency, or ADRA, received $85 million in federal cash, food and freight, plus tens of millions more from other nations and donors, during the last two years for which reports are available. ADRA was given more direct U.S. funding than all but three groups out of more than 400 federal program participants.

Along with that assistance have come serious questions about how it has been used--from accusations of corruption to complaints of unlawful proselytizing.

Records and interviews show a vexing pattern of warnings, upbraidings and occasional funding suspensions of ADRA during the last decade by the Agency for International Development, the U.S. government funding unit better known as AID.

A 1995 memo by AID auditors led to the rejection of $2.8 million in ADRA billings for public relations, fund-raising and other overhead expenses. The agency also questioned whether ADRA charged the government twice for the same items, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars in possible double-billings.

Top Adventist officials say any lapses are insignificant compared to the help their relief organization has provided to millions of impoverished people.

Adventist executives speak proudly of building wells in Somalia for villagers and their cattle, of funding greenhouses in Armenia to extend the growing season, of providing loans to Sudanese merchants, of combating infant mortality in Nepal.

They say they also have worked hard to tighten fiscal controls so the church's relief arm can expand beyond the 140 foreign regions it now serves. Country-by-country reviews are now regularly undertaken, they say, and training has been intensified for hundreds of managers.

Church President Robert H. Folkenberg proclaims ADRA to be "99.44% clean, like Ivory soap."

"It is one of the most effective humanitarian agencies that I have ever been around," he said. "It is extremely effective, well-operated, audited and audited and re-audited."

U.S. government administrators agree that ADRA generally performs well in working with "the poorest of the poor."

"We have found them to be a good, solid partner," said one AID official. "They have grown stronger and quite a bit more professional. We've noticed a maturing."

Yet these same officials said they were unaware of the many criticisms leveled by their own agency and others, including conclusions in a private auditor's report last year on the organization's progress. It said that despite improvements, the Adventist relief group continued to suffer "significant deficiencies."

Auditors Find a Variety of Problems

For generations, the U.S. government has worked to foster America's image as benevolent benefactor to the world's needy.

Most people do not realize, however, that this often amounts to goodwill by proxy. AID has come to rely more heavily than ever on a network of 417 private groups, sharing an annual pot of more than $1.4 billion.

The Adventist partnership with the government is perhaps ironic. The church's 19th century founders often equated the U.S. republic with a biblical two-horned "beast" that threatened to make the devout fight in wars and work on their Saturday Sabbath.

Now, says Queens College sociologist Ronald Lawson, an Adventist, the church has become "an arm of American foreign policy."

Sometimes, a problematic one.

In Bolivia in 1995, investigators learned that ADRA workers solicited Christmas gifts for their children from contractors employed in a U.S.-sponsored food program, creating the appearance of a possible kickback scheme.

U.S. officials scolded the group for "the seriousness and unethical nature of this incident." ADRA officials promised it would not happen again.

In Mozambique, U.S. auditors found in 1994 that ADRA employees purloined commodities and profited by selling food "unfit for human consumption" to unsuspecting villagers. Auditors also voiced concerns over $105,000 in U.S. funding forwarded to an Adventist-owned university in Michigan for hunger research--including some money that appeared to be pure "profit" for the school.

In ADRA's Sudan operation, Adventist auditor Vail, a lifelong church member, said he was shocked by what he found: Substantial sums for humanitarian work were untraceable because a supervisor there had "just ignored" standard accounting procedures."

"What angered me was I told [church officials] this would happen if they left this individual in charge," he said. "I warned ADRA about this."

And in Rwanda, besides the tennis court fiasco, ADRA employees were accused of looting massive amounts of American food and relief assistance provided for the U.S. government's Food for Peace program, according to records obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Investigators discovered that, beginning in the mid-1980s, ADRA workers in Rwanda had diverted truckloads of goods meant for the poor, selling them for personal profit or trading them for "favors."

One ADRA employee built a house with the money he made, records show. Another opened a restaurant. A third bought a van.

Church auditor Vail said that even after Adventist personnel in Rwanda were warned about possible abuses, they built the second tennis court--a move that smacked of a "deliberate act of defiance," he charged in a memo to higher-ups.

Another ADRA official said in an internal memo that employees withheld documents from church auditors until "the pressure was on," creating the appearance of a "cover-up."

In 1989, church officials fired more than two dozen employees in Rwanda for "misconduct and embezzlement." U.S. officials suspended the program's funding and demanded the return of $1.66 million.

But after a wave of back-and-forth accusations over who was responsible for the misdeeds, U.S. authorities in 1993 dropped their reimbursement demand, instead requiring ADRA to help build several health clinics in Africa and donate $800,000 to development programs, records show.

For a time, U.S. authorities considered bringing criminal charges against the minister who ran the Rwandan operation but concluded that there was insufficient evidence to establish direct culpability.

Although the minister was fired from his post, he secured a settlement from the church estimated at tens of thousands of dollars in benefits he said he was owed.

"Personally, I was very disappointed that a settlement was made with a person who allegedly had his hand in some skulduggery," said Stanton Parker, the church's former director of insurance risk-management.

In a church that historically has worked to keep its controversies from public view, Parker said the settlement "was an attempt to avoid exposure. . . . You take the easy way out."

As it turned out, the church's Rwandan problems would not end quietly, escalating far beyond matters of tennis courts and pocketed money.

In 1994, a year after ADRA settled with the U.S. government, one of the church's top Rwandan ministers allegedly participated in the slaughter of thousands of ethnic Tutsis after the outbreak of civil war. A U.S. judge in Texas, where the minister fled after the war, last week ordered that he be surrendered to a United Nations tribunal to face charges of genocide.

The victims had come to the church compound of 73-year-old minister Elizaphan Ntakirutimana to seek refuge from ethnic strife. Instead, Assistant U.S. Atty. Don De Gabrielle said in an interview, the minister allegedly held them at gunpoint, later leading murderous militia members to them.

Adventist President Folkenberg said some church members risked their lives in defending the Tutsis. But others, he acknowledged, may have been too "passive in not being as protective towards their fellow Christians as they should have been."

Group's Bookkeeping, Overhead Questioned

In one of her many writings that form the tenets of Adventism, church co-founder Ellen White said: "If conscience were alive . . . she would report the squandering of the Lord's money, which should have been devoted to His cause."

More than 120 years later, David Dennis alleges that he was accused of sexual harassment and fired as the church's longtime chief auditor when he took White up on her words.

The Maryland accountant, who has filed a defamation suit against the church, says he was ousted in 1994 after repeatedly complaining about potential financial abuses, including excessive ADRA overhead and extravagant overseas trips.

In his pending suit, Dennis alleges that church officials pressured his staff to steer clear of ADRA's finances. "Many, many times they told me, 'Look, Dave, this is none of your business.' "

Adventist officials deny any such exchanges and contend that Dennis is trying to prevail in court by discrediting the church with bogus stories.

But at least one of Dennis' allegations seems on target, according to government reviews and federal data obtained by The Times under U.S. public disclosure laws.

According to a Times computer analysis of data in a 1997 AID report, ADRA's rate of overhead--reflecting salaries, travel and other administrative expenses subsidized by the government--ranked second among the 10 biggest recipients of direct U.S. AID support. The group's 11.1% overhead rate is just behind that of Pathfinder International, a family planning group, and well above the average among the 10 of 7.4%.

Although ADRA officials say they have worked hard to hold down expenses, U.S. auditors also have questioned the group's bookkeeping and overhead.

Federal records show that in some cases, documentation to substantiate the expenditure of millions of U.S. dollars was found to be "inadequate or nonexistent." When money could be tracked, the results were sometimes disturbing.

Since 1994, government auditors have questioned nearly $5 million in ADRA billings for public relations, fund-raising and rent. In one case, ADRA billed the U.S. government for partial reimbursement of $920,000 in rent at the church's Maryland headquarters, even though the church said it had donated the space. This, after auditors just a year earlier had warned that such billings were not allowed.

Former ADRA administrator Floyd Murdock describes the group's accounting practices as, at best, "creative." Less charitably, he also calls them "slippery."

Murdock, director of planning at ADRA until 1995, said that although the group's intentions are generally noble, the agency sometimes misled various governments to garner as much money as possible.

Murdock said, for example, that ADRA would request funds from two countries for the same project. If both countries came through, the group would double the project's size rather than return one of the grants for use by other programs for the needy.

On some occasions, federal officials have rejected ADRA's reimbursement requests as improper, allowing the group to submit revised figures. Other times, ADRA later presented missing paperwork to justify questionable expenses.

"Any agency that is operating in a developing country is faced with all kinds of challenges to conduct its [fiscal and management] operations," said Mario Ochoa, ADRA's executive vice president. But overall, he said, "we are doing . . . an excellent job everywhere."

Line Between Relief and Religion Blurred

The growth of the Adventists' relief operation has paralleled the church's emergence as one of the world's fastest-growing denominations, with about 9 million members outside the U.S., testimony to its aggressive missionary work.

The church's humanitarian work and proselytizing are supposed to remain separate because the U.S. and other nations ban the use of their governments' money for religious purposes.

ADRA officials maintain that they are rigorous in honoring that division, ensuring that when it comes to the church's government-funded relief efforts and its formal missionary arm, known as Global Mission, there is no cooperation.

"Operationally, I think I could say [there is] none," Ochoa said. "They're two totally different types of entities. We have such totally different missions. No one's ever confused Global Mission and ADRA."

But interviews and records show that the line sometimes has been blurred.

The agency's 10-year strategic plan, developed in 1996, calls ADRA "a bona fide ministry of Jesus Christ and the Seventh-day Adventist Church." It declares that its work "provides a strategy to reach people previously untouched by other church institutions. The church's mission is incomplete without ADRA's distinctive ministry."

Adventist sociologist Lawson said the church's intent perhaps can best be seen in the candor of a relief worker he met in Africa, who confided: "If I'm going to build a road, I'm going to have it go past an Adventist church."

That same interconnection has applied to several medical clinics around the world built by Global Mission, according to Donald Folkenberg, the church president's brother. The clinics were turned over to ADRA to operate.

The arrangement obeys "the letter of the law. They're not out there proselytizing," said Folkenberg, a top official of Global Mission. He acknowledged, however, that the effect has been to heighten the denomination's profile with local residents whose lives have been improved through the clinics. "That's a way to what the church is all about," he said. "Spread Christianity and spread Adventism."

Indeed, former Global Mission administrator Hal Butler said officials at his agency and at ADRA sometimes met to plan potential joint projects.

"We would talk about countries where a cooperative thing might work," said Butler, planning director at Global Mission until 1995. "If ADRA went in there first and had some health program or whatever to get things going, we might be able to come in later."

Adventists recognize the need to separate humanitarian and missionary work, Butler said, but there is "no doubt" the dividing line is sometimes blurred. "At times, it's very difficult to separate the two," particularly when church members go to work for ADRA and become "overzealous in trying to bring people to Christianity," he said.

Even when U.S. government funds and ADRA are not involved, the church has toyed with laws prohibiting conversion efforts.

In Katmandu, pastor Deepe Thapa said his Adventist church group, which is separate from ADRA, is registered as a social welfare agency with the Nepalese government, going into villages to talk about hygiene and good eating habits and--if the villagers are interested--"to propagate the Bible."

"If we said, 'We are Seventh-day Adventists and we want to spread the Gospel,' " Thapa said, "the government would not allow it. We have to go in in indirect ways. It may be right, it may be wrong."

In Nepal, a predominantly Hindu state that allows the practice of different faiths but bans conversion efforts, concerns have reached such a sensitive level that ADRA recently suspended some of its operations there after allegations of illegal proselytizing.

ADRA's Nepal operation has been criticized by local activists who contend that the country's cultural roots are being jeopardized by Adventist humanitarian workers using food, medical services and schools to lure new members.

"We are poor, illiterate, hungry people, and by giving allurement, ADRA is proselytizing," said Jogendra Jha, secretary general of the World Hindu Federation. "They do education and health services, but then they start conversions by offering better treatment [to people] if they accept Christianity."

After an investigation, Nepal authorities warned last August that the Adventists appeared to be violating the law by trying to convert "the docile Nepalese people of the village," as one health official said. With a change in administration, however, Nepalese officials have backed away from that stance. U.S. officials there say they are "fully satisfied" with ADRA's performance, recently awarding the group a new $1.8-million child-survival grant.

Even so, ADRA has agreed to break off ties with a school it helped build and a health education recording program it was developing, which opponents accused of broadcasting religious material, officials said.

The withdrawal, according to ADRA officials, was intended as "a token of good faith."

Although the church's rapid growth overseas is a point of pride for the Adventist hierarchy, it is viewed with trepidation, even disdain, by some longtime members in the United States.

Some complain that church coffers here are being drained to support poorer brethren abroad. Moreover, they contend that reforms, such as the ordination of women, have been blocked because of the more conservative leanings and far greater numbers of foreign congregants.

Disgruntled members here also complain that Adventist leaders at denominational headquarters in Maryland have brought embarrassment to the church by failing to exercise strong leadership when overseas congregations have strayed from the religion's principles.

Ethiopia, they say, is a prime example.

Adventists there have turned on one another in a bitter power struggle, forcing the closure of one of the country's largest churches.

A new president was named in late 1996 to lead Ethiopia's 120,000 Adventists, but opponents declared the election a sham. Large-scale demonstrations were held at the main church in Addis Ababa. Protesters drowned out services with loud singing. There have been dozens of arrests and reports of violence between opposing Adventists.

Protesters say they have been particularly troubled by the lack of intervention by Adventist executives in Maryland. But church liaison Maurice Battle said Adventist leaders fear "undermining" Ethiopian authority.

So for now, the gate to the Addis Ababa church is padlocked.

"We're supposed to be peace lovers," Battle said. "Have we not been able to get the principles of Jesus into their lives?"

Part One of this series is on The Times' Web site. Go to: http://www.latimes.com/adventists

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