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A History of Complaints Dogs Adventist Aid Agency

Relief: Questionable spending, poor oversight alleged. Group, which gets U.S. funds, says controls are tighter now.

August 14, 1998|ERIC LICHTBLAU and TOM GORMAN | 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.

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