Charity Under Scrutiny Fires Back at Reporters

     BALTIMORE (CN) — The investigative-reporting series Reveal made waves this year by calling out corruption in a foreign aid program. Now the charity entangled in that series is taking its pursuers to court, questioning Reveal’s motives.
     Joined by a Malawi woman who works for its subcontractor, Planet Aid filed suit on Aug. 25 against Reveal, Center for Investigative Reporting.
     The federal complaint filed in Maryland comes several months after Reveal, which airs on NPR stations around the country, produced a series of articles and broadcasts that purported to uncover fraud in Planet Aid’s work in Malawi, a southeast country in Africa ranked as one of the poorest in the world.
     Navigated by reporting team Matt Smith and Amy Walters, Reveal dug into Planet Aid’s efforts through its subcontractor, Development Aid from People to People Malawi, as funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture program Food for Progress.
     They reported this past May that “50 to 70 percent of the U.S. government grant money was being siphoned away.”
     “To me it’s what I will call systematic fraud,” Harrison Longwe said in the broadcast, introduced by the reporters as the former financial controller for the Planet Aid subcontractor, DAPP Malawi.
     Earlier this month, Reveal reported that its investigation of Planet Aid prompted a congresswoman to called for a governmental investigation. The Aug. 17 article said Reveal’s reporting showed “that the U.S. has allocated more than $133 million in foreign relief funds to the Maryland-based charity despite evidence it is controlled by a cult-like organization and funds have been misused.”
     Planet Aid meanwhile disputes that its story was reported honestly, pointing to Reveal’s solicitation of support at the conclusion of its series, telling listeners, “Investigative reporting isn’t cheap.”
     “The goal of this scheme was ultimately to drive Planet Aid out of business, and destroy Lisbeth Thomsen’s reputation — all so that defendants could falsely claim credit for having uncovered fraud, corruption and abuse in a government foreign aid program, and thereby attract additional donors to defendants’ news organization,” the complaint states.
     Reveal’s editor in chief Amy Pyle scoffed at the allegations.
     “This lawsuit is completely frivolous and without foundation in fact,” Pyle said in an email. “We have full confidence in our investigation, which is ongoing and based on deep, fully vetted, ethical reporting.”
     Planet Aid did line up a legal powerhouse for the brewing court battle. Demanding $25 million in punitive damages, the charity is represented by Samuel Rosenthal with the Washington, D.C., law firm Squire Patton Boggs.
     Accusing Reveal of using questionable tactics to get its story, the lawsuit says both reporters “impersonated U.S. governmental employees and others in an effort to convince individuals that plaintiffs had cheated them.”
     Smith and Walters likewise “claimed that they could assist the village in obtaining fifty water pumps, telling the village leaders, either directly or through Ngwira or another one of the ‘sources’ named in their article.”
     At least one the farmers interviewed by Reveal were not even part of the programs it was investigating, according to the complaint.
     “The use of this person was a complete sham,” the complaint states.
     As for another one of Reveal’s sources, Planet Aid notes that Malawian journalist Kandani Ngwira has two past felony convictions for trying “to extract money from an individual in Malawi in return for not publishing damaging information in the local newspaper where Ngwira works.”
     Planet Aid says Reveal’s reckless reporting has already cause it problems.
     In addition to hemorrhaging donors, DAPP-Malawi also lost funding from Unicef.
     Meanwhile Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum wrote letters earlier this month that called on the Government Accountability Office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General to investigate whether Planet Aid misused taxpayer dollars.
     A spokesperson for the USDA has not returned an email seeking comment. McCollum’s press release on the letters quotes the USDA as saying its “annual audits and site visits have uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing by Planet Aid or its subcontractors.”
     Planet Aid’s lawsuit against Reveal clocks in at 69 pages. The Maryland-based nonprofit opened in 1997 and Claims to have contributed $52 million between 2001 and 2015 to charitable purposes in 16 countries, including in Malawi.
     Rosenthal, the charity’s attorney, referred a request for comment to publicists for Planet Aid, but they declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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