USAID sues PH's top trafficking fighter

The Philippines' key anti-human trafficking crusader, Visayan Forum, faces fraud charges

Rappler.com
Published 6:13 PM, September 13, 2012
Updated 12:00 PM, November 13, 2012

MANILA, Philippines – The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has filed a fraud accusation against the Visayan Forum Foundation (VF), the Philippines' leading non-government organization against human trafficking.

Department of Justice (DOJ) Prosecutor-General Claro Arellano confirmed this to Rappler on Thursday, September 13. US Embassy information officer Tina Malone also told Rappler in an email that the DOJ “has initiated an investigation” of VF.

VF has denied the accusation, but said the organization has not received a copy of the complaint or subpoena as of posting time.

Human trafficking is an illegal global trade that victimizes 2.4-M people annually, according to the United Nations. Trafficking activities, which include prostitution and forced labor, amount to $32-B every year.

In the Philippines, the 21-year-old VF has actively pursued traffickers in partnership with USAID, the Philippine government, and other organizations.

With VF's help, the Philippine government increased the number of trafficking prosecutions, leading to the country's removal from the US State Department's Tier 2 Watchlist. This status meant the country was not meeting the US government's minimum standards in fighting trafficking and, thus, could have international aid withdrawn.

In 2012 and 2011, the Philippines fell under Tier 2, indicating significant efforts to fight the global scourge.

MOST AFFECTED. How will the controversy involving Visayan Forum affect efforts to aid trafficking victims (in photo)? Photo from Newsbreak

MOST AFFECTED. How will the controversy involving Visayan Forum affect efforts to aid trafficking victims (in photo)? Photo from Newsbreak

VF executive director Ma Cecilia Oebanda has also consistently gained international recognition for VF's crusade, as when the US State Department named her an anti-trafficking hero in 2008. President Benigno Aquino III has also appointed her as a women's sector NGO representative in the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, VF says on its website.

'Falsified documents'

But complaining against VF, USAID cited "falsified documents" seized by government agents from the VF office in Quezon City. The documents allegedly showed the NGO meant to "defraud" the international donor agency.

The project in question, according to VF legal counsel Laurence Arroyo, is the USAID-funded ports project. For this project, Arroyo said VF had to build halfway houses for human trafficking victims in airports and harbors. Based on USAID records posted online, the project was worth at least US$1.65-M or P69.16-M

“We are surprised and disappointed and somehow feel betrayed that this happened because USAID has been a partner of the Visayan Forum for 6 years,” Arroyo told Rappler in a phone interview Thursday.

The US Embassy, for its part, acknowledged that the US government previously funded VF projects “aimed at protecting victims of human trafficking in the Philippines,” according to Malone.

In an e-mail to Rappler on Thursday, however, Malone assured Filipinos of continued US aid. “The United States remains committed to assisting the Philippines in its efforts to prevent human trafficking, to protect those that fall prey to this modern day form of slavery, and to prosecute those who are found guilty of this heinous act,” she said.

Malone said the embassy would refer to the DOJ further questions regarding the probe.

Raided crusader

VF was already the subject of a search warrant from a Quezon City court last August 31. Government investigators have raided VF's Quezon City office in connection with this.

Arroyo said VF has already filed a motion to quash the search warrant before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 98. The court will hear the motion on Friday, September 14.

Arroyo said government investigators seized massive folders and boxes “because the project ran from 2005 to 2011.” He said the items seized included documents on how the money was spent.

In the warrant, presiding judge Evelyn Corpus-Cabochan said VF executive director Oebanda, as well as the foundation's occupants and employees, may be in possession or control of “falsified private documents which were used and are being used to defraud the donors of the aforesaid foundation, specifically the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).”

The court said possession of these documents could violate Article 172 (2) of the Revised Penal Code, which penalizes the falsification of private documents.

Cabochan then ordered a search of items that included books of accounts, ledgers, company desktops and laptops, and unused pre-printed official receipts and petty cash vouchers.

Those who applied for the search warrant included National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) lawyers Dennis Villasfer and Erickson Donn Mercado, and witnesses Maria Analie Villacorte and Celestina Aguilar, according to Cabochan.

'Pointing fingers'

Arroyo said it appears Villacorte, VF's former bookkeeper, falsified receipts and admitted to doing it. “Now she wants to point fingers at others,” the lawyer said.

In particular, Arroyo said Villacorte claims she got instructions to falsify documents from her boss, Oebanda. “We categorically deny that,” he said.

“She thinks that a case will not be filed against her if she does it,” Arroyo said, referring to Villacorte's possible motive. “She is trying to absolve herself of liability by pointing to others.”

Arroyo said the bookkeeper resigned from VF last July 15. “We were not aware at the time that she falsified documents,” he explained.

TRAFFICKING FIGHTER. Visayan Forum executive director Cecille Oebanda (first from right), who is with trafficking survivors in this photo, is among those accused of fraud

TRAFFICKING FIGHTER. Visayan Forum executive director Cecille Oebanda (first from right), who is with trafficking survivors in this photo, is among those accused of fraud

The Philippine government also considers VF as one of its leading partners against human trafficking. On Thursday alone, VF had a scheduled press conference with Senator Loren Legarda on labor rights.

In an earlier interview, Oebanda said the Philippines is improving in its anti-human trafficking fight, but needs to address new trends in this global scourge. “Medyo mahaba-haba pa itong ating laban na ito,” Oebanda said. (This is going to be a prolonged battle.) – with reports from Purple Romero/Rappler.com

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