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NGO could face more charges, say probers

MANILA, Philippines - The Visayan Forum Foundation (VF), accused of fraud by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), could face more charges, the head of an investigating unit said Friday, September 14.

But the non-government organization said it has nothing to hide. "Our conscience is clear. We have nothing to hide. Our commitment is solid! We will continue to stand our ground, to provide services to victims and to fight traffickers," the organization said in a statement on Friday.

The USAID asked the Department of Justice in August to probe the group over funds the group could not account for.

At least P210 million (US$5 million) in aid meant to fund the group's projects have since been found to be missing, said the head of the investigating division, Rachel Marfil Angeles.

"We have recommended to the Department of Justice the filing of charges of falsification of documents. More serious charges could follow," she said.

Angeles said the findings were backed by external auditors hired by USAID, which checked disbursements to the Foundation covering the period 2005 to 2011.

But the group said "we will vindicate ourselves in our courts of law."

"We are shocked by the malicious attack to our reputation—built for 20 years with blood, sweat and tears," the VF said.

The organization also complained about "the lack of due process and the rush to judgment" after the complaint filed by USAID.

Track record

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was not meeting the US government's minimum standards in fighting trafficking and, thus, could have international aid withdrawn.

But 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.

In the warrant that led to the search of the VF office, 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.

In its statement, however, the VF said: "The final audit findings were not presented to us and we were not given a chance to clarify and explain our side. The accusations against the directors are false and unfounded. We will staunchly defend our integrity in court."

According to the VF, aside from that audit, there is also a parallel impact evaluation that contradicts the allegations presented by the US donor agency.

The anti-human trafficking body stressed that "the body of our work speaks for itself" and denied they do not have children in their halfway centers.

"We call on people not to prejudge us but instead look at the contributions we have made in the fight against human trafficking." - with reports from Agence France-Presse/