Philippine anti-human-trafficking NGO sued by Uncle Sam on allegations of fraudulent use of aid funds

A bookkeeper of noted Philippine NGO Visayan Forum Foundation (VFF) blew the whistle on its founder Cecilia Flores-Oebanda. Maria Analie Villacorte who, according to VFF attorney Laurence Arroyo, resigned from the VFF last July alleges she received instructions from Oebanda to “falsify” documents that would have been used to support the disbursement of up to P300 million donated to VFF by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) reportedly acting on a complaint lodged by USAID special agent Daniel Altman and testimony from “two whistle-blowers” recommended charges to be slapped on “VFFI directors, finance officers, bookkeepers and other employees.”

[NBI antifraud chief Rachel Marfil-Angeles] said P210 million of the P300 million from the USAID remained unaccounted for. “However, what is clear at the moment, based on evidence, is that receipts for P41 million had been faked,” said the NBI antifraud chief.

Angeles said the NBI probe had established that the order to manufacture the fake receipts came from the VFFI president.

“In a meeting, the bookkeepers, including the whistle-blower, were allegedly ordered by its president to fake receipts to fill in the gap of unsubstantiated expenses,” she said.

Embattled VFF founder and head Cecilia Flores Oebanda

The VFF through its attorney Laurence Arroyo has denied all claims.

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.

The VFF along with several other NGOs are beneficiaries of generous funding from Uncle Sam for their work to stop human trafficking in the Philippines and prosecute its perpetrators. The VFF, for its part, operates “halfway houses” in various key Philippine ports, oversees awareness campaigns and organises multi-sectoral task forces as part of its overall effort to curb human trafficking originating in the Philippines. According to a State Department document a total USD 3.69 million had been granted to on-going anti-human-trafficking initiatives in the Philippines as of the 16th March 2010. According to the report, this amount was allocated across the following organisations based in or with offices in the Philippines:

(1) $2.1 million to the VFF;

(2) $540,000 to the International Justice Mission (IJM) described as, “An Initiative to Combat Child Trafficking in Metro Manila and Samar”;

(3) $71,429 to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP) which “Aims to educate young men on gender issues, sexuality, and the consequences of prostitution as methods to reduce the demand which fuels sex trafficking, as well as addressing young women’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation.”;

(4) $500,000 to the [Philippines’] Department of Justice, Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training (DOJ/OPDAT), funds granted to “develop and implement training and mentoring for prosecutors who handle TIP cases throughout the country with the goals of increasing the number of increasing the number of successful prosecutions and convictions of persons engaged in human trafficking and facilitating enhanced voluntary prosecutor-police cooperation”.

(5) $480,000 to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to support “work with a network of government agencies and NGOs and improve humanitarian response by strengthening prevention and response to trafficking of persons in conflict affected areas of North Cotabato and Maguindanao in Mindanao. Identified interventions include : community education sessions on anti-child trafficking in evacuation centers and host communities of internally-displaced persons (IDPs), setting-up of a surveillance, investigation and rescue mechanism in identified trafficking hotspots/routes and integration of guidelines for the protection of trafficked children into camp management protocols and procedures.”

[Photo courtesy Politekon.]

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