By Tisha Thompson, Rick Yarborough, Matt Smith, Amy Walters, Steve Jones and Jeff Piper NBC Washington
At first, signing up for Planet Aid’s “Manager In Training” program at its Elkridge, Maryland, headquarters seemed like the perfect job, Meredith Crocker said. She answered a Craigslist ad for the charity in 2013.
“The idea that they were both working for the environment and trying to help people at the same time seemed really cool,” Crocker said.
Having just received her master’s degree in international development economics, Crocker said she was initially attracted to Planet Aid’s message of saving the environment by recycling the clothes donated to its bright yellow bins.
Planet Aid makes as much as $42 million a year selling those clothes, according to its financial filings submitted to the Internal Revenue Service, indicating the money goes toward feeding and educating impoverished communities in Africa.
But in a joint international investigation with Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting, the News4 I-Team found Planet Aid is connected to a controversial Danish organization called Tvind, also known as the Teachers Group.
Danish court records obtained by the I-Team and Reveal say the group was founded about 1970 by Mogens Amdi Petersen, who required his members to live communally, give over control of their money, their time and decisions like “the right to start a family.”
The FBI kept a file on Tvind, which both the I-Team and Reveal obtained, that details how Petersen created dozens of international companies and charities, including Planet Aid.
In the file, investigators state, “Little to no money goes to the charities” with “funds ultimately controlled by” the Teachers Group “who divert the money for personal use.”
Petersen is now on the run — wanted by Interpol — after the Danish government charged him with charities fraud and tax evasion.
Danish authorities seized more than 80 computers from Petersen and the Teachers Group and, according to the Danish court records, found a document where Petersen instructed his closest followers to ensure funds collected by their charities “are placed so that at any time they are available to us, that they are never available to others, that they are protected from theft, taxation and prying by unauthorized persons” and to “lay down a twisted access path with only ourselves as compass holders.”
In those court documents, Danish prosecutors allege Teachers Group members were instructed to sign documents pledging to “transfer all their available income to joint savings” while also promising to let the Teachers Group decided where they work and to “forgo their personal rights, such as the right to start a family to their own wish.”
“I can definitely see that there are cult-like aspects to it,” Crocker said as she explained how, several months into her job at Planet Aid, she was sent to One World Center in Dowagiac, Michigan, for training.
Crocker said she was housed with other employees and, as a requirement of her job, had to give back almost 20 percent of her $28,000 salary to pay for the training sessions.
According to its website and financial statements, One World Center is operated by the Institute of International Cooperation and Development, or IICD, which the FBI file says is also controlled by the Teachers Group.
“They’re like, ‘OK, you have to be on 24 hours,'” Crocker said of her time at One World Center. She recounted how she was told, “‘There’s not really alone time, and we do everything together.'”
Crocker said she was then told to panhandle for money. “‘We’re going to send you out in these groups to go on to the street, and all that money is going to come back and be for the group, rather than send you to Africa. You all have to get that money together.’ And I was like, ‘It’s starting to get a little weird.'”
Another Planet Aid employee, Zuri Blandon, told the I-Team he also handed over about 20 percent of his salary before he started training at One World Center, where, he said, he was told he needed to ask strangers for money outside of places like grocery stores.
“It was like a big bucket of icy cold water,” he recalled of the feeling he had when he was told he needed to raise $70,000 before Planet Aid would send him to Africa. “You have to find funds somehow. They made it sound like an obstacle course: If you can accomplish this, you can accomplish anything.”
But Blandon said it wasn’t until he actually arrived in Mozambique that he became truly disenchanted with Planet Aid. “I was working at headquarters with students who wanted to be teachers,” he said. “My job was to set up a teacher’s college, and I was trying to find books written in English to put in the library.”
Blandon said he emailed the Planet Aid facility where he had previously worked because he had personally seen thousands of donated books moving through the warehouse there. “No one wanted them, but I wanted them,” Blandon said. “I asked if they could ship a box of books to me. It made sense. It was the whole point of the project.”
But Blandon said he was told, “Planet Aid couldn’t afford to ship any books. I was told to ask friends and family to pay for it. I was livid. At that point I realized it was all a façade.”
Reveal reporter Matt Smith also interviewed Planet Aid employees in Malawi about Planet Aid and its connection to Petersen. “In Africa, the word that was used was he’s the ‘owner’ of the Teachers Group,” Smith said.
Smith said employees paid by Planet Aid showed him “Deeds of Contribution” and other types of contracts they said they were required to sign if they wanted to keep their jobs, promising to donate 20 to 100 percent of their salaries to Teachers Group.
“In the language of the contract, it talked about pledging their time. That’s all of their time,” Smith explained. “Pledging their money and pledging their right to live where they want to live over to what they call the Association. And that Association is the Teachers Group.”
Smith said some Planet Aid employees in Africa told him they were cut off from their families. “People who have left the Teachers Group describe themselves as having felt trapped.”
But as a reward, a few of the Africans told Smith they were sent to a 494-acre proprety in Baja, Mexico. “By the account of a number of people that have been there that we talked to, it is the home of Mogens Amdi Petersen, the fugitive leader of this organization, as well as his inner circle.”
Mexican property records estimate the complex is worth $25 million, and according to the FBI file the I-Team obtained, investigators believe Petersen owned condominiums in Miami worth $10 million and hid potentially millions more in offshore bank accounts.
Several European countries have expelled charities connected with Teachers Group, including Denmark, Great Britain and France, which labeled the organization there a “non-religious cult.”
Here in the United States, Planet Aid continues to receive non-profit status, meaning it doesn’t pay any taxes.
Planet Aid did not agree to a request for an on-camera interview but told the I-Team in a statement, “Planet Aid has managed projects that improve nutrition, strengthen education and prevent disease in the developing world for nearly two decades.”
Crocker said after just one year with Planet Aid, she secretly packed her belonging, and left.
She was able to eventually get her money back but now tells anyone who asks about donating to a Planet Aid box “to not do it.”
Planet Aid gave the I-Team the following statement:
Planet Aid has managed projects that improve nutrition, strengthen education, and prevent disease in the developing world for nearly two decades. We greatly value our relationship with the U.S. Government, and the success of our work with U.S. Government agencies has been well documented. We will always cooperate fully with official audits and reviews of our projects, but we are unaware of any proposed or pending investigations.