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NGO founder ‘shocked’ at USAID rap of funds misuse

MANILA, Philippines—An emotional Ma. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda on Friday denied the charges filed against her by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for allegedly falsifying documents to hide the misuse of at least P210 million ($5 million) in funds donated to the Visayas Forum Foundation Inc. (VFFI), a nongovernmental organization she founded in 1991.

The VFFI president said she was “shocked by the malicious attack” on the NGO  that she had “built for 20 years with blood, sweat and tears,” but vowed to “continue to provide services for victims of exploitation and human trafficking” (and allow) “our body of work to speak for itself.”

The USAID asked the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in August to probe the foundation over funds for the group’s projects that it said were missing.

“We have recommended to the Department of Justice the filing of charges of falsification of documents. More serious charges could follow,” said NBI antigraft chief Rachel Marfil-Angeles.

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

 

Leading antitrafficking group

The foundation, considered the leading Philippine group in the fight against human trafficking, had also received financial support from international companies Starbucks and Microsoft.

Its founder has been tapped as an adviser to the Philippine government as it seeks removal from an international watch list where human trafficking remains rampant.

Angeles said the NBI has asked the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) for records pertaining to VFFI, including those of the group’s beneficiaries.

“The auditor in her initial findings said there were indications of lack of beneficiaries and discrepancy in records submitted to other government agencies,” the NBI antigraft head said, adding that the result of one audit showed that the VFFI had listed 100 victims rescued, while the DSWD record only showed 30.

The VFFI, Angeles said, is a member of the IACAT whose members also include Vice President Jejomar Binay and the NBI.

Oebanda said she felt betrayed by the action of the US development agency, a partner of the VFFI in its antihuman trafficking campaign, but promised to clear the foundation’s name in court.

 

Funding suspended

In a phone interview on Friday, Oebanda said the VFFI was a USAID partner for more than six years but funding was suspended without prior discussion three weeks ago.  She added that she received a letter from USAID officials saying that their funding was suspended pending the outcome of an investigation.

Oebanda also clarified that what was being audited was USAID funding worth P97 million, not P210 million, which the VFFI received from 2005 to 2011.

Oebanda said she was thinking of returning the awards given her by the US for her pioneering work.

In 2005, the US Department of State recognized the VFFI as exemplifying one of the international best practices for its antitrafficking partnership with the Philippine government and private shipping companies, and cited its founding president and executive director for the impact of her work.

In 2008, Oebanda was named by the same US department as one of its Heroes Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery in its Trafficking in Persons Report. The US Department of Labor also presented her the first Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor in 2010.

The former leftist rebel known as “Kumander Liway” in the mountains of Negros in the late 1970s has denied NBI findings that a big portion of the money donated by the USAID to the VFFI is missing.

 

Money accounted for

“The money was all accounted for and spent on beneficiaries, contrary to what they are saying,” she said.

Oebanda said the statement of the whistle-blower about her ordering that receipts be faked “were not true.”  She also denied that 32 boxes full of fake receipts were taken from the VFFI office.

“Audit was still on-going and the auditors did not present to us their findings so we could explain our side,” she said, adding that aside from the audit, “a parallel impact evaluation is also being done and (would) involve third person testimonies. (This) will show the Visayan Forum’s activities and contradict allegations (that there were) no beneficiaries.”

The VFFI official said she was looking forward to the hearing of the case so she could face her accusers and clear the foundation’s name.

“We are ready. We are not hiding anything,” Oebanda said.

Oebanda also dismissed as an “intrigue-sower” the whistle-blower who reported the alleged anomalies to USAID.

“She was with (VFFI) for four years, and when she was still here she was described as intrigera,” she said.

The charges have apparently started to worry some of VFFI beneficiaries.  A survivor of human trafficking interviewed by Inquirer said she was concerned that the controversy would affect the help extended her by the foundation.

“I was 14 when I was rescued by VFFI from a cybersex den. I am now 19  and studying (to be a) social worker in Philippine Christian University,” she said.

“Paano na ang mga katulad namin na tinutulungan ng foundation.  Sa mga sinabi nila, baka magsara ang foundation (What will happen to us now?  The charges might close down the foundation),” she said.

The foundation’s headquarters in a residential area in Cubao, Quezon City, is inside a compound where new two buildings are separated by a small garden.

VFFI employees hold office in a three-story building, while the other building is the foundation’s livelihood learning center, said the VFFI staff. With reports from Jhunnex Napallacan and Carla P. Gomez, Inquirer Visayas; and AFP

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