FOX 5 asked Planet Aid for a response to many of the allegations made by its critics and former members. Planet Aid denied our request for an on-camera interview, but did provide answers to questions Fox 5’s Investigative Reporter Tisha Thompson asked via email over the course of several weeks. Below you can read Thompson’s questions and the answers provided by Planet Aid’s General Manager Fred Olsson.
April 21, 2009 response to letter requesting on-camera interview:
Thanks for your interest in Planet Aid. At the present time, an on camera interview with the local operations manager won't be possible for various reasons. Planet Aid is one of several dozen organizations that are part of the International Humana People to People movement. Member organizations in 40 countries carry out more than 265 development projects. Planet Aid has supported 50 of these projects over the past 10 years. USDA recognizes the capacity of Planet Aid and its sister organizations to carry out crucial development programs in Africa and has awarded several grants to Planet Aid for small-farmer development, rural education and the fight against the devastating AIDS epidemic in Mozambique and Malawi. I am not aware of a recent trial in Denmark that is linked to Planet Aid through any business, financial or managerial relationships that should be having any effect on our work in the US or internationally. Our independently audited finances, annual reports and tax returns are all publicly available and should provide anyone with all the necessary information about Planet Aid.
May 6, 2009 e-mail response to follow-up questions
Thank you for responding to my inquiry. I've been doing some more research and have these questions based on your previous response:
You say that you're not aware of a trial in Denmark linked to Planet Aid. On January 20, 2009, Poul Jørgensen of the organization Tvind was convicted in the Danish court system. In paper work filed for the case, the Danish government claims Tvind is the parent organization for Humana People to People Movement and Planet Aid. This same paperwork claims Tvind uses non-profits like Planet Aid to move money through a complex financial network to personally benefit the highest leaders of Tvind. The American government used some of this paperwork to extradite Amdi Petersen, the leader of Tvind and another defendant named in the initial case, from Los Angeles to Denmark to stand trial. During the course of the lawsuit, Petersen fled and is currently wanted by Danish authorities. The watchdog group "Tvind Watch" also claims Planet Aid and Humana People to People Movement are part of Tvind. Were you aware of any of these facts? What is your response to these allegations?
Resp.: As we have already stated Planet Aid, Inc. is not party to any court case and none of the persons mentioned above has any relationship with the organization. Planet Aid, Inc. is an independent, US non-profit organization, governed by a board in accordance with all relevant laws and regulations. Whether the statements above represent facts or not has no relevance to Planet Aid.
FOX 5: I have been told that the non-profit version of Planet Aid was shut down by the British government because the government there decided the money was not being used for charity/non-profit purposes. Is that true? I've been told other incarnations of Planet Aid have also been expelled in France and Denmark. Is this true?
Resp.: Planet Aid, Inc. does not have, and has never had, any affiliates in the UK or France – or any other country for that matter.
FOX 5: I did go through your recent tax returns, which show you do give quite a bit of money away. But the vast majority, if not all, of the money appears to go to other Humana People to People organizations. Are there any organizations Planet Aid donated money to in the last few years that are now controlled or owned by Planet Aid, Humana People to People Movement or its affiliated organizations, or Tvind controlled groups? If so, what are their names?
Resp.: Planet Aid, Inc. is a member of The Federation for Associations connected to the International Humana People to People Movement, Humana People to People for short. It is an International membership organization based in Switzerland. Between the member organizations, Humana People to People this Federation has 30 years of experience being on the cutting edge of international development programs. Planet Aid, Inc. is therefore confident that money donated to any of the national members of Humana People to People is very well spent. This is also evident from the impressive results and the reports that we receive.
All NGO’s that receive support from Planet Aid are independent organizations, governed by boards in accordance with regulations of the specific country they are operating in. They are not controlled by Humana People to People or any other foreign entity.
FOX 5: Who do you sell the clothing to? I have been told it is a company based out of Atlanta, GA?
Resp.: Planet Aid, Inc. sells clothing to some 100 different customers of whom approximately half are in the US, and the rest are all over the world. The US customers are spread all over the United States, many of them are local in the states where Planet Aid, inc. operates, and many are in Texas and the NY area where there is a strong tradition of used clothing businesses. We have no customers in Atlanta, GA, but the brokerage firm that Planet Aid, Inc. uses for selling its considerable volume is located in Atlanta.
May 8, 2009 response to additional follow-up questions
Thank you so much for these responses…I have one last thing to ask about. Cult experts here in the United States say Planet Aid is part of a cult, often referred to as “Teacher’s Group” or “Tvind.” In the 1990s, France labeled Humana a “non-religious cult.” On Planet Aid’s website, you say some of your members are part of the Teacher’s Group and that Planet Aid has been accused of “cultish” behavior. So I’ve got to ask: Are you or any of the leaders listed on Planet Aid’s tax records Teachers Group/Tvind members? Is Planet Aid part of a cult?
Resp.: I cannot believe you are expecting me to answer these questions. Planet Aid, Inc. does no record personal affiliations, memberships, beliefs or ideologies of its employees on any levels. We regard this to be personal matters not relevant to the opeation of the organization and certainly not something that we would share with the general public.
As for the Planet Aid being a cult. That is a most ridiculous claim. We have close to 200 people working in Planet Aid on a daily basis, they come to work, clock in, do their job and go home. People work in Planet Aid for the same reasons they work anywhere else, to make a living and provide for their families. Obviously most of us, if not all, appreciate that we are able to do so while doing good for the environment and for people struggling in poor countries. I do not know what a cult expert is or how such a person arrives at his or her conclusions, but I can assure you that nobody has ever talked to or approached anyone involved with Planet Aid with questions related to such a claim. I don't know where these so-called experts are getting their "information" from. May I recommend that you check the validity and methodology of your sources just a bit before quoting their claims as facts.
At this point, having done our best to answer you various questions, we wish you good luck with your piece.
Fox 5 aired its first story on Planet Aid on May 12, 2009 and decided to air a second-story on the cult allegations June 9, 2009. Thompson sent additional questions to Olsson to prepare for this second story. On June 8, 2009, Planet Aid provided the following response:
FOX 5: We are in the process of putting together a second story on Planet Aid, to follow-up on the previous story we broadcasted about a week ago. I wanted to give you, your Chairman Mikael Norling and other representatives from Planet Aid as much of an opportunity as possible to respond to some of the allegations that have been made about your charity. You may remember, I originally asked to meet with someone from Planet Aid in person, to do an on-camera interview, when I put in my original interview request with you. I would like to reiterate that request and to let you know I would be very happy to meet with you in person to discuss the questions below.
We have found considerable evidence linking you and other top leaders to Tvind/Teachers Group. Is this accurate? Are there any top leaders who are not members of Tvind?
Resp.: Planet Aid is a not-for-profit organization that collects used clothing within the United States. To be clear, Tvind is the name of a locality in Denmark. The Teachers Group is a group of individuals, including teachers, concerned with education and the eradication of poverty. Of the approximate 250 people working at Planet Aid, less than 5% are Teacher Group members. We do pride ourselves on employing a very diverse work force and our employees represent many different beliefs, ethnicities, convictions and life experiences. What holds us together is the joy of doing something worthwhile. We appreciate the fact that our work keeps textile out of landfills, reduces CO2 emissions and helps thousands of people in developing countries create a better future for themselves and their children.
FOX 5: You previously state Planet aid is not part of Tvind, but how would you respond to these allegations? In the Danish court case against Amdi Pedersen and Poul Jorgensen, Planet Aid is named as a Tvind organization, as is International Humana People to People Movement and its other member organizations. The charging documents go into detail about how Tvind members moved money from Planet Aid/GAIA into Tvind accounts. The 300+ page verdict against Poul Jorgensen links Humana directly to Jorgensen and Tvind. Some of your members, like Mikael Norling and Uli Stosch, describe themselves as Tvind members in various publications. Five of your original Board of Directors, including Norling, are Tvind members. One, Jonas Israel, testified in the Danish case. In addition, some of Planet Aid’s web links are registered to www.e-advice.dk, which shares the same address as Tvind in Denmark. I’ve had former Planet Aid and Humana employees tell me that you and Ms. Stosch consider Planet Aid, Humana, IICD, US’Again and Garson & Shaw are all Tvind organizations.
Resp.: I have not read the entire transcript of the trial. However, I am able to assure you that Planet Aid is a completely independent entity operated consistent with all federal and state statutes and regulations. It is audited annually, as required by law, by an independent third party auditing company. Consistent with its charitable purpose, Planet Aid donates money to a number of Humana People to People operated projects every year. The donations are in most cases made in the form of money transferred to their accounts. A smaller portion is given as gifts in-kind. Just like other 501©(3) non-profits, we have a variety of people from various backgrounds, beliefs and convictions represented in our organization. Nobody indicted in the Danish court case has any involvement with Planet Aid. Jonas Israel was a board member for a few years, but he is not indicted, he is simply a witness. As for E-advice, it runs a website hosting service and we are subscribers
FOX 5: Several published articles say Planet Aid was started by Tvind under Norling and Bodil Ross Sorensen, another defendant in the Danish case. How would you respond?
Resp.: Planet Aid was started by myself along with a couple of other people who are no longer involved in Planet Aid. Mikael Norling worked in Planet Aid for some years and now holds a position on the Board. Bodil Ross Soerensen has never been involved with Planet Aid in any way shape or form.
FOX 5: Can you please explain Planet Aid’s relationship to Humana? In your tax records, Humana is listed as an “affiliate.” On your website and annual reports, you describe Planet Aid as “a member” of Humana and that your projects are “operating under the umbrella of Humana.” In your annual reports, you also give examples of how your employees worked at, are trained at and meet with Humana’s staff that serves as Planet Aid’s “technical and administrative staff.”
Resp.: Planet Aid is a member of The Federation for Associations connected to the International Humana People to People Movement – commonly referred to as Humana People to People. Some 34 national organizations are members of Humana People to People. HPP assists members with program development, holds conferences, coordinate aid, etc.
We occasionally participate in conferences and we have a program where young people interested in a career in Planet Aid are offered a “Manger in Training” program that also includes 3 months work in a project in Africa. We also receive management trainees from the projects in Africa who come to Planet Aid in a learning and cultural exchange program,
FOX 5: There are nearly 50 articles published by well-respected news organizations, including The Boston Globe and The UK Guardian, that link Planet Aid to Tvind and call one or both a cult. Are all of these newspapers wrong? If so, why does the label continue to stick?
Resp.: Planet Aid is an independent entity committed to its charitable purpose. The articles you cite appear to be irresponsibly based on unsupported rumors and allegations. By and large they all quote the same source – and each other. I have examined the list you sent me with these articles and less than 10 are actually about Planet Aid. They clearly reflect a lack of understanding regarding the mission and purpose of our organization.
I can assure you that we are always ready to share the stories about what we do and are proud of our accomplishments. As a result of Planet Aid’s work and with the assistance of HPP (discussed above), we have improved the health and living conditions of countless thousands of Africans in the past ten years. Sadly, without our assistance many would be consigned to a life of poverty and ill-health.