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An “Astonishing Failure”: Independent Panel Concludes Charity Missed Opportunities to Prevent Rape of Students

Jun 19, 2019 | , ,

In a damning and wide-ranging report, commissioned in the wake of a ProPublica investigation into rape at the American charity, the panel said the charity may have violated a child protection law and could be sued.

By Propublica

In 2016, a girl came forward to say she had been raped by a staff member of More Than Me, an American charity that sought to rescue Liberian girls from sexual exploitation. He was the second employee to be accused of violating girls in the charity’s care; the first had AIDS and died in jail just months earlier, after a trial in which 10 of the charity’s students testified he raped them.

With the Liberian government having just signed on to allow the charity to run a number of its public schools, More Than Me president and onetime board member Saul Garlick raised what he called a “critical question” in an email to its U.S.-based board:

“We are going to be operating … 6-9 schools starting this Fall and these issues will arise again,” he said. “Is it something that [the] board wants to know about every time? Is it appropriate for whenever there are charges being pressed? It’s a tough balance and there is the reality on the ground in Liberia.”

The email was one of many previously unseen documents cited in a damning and wide-ranging 108-page report published by a panel appointed by the charity’s Liberian advisory board. The panel was created after a ProPublica investigation last year found that the charity’s leaders missed opportunities to prevent the rapes of girls in its care. It follows an independent audit released last month, launched by the charity’s American board, which identified deficits in the charity’s child protection practices and sharply criticized founder Katie Meyler, who resigned from her position as CEO in April.

This report, assembled by a panel of Liberian civil society leaders and headed by a prominent local lawyer, attributed Meyler’s conduct to inexperience. It put much of the responsibility on the charity’s American board, which had “either a limited appreciation of or a deliberate indifference to the responsibility of corporate directors.”

The panel, which conducted its work pro bono, called the board’s conduct an “astonishing failure of oversight and/or refusal to accept responsibility and be accountable.” It cited possible violations of a raft of provisions of Liberia’s Children Law of 2011, which include a requirement to assess and respond to “any risk that may result in any child’s vulnerability to abuse, exploitation and neglect.” The charity “may be held liable civilly,” the panel said.

The American board, in a communication from its legal representative, Nixon Peabody, to the head of the panel prior to publication, commended the panel’s “dedication and intensive work” but declined the panel’s offer to comment on its findings, stating its “paramount concern” was “the complete independence” of the panel. The board said it “did not commission the investigation nor did we have any input into the membership of the panel or the scope of its work.” The only change the board had requested in the process was “the omission of a footnote that maintained a misstatement of fact.”

In a statement to ProPublica, a More Than Me spokesperson said that the board cooperated fully with the inquiry and added: “We want to once again acknowledge and apologize for past failures by More Than Me in safeguarding our students. As we wrote recently to the Government Ministries with oversight of MTM, ‘No child should ever have to endure sexual abuse, and we are profoundly sorry some of our students were victimized. We sincerely apologize to those who were harmed, and we deeply regret their suffering.’

“We recognize words are not enough, which is why we are exploring taking action through governance changes,” the statement said. It said MTM should be led by Liberians, on the ground, “to ensure a safe learning environment for our students. Our hope is that the restructured organization, in close partnership with the government of Liberia, as well as the communities it serves, would be best-positioned to continue to improve the educational opportunities for all students.”

The panel’s conclusions are based on a review of documents, including emails and meeting minutes, and interviews with 37 people including Meyler, former board members and survivors. ProPublica independently reviewed 89 items which were supplied as an appendix to the report and linked to in a spreadsheet provided to the panel by Meyler. These documents supplied to the panel, which found ProPublica’s work was “supported by the records, and is not specifically denied by MTM,” also offered some additional insights.

The Aftermath of Widespread Rape

The report paints a picture of a sexual predator, Macintosh Johnson, placed “in almost exclusive charge of the selection of the vulnerable children … who would benefit from the [More Than Me] scholarship program.”

Survivors told the panel he “had repeated sex with nearly all of them at will and in many places on the MTM Academy compound during and after school.” During school hours, Johnson would cite disciplinary measures that generally involved confinement, then rape the girls once he had isolated them. Johnson would keep them after school, administrators and teachers were aware, and no one asked questions, the panel was told.

Once American staffers were informed of the abuse in June 2014, they turned Johnson over to police. But the panel found no evidence that the charity’s board ever had a meeting in the six months following his arrest where they discussed or took action to “establish the cause for the incident,” “accept or establish responsibility,” “authorize a probe” or “provide for the sustainable care and support of the survivors who have come forth and any other(s) who may later come forward or otherwise become identified.”

Excerpts of minutes from board meetings from the incident up to 2018 showed attention to the incident was “only in the context of staff updates on the indictment and trial of Macintosh, and no more,” the panel found.

A Focus on Public Relations

Emails supplied to the panel show the focus MTM and Meyler placed on public relations in the days after the arrest. In an update email, Meyler asked JPMorgan Chase, which had awarded the charity $1 million to open the school following a Facebook voting competition in 2012, to look over “PR plans” crafted by a specialist the charity contracted. (There is no evidence that JP Morgan staff did so.) In a separate email to then-interim-COO Jim Rettew, Meyler wrote: “We get Nick Kristof on board. We get Anderson Cooper on board. … Just think we can get ahead of all of this by calling up the most influential reporters and getting them on our side.” (There is no evidence she was successful.) Meyler could not be reached for this story.

Meyler’s goal, she wrote in the email, was to make sure that Johnson was convicted. But the panel found that the charity’s public statements were “carefully structured to achieve objective(s) not entirely focused on pursuing justice for the survivors.”

ProPublica’s reporting outlined how after Johnson’s arrest, the charity removed references to him from old blog posts, neglected to mention that multiple girls had said they were raped in the charity’s school, and failed to note the fact that a school nurse had kept quiet for five months after a girl disclosed Johnson had been abusing her since she was 11. The charity also minimized Johnson’s role in the organization; once called “co-founder” and “program director,” the charity presented him as a “community liaison” in the wake of his arrest.

The panel said it repeatedly asked Meyler, former board chair Skip Borghese and others for the basis of the sudden change in Johnson’s official designation, but none answered.

Borghese, who resigned after ProPublica’s story published in October, responded to the panel’s questions in a letter sent from his lawyer. It stated that Borghese was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the charity or the drafting of the press release. As he was not chairman of the board at that time, he “did not have the authority to convene meetings” and “did not control MTM’s actions.” Regarding the criminal prosecution of Johnson, Borghese “believes that MTM was cooperative, transparent, and supportive.”

Empty Promises

According to a document outlining its plans after Johnson was arrested, the charity would “form a strong Liberian advisory board” to “help us navigate the cultural/political/legal issues here in the long-term.” But the panel found that this board, assembled the following year, “has no effective authority or voice in the running of [More Than Me] and there is little evidence that they have had any formal consultation or meeting with the US Board in respect of [charity] operations.”

According to the panel, charity officials said at least one board meeting was held in Liberia with Liberian advisory board members in attendance, but Liberian board members told them it was “an acquaintance meeting with no substantive discussions.” Advisory board members learned of an abuse allegation against a second staff member years later, from ProPublica’s investigation.

Though the charity outlined promises in a press statement after Johnson’s arrest, the panel said it found no records to back up the establishment of a “coalition of partners…to jointly address sexual abuse of children in the West Point Community” or efforts “to ensure a smooth investigation, conduct [an] internal probe into the event, and ensure that it is an isolated incident.”

Lack of Cooperation in Johnson’s Trial

According to meeting minutes from six months after Johnson’s arrest, reviewed by the panel, Meyler talked about people helping the charity with the case but also told her board: “We want to distance ourselves.”

She and program director Michelle Spada didn’t testify in Johnson’s 2015 trial. His defense attorney built a case partly out of the fact that the people who had reported Johnson to authorities — the charity’s American leaders, including Meyler — were not testifying. Meyler had been romantically involved with Johnson, and the attorney used this to weaken the prosecution’s case. Meyler and her board knew this, according to board minutes.

The director of the sex crimes prosecution unit, John Gabriel, told the panel he had not been directly involved in the trial, but that multiple lawyers who were, including a U.S. government adviser, told him, “MTM, especially Katie, did not fully cooperate with the unit.” They had been told Meyler would not be in the country and officials were “shocked to learn that indeed Katie had been in country.” Gabriel said, “Katie should have been here to take the stand, because after all she was a key complainant. … I don’t know if it was done by inadvertence. I don’t know why she failed to appear.”

This was in direct conflict with what he wrote to ProPublica last year, in a letter delivered by More Than Me’s public relations representative. The letter said testimony from Meyler and Spada was not necessary. A prosecuting attorney in the case told the panel it was “essential.”

Meyler gave the panel emails showing the prosecution unit was in contact with MTM’s team on the ground in Liberia and had her contact details. She told the panel: “I was never asked to testify. If I had been asked to testify, I would have testified.”

Questionable Conduct Amid a Second Abuse Case

According to an incident report obtained by the panel, a girl came forward in 2016 to report that she had previously been raped by longtime staff member Cyrus Cooper, at an after-school art program held for MTM’s scholarship students at his house. She said that the abuse began when she was 9, and that Johnson had also raped her at the same location. Like Johnson, Cooper had leveraged his influence to continue the abuse, threatening her family, she said.

According to the incident report, charity officials suspended Cooper and visited the sex crimes prosecution unit with the girl and her family to report the crime, but no formal complaint was made. Then, the charity sought legal advice. Officials were informed that since the abuse didn’t take place on school grounds, it was “up to the parents and student to press charges.” According to the incident report, MTM official Laura Smith went back to the sex crimes unit to ask what MTM’s legal responsibilities were, and she was told the same. Last year, Smith told ProPublica a decision was made by charity leaders that the charity should not report the case to the police, but that she helped the family. A More Than Me staff member attempted to meet with Cooper at his house to pay out the rest of his contract, but he was already gone. ProPublica spoke briefly with him last year, and he denied the abuse. The panel did not speak to him.

According to the incident report, the girl and her family, sometimes with the support of a Liberian staff member, sought to report the case to legal authorities over a period of weeks but were “given the run-around” and were “ready to give up because they are not being taken seriously.”

Two months later, on July 8, Garlick wrote an email informing the board that “the whole thing has been handled confidentially, but we are able to discuss now that progress in the Liberian Judicial system has stalled.” He said the abuse ended in 2013 “after [More than Me Academy] opened for its first year (we believe).” It was at the end of that email that Garlick asked whether the board should be informed every time charges are pressed. The panel asked Garlick for the board’s response to his question; he said there was nothing in writing.

The panel concluded this question “gave the impression that less [of a] premium was placed on the importance of safeguarding [the charity’s] beneficiaries, and this conclusion is inescapable even if one accepts his claim as being new in the job as president of the organization.” Garlick should “accept full responsibility and liability for his actions and omissions that contributed to [the charity’s] failure to have reported

the Cyrus Cooper rape incident to the competent authority.” Garlick did not respond to ProPublica’s request for further comment on the panel report.

Four months later in November 2016, Garlick and board chair Borghese issued a statement that contradicted his earlier email to the board, saying the alleged abuse happened “several years ago, prior to the opening of More Than Me Academy.” The statement gave the impression Cooper had not been on staff at the time, and said MTM “supported the child and her mother in bringing forward a case.” A Dec. 15 letter to then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, signed by all board members, said the same.

In its response to the panel, the MTM board asserted attorney-client privilege concerning communications with their lawyer, and stated “More Than Me went to the Sex Crimes Unit with the victim and her mother to file a complaint, which they did.” The panel report states it was told by unit representatives that no formal complaint was ever filed with it or the police.

Victim Support Increased Amid ProPublica’s Reporting

Documents linked to in a report appendix showed the charity’s support to rape survivors changed after ProPublica started asking questions in December 2017. By that point, four of the 10 girls who testified against Johnson were still in More Than Me-supported foster care, but the other six, who the charity said had returned to their families, were no longer receiving additional support. (The charity told the panel it spent $36,000 on the girls in the three years after Johnson’s arrest.)

On Feb. 1, 2018, the charity signed a memorandum of understanding with the sex crimes prosecution unit. More Than Me would channel funds to the unit to provide for monthly counselling sessions for the survivors, distribution of school materials, and to monitor foster homes. The support amounted to $840. According to the agreement, “In December 2016, none of the girls received a holiday gift, while in December of 2017, funding was distributed to purchase a gift for all the young women.”

In January, at the prosecution unit, More Than Me staff questioned some of those same survivors and their mothers about what they had told ProPublica and asked them if they wanted to take back their stories. All said yes.

A week later, the charity’s public relations representative had sent ProPublica the letter from unit director Gabriel, which praised the charity, attacked the ongoing reporting and included the now-contradicted assertions about Meyler’s testimony.

Then in May, as a result of feedback from an independent evaluation of its child protection practices, the charity “decided to provide additional life skills training and individual counselling to each of the girls,” contracting a social worker. The More Than Me board told the panel that in addition to the payments via the sex crimes unit, the charity spends “roughly $12,000 annually for the 10 girls.”

The investigative panel described the “quantum and uncertain duration” of this support as “manifestly inadequate, especially in light of the fact that at least one of the survivors is HIV+.” It recommended a substantial increase in support which “could entail the establishment of a trust fund for survivors known and others that may come forward or be identified in the future.”

In a statement to ProPublica, an MTM spokesperson said: “We are committed to continuing our support of the 11 survivors who have come forward. We have been working closely with the Ministry of Justice to understand how best to support these young women — now and in the future — and to formulate a plan with the Ministry to provide for their ongoing education and care.”

Panel Says Meyler Should Accept Responsibility or Be Held Liable

The panel noted that the young women interviewed expressed their appreciation of Meyler and did not complain or make demands. One said: “We the girls, ourselves were at fault,” because they were not forthcoming about the abuse. “Katie was talking to us; she even pleaded with us, we did not say it so.”

Still, the panel found that their abuse could be traced to Meyler’s poor decision-making, lack of policies, romantic relationship with Johnson and insufficient response when Johnson’s ex hinted that he abused children. In failing to report her suspicions, Meyler “breached the duty of care owed the children and her safeguarding obligations to the survivors.” The panel found she should “accept responsibility and/or be held liable to the fullest extent of applicable law.”

Meyler, in a letter to the MTM board concerning the panel’s draft report, stated that when she heard something that made her feel “uncomfortable,” she “immediately took appropriate measures to investigate and conduct due diligence to ascertain whether Johnson had committed any misconduct and to ascertain whether there was truth to or evidence of my concern;” this included interviewing the girls, Johnson’s ex and “numerous members of the community.” The panel found these denials “neither credible nor adequate.”

The panel said that Meyler, who claimed she had been misquoted multiple times in a draft report, tried to influence the investigation and its findings, including having some of her current and former workers, “including her cook and security guard,” appear before the panel “under the guise of being residents of West Point.”

Disagreement, Disassociation and Lawyers’ Letters

The investigative panel was appointed by the Liberian advisory board to give the Liberian perspective, but in the end, there was disagreement over the panel’s findings, whether the charity now accepted it was responsible for the rape of children in its care, and whether the report should even be released.

letter from the Liberian advisory board to the panel said, “More Than Me takes full moral responsibility for the actions and/or inactions that allowed this tragic incident to occur,” but highlighted choices of language it saw as “unduly negative” and “factually unsubstantiated.” The letter went on to say, “elements of the panel’s report carry an avoidable risk of provoking a number of possible law suits for libel.”

The final communication from the U.S. board, which is also known as the global board, came from its lawyer. It said two of its former members, Garlick and Borghese, were now also “represented by counsel.” Citing communications by the U.S. board and panel head Negbalee Warner, the letter concluded: “It is clear it is the panel and your firm, and not MTM, that has the responsibility and authority to publish the Final Report.”

The panel released the report at a press conference on June 1, with no one from the charity present. In its report, citing what it called the U.S. board’s continuing failure to accept any responsibility, sensitivity to public discussion, decision to assert attorney-client privilege in respect to some questions from the panel and its later “disassociation from the work of the panel,” the panel concluded it had “substantial doubts as to whether MTM currently has or can cultivate the requisite commitment, governance and transparency and sense of responsibility fit for its mission and operations in Liberia.”

The panel found “the facts of the incidents, horrible as they are/were, are not as troubling as the persistent failure of MTM to have accepted responsibility for the incidents, learn from them, and, working with partners, forged ahead with accountability, improved procedures and transparency…”

In a statement, an MTM spokesperson said, “We are mystified and saddened by the Investigatory Panel’s last minute change of heart about the current MTM Board, especially as the Panel acknowledge[d] with appreciation the Global Board, ‘who greatly contributed to the completion of [its] work.’ The Global Board cooperated fully in all investigations, including the Panel’s.”

Charity Keeps Mum About Funders, Another Case of Alleged Rape

More Than Me’s latest Form 990 tax return submitted to the IRS and posted on its website last week show that in the same year ProPublica published its investigation, the charity more than doubled its revenue as compared with the previous fiscal year.

Unlike in previous years, and despite repeated requests from ProPublica, More Than Me has chosen not to make public the part of the form that details who funds it. Asked whether the charity had plans to inform its supporters of the panel’s findings, particularly the thousands of social media followers on whom the charity’s success was built, a spokesperson said: “More Than Me plans to provide updates on their website, through social media and in donor communications when they have substantive news on the organization’s plans going forward.”

The Liberian government still has not released the results of a multi-agency inquiry it launched after the ProPublica story last year. Officials said they expected that it would come last week, but nothing has yet been released. However, two days after the investigative panel’s report was released, a June 3 briefing by the Liberian Ministry of Gender mentioned for the first time allegations of rape, sexual misconduct and failure to report suspicions of sexual abuse at another one of the 18 government schools run by More than Me.

Olmestord Nyeneh was one of three male teachers mentioned in the briefing. He told ProPublica all had been selected by MTM and brought to the school when the charity took over its operations. He said he was not a government employee and had been paid a stipend by the charity. He said he had learned in 2017 that a colleague raped a 14-year-old student in a classroom, and that he told his superiors at the school, but nothing happened.

Later, he heard the teacher made sexual advances on other students. He said he eventually reported it to an MTM supervisor this May. As they investigated, he was accused of harassment by a student, an allegation he strongly denies. He, the teacher accused of rape and the principal who allegedly didn’t report the matter have been suspended. He told ProPublica he had never been given child protection training.

MTM’s spokesperson said: “Allegations involving two teachers, both Liberian government employees working at Fofee Town Public School, were recently brought to MTM’s attention. MTM immediately informed the government, which is now investigating, As this is an open matter with the Liberian government, More Than Me cannot comment further.”

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