A federal judge sentenced two Liberians on Tuesday to nearly 12 years in prison in the theft of more than $1 million in U.S. aid meant to help rebuild their war-torn country.
Joe Bondo and Morris Fahnbulleh were found guilty in November of conspiracy and fraud for the theft of food and construction materials when they supervised rebuilding projects for Christian charity World Vision.
World Vision administered a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and designed to deliver commodities like surplus U.S. wheat and oil to Liberians. In exchange, residents were to rebuild their communities after 14 years of civil war that killed more than 250,000 people, displaced millions, demolished the country's infrastructure and nearly collapsed its economy.
Instead, prosecutors said that beginning in 2005, Bondo and Fahnbulleh had the food sold at market for their own profit and used construction materials and U.S.-funded aid workers to build multiple personal homes.
They also were accused of forcing subordinates to falsify reports of food deliveries, warning them that they could lose their jobs if they didn't cooperate and paying some workers hush money for their silence.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said their crime might be worse than financial frauds such as the one committed by financier Bernie Madoff.
"There's no greater harm that can be done to someone who is hungry than to deny them food," Walton said.
Prosecutor John Borchert had asked the judge for a sentence of 258 months _ one for each of the towns they cheated. He said the victims were often illiterate and included pregnant and lactating women, children and people who sometimes didn't even have access to a toilet.
"Of all the people in the world, why would you cheat these people?" Borchert asked. "They cheated these people because they thought they could get away with it."
Fahnbulleh's attorney Cary Clennon responded that the prosecution focused not on the leadership of World Vision Liberia, but subordinates "who were easy pickings" and did not get rich from their schemes.
"It turns out to be poor people stealing from even more poor people," Clennon said. He asked for a sentence of no longer than four years for his client. Instead, Walton gave each man 142 months and ordered them to repay World Vision for the losses _ which prosecutors acknowledged would be a symbolic measure since it's unlikely they will have the resources for such a large restitution.
In early 2007, World Vision got an anonymous tip that its food deliveries were being diverted. It sent auditors to 258 Liberian towns that supposedly benefited from the program. The auditors found 91 percent of the food was not delivered and 34 of the towns didn't even exist.
A third World Vision supervisor charged in the scheme, Thomas Parker, is a fugitive.
Prosecutors said the three men built three to four houses each in the area around the capital, Monrovia, and bought new vehicles every few months. Outside Bondo's house was a water pump that prosecutors said was intended for a World Vision project.