In the wake of a ProPublica investigation into More Than Me, the charity scrambled this week to answer questions about inaccuracies in its tax returns. One of its largest donors suspended funding, citing a violation of trust. And the charity confirmed another board member has resigned, as well as a member of its Liberian advisory board.
The story and documentary showed how the American charity, which set out to save Liberian girls from sexual exploitation, missed opportunities to prevent the rape of its students by a key employee who had AIDS when he died. The charity has since said it will provide private, schoolwide HIV testing for students at its academy. Officials issued an apology, for the first time acknowledging they failed the girls who were raped, and announced two independent audits.
In Liberia, where a multi-agency government investigation is underway, other journalism outlets are asking their own questions, adding to the pressure on the charity. The calls for accountability are intense, but so are pleas from the students of More Than Me for their academy to remain open.
The Novo Foundation, run by the son and daughter-in-law of Warren Buffett, said Wednesday that it recognizes the need to continue to provide for these girls, but it will find a way to do so while suspending the $330,000, three-year general operating grant it approved last year.
“We are working around the clock in deep exploration with organizations and networks on the ground to understand how we can support their efforts to secure the long-term solution that the girls and community deserve,” said foundation spokesman Joe Voeller.
He said the foundation’s grant-making is “predicated on a relationship of deep trust with our partners. … We expected the same level of transparency and honesty from More Than Me as well, but now see clearly that we did not receive it.”
He said that the foundation’s review of ProPublica’s reporting, and subsequent conversations with stakeholders, “make it clear that we did not receive a full or accurate picture of the multiple allegations against the organization, its response to those allegations, or needs that remained. The question you raise about (IRS) filings only adds to those concerns.”
Those questions involve $625,000 worth of contributions the charity reported to the IRS, but did not actually receive, and the fact that it regularly submits returns to the IRS based on unaudited financial information.
Saul Garlick, who was the charity’s treasurer from 2013 to 2015 and became president in 2016, wrote in a letter to the State Department this week that the charity applied for a grant but was turned down. The charity inadvertently included the funds in the list of contributors on Form 990 for the fiscal year ending 2015.
He said the same happened with $125,000 the charity listed as a contribution from the Barry and Marie Lipman Family Prize, which recognizes organizations “for leadership and innovation in the social sector.” The charity was not awarded the prize.
He said that the two line items weren’t included in other parts of the 990 that summed up contributions, grants or assets.
“We deeply regret this error,” Garlick wrote. He said that the charity will file a revised form with the IRS.
The 990 also listed a contribution by the U.S. Agency for International Development for $94,000. The agency funded a nonprofit called Mercy Corps, which then gave a sub-grant to More Than Me during the Ebola outbreak.
Officers of charities must sign 990 forms that are true, accurate and complete “under penalties of perjury.” However, the charity’s Form 990 for the year in question states that “no review was or will be performed by the board prior to filing with the Internal Revenue Service.”
An examination of the charity’s Form 990s from formation to present shows that More Than Me has been submitting them based on unaudited financial statements.
Marcus Owens, a lawyer who once ran the Exempt Organizations Division of the IRS, told ProPublica it’s not uncommon for charities, particularly small ones, to submit 990s on the basis of unaudited financial statements, but “as an organization increases in size and complexity of operations, the failure to have audited statements begins to look like a red flag, or warning to regulators that there may be issues.”
“If they don’t have audited financial statements, that’s a weakness in internal controls,” he said. “And that means they are vulnerable to diversions of money, they are vulnerable to diversions of assets. It means management doesn’t necessarily have a good handle on the financial health of the organization.”
The law in New Jersey, where More Than Me is registered, states that non-exempt charities with annual revenues over $500,000 are obligated to submit annual financial reports to the state, and these must include audited financial statements. Reports should be submitted within six months of the end of the charity’s fiscal year, though extensions are sometimes granted.
A charity spokesperson said, “MTM has filed their historical audits with the State of New Jersey and are in compliance. MTM has filed for an extension for FY2017 and expect to file their audit financials once they are complete.”
While MTM submitted its 990s based on unaudited financial information, the charity has subsequently done audits, although not until up to two years later. It is not clear whether the charity amended each of its earlier filings, but figures in the charity’s 990s based on unaudited financial information sometimes differ significantly from statements later audited.
In the fiscal year immediately after the allegations of rape were reported, as the charity responded to the Ebola outbreak, revenue surged. IRS filings said revenue rose from $800,000 to $2.9 million; the later audit put this revenue figure at $3.5 million. Much of this was unspent, and according to the audit, the charity amassed total assets of over $2.8 million by the end of the 2016 fiscal year.
Many charities voluntarily post detailed financial reports on their websites, but MTM’s audits are not posted; the charity provided them to ProPublica upon request. The charity did not post its two most recent 990s until recently. In September, when ProPublica requested the tax return for 2017, MTM’s public relations representative initially refused but relented when told it was a legal obligation. This 990, also based on unaudited financial information, showed a significant decrease in stated assets. The charity explained there was a $658,826 “change in fund balance resulting from unaudited financial information.”
When asked about it this week, an MTM representative wrote that the organization is moving from a cash-based to accrual-based accounting, is preparing amended 990s based on audited financial statements and has three years from submission to do so. “MTM plans to file 990s based on audited financials going forward. ... It is common for end-of-year balances of one year to be different from the opening balance of the following year when organizations move from cash-based to accrual-based accounting.”
The questions about finances are coming to light as other journalists look deeper into the charity’s operations. Front Page Africa, a Liberian investigative newspaper, has published daily coverage of the scandal. Among the most recent revelations by reporter Bettie Johnson-Mbayo: More Than Me is operating a charity while its Liberian government accreditation has expired.
The charity’s representative said it would be responding to Liberia’s minister of finance and development planning about this issue Friday.
Nonprofit Chronicles, which first reached out to charity supporters including the Novo Foundation, also revealed that a funding organization crucial to the charity’s growth, Washington-based nonprofit GlobalGiving, removed the organization from its platform in 2015 following an in-depth inquiry. The site connects donors to charities.
Chief Program Officer Britt Lake told ProPublica that while the charity was one of its most successful and prominent organizations, they conducted an internal investigation three years ago following concerns brought to them by former staff members and volunteers. Macintosh Johnson was charged with the rapes of 10 girls in 2014, though the number of his victims has been said to reach 30.
She said that regardless of the rape allegations, the concerns would still have merited an investigation, but “that piece of it made it particularly urgent.”
“Our role was to understand if we felt comfortable enough that checks and balances were in place to prevent something happening again,” Lake said.
The full report is private, but Lake shared the recommendations portion with ProPublica.
GlobalGiving cited the need to “grow and support a leadership team that has a broad and diverse set of skills”; “demonstrate commitment to acting in accordance with policies and procedures that govern MTM”; incorporate “feedback into its decision making processes”; “encourage accountability ... and the modelling of this behavior by senior management and Board”; “continue to educate and develop the Board of Directors on matters of governance, objectivity, and accountability”; and “support movement towards greater Board independence from MTM senior management.”
The recommendations also called for improved documentation and transparency on “not only successes but also failures and challenges, and more importantly… the lessons that MTM has learned from its failures and challenges and actions taken to improve future results.”
Lake says MTM’s response was that it had already done these things, but that “we weren’t sure that was actually the case.”
Lake says she can only remember removing a handful of charities in the platform’s 16 years. More Than Me did not respond to a question about this.
Two other large funders — the Moondance Foundation and the Segal Family Foundation — said that they were made aware of the sexual abuse allegations several years ago, and that the charity had informed them of measures taken in response. They remain in contact with the charity’s leadership about the situation.
Leadership in Flux
One way MTM sought to strengthen its governance after the rape allegations was through the formation of a Liberian advisory board and the inclusion of members with education expertise.
However, Rebecca Holmes, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Education Initiative, resigned from the U.S. board in the weeks before our story published, around the time ProPublica sent its list of findings to the charity for response. Holmes did not respond to a request for comment about the reason behind her resignation.
Liberian advisory board member Samuel Sampson, an education specialist for the Peace Corps in Liberia, has also resigned. He also did not respond to a request for comment.
The Liberian advisory board is leading the charity’s response on the ground by convening an independent panel to do an inquiry. But protesting activists told government officials they should scrutinize how involved the local advisory board has actually been in the charity’s operations until now.
In December 2017, Liberian advisory board member Nelly Cooper of West Point Women for Health and Development Organization told ProPublica that the last meeting she recalled attending was in 2015 — the same year the advisory board was formed.
A charity spokesperson said, “The Board of Directors is the governing body for More Than Me, and meets once a quarter. The Liberian Advisory Board is an informal group of advisors that meets less frequently and offers advice to the organization. They maintain an ongoing and engaged presence with the U.S. board and MTM’s Liberian-based team.”
The charity also confirmed that Garlick is no longer president. An MTM spokesperson said he was transitioned to the role of “senior adviser” this summer after his two year term ended and the charity “restructured the team,” though the website still listed him as president at least a month later. The charity has no president now, the spokesperson said. Alexandra Fallon, chief program officer, has taken on much of the responsibility.
MTM said its founder and CEO Katie Meyler remains on a leave of absence. Liberia’s Minister of Gender Williametta Piso Saydee-Tarr said the government wants to ensure that Meyler is to have no unauthorized contact with students, staff or the advisory board, no access to documents or role in day-to-day operations and should not draw a salary.
On Tuesday, More Than Me students marched in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, holding banners and signs with slogans such as, “Katie is our redeemer,” “Don’t hurt our hero” and “More Than Me is Katie / no Katie no MTM.”
The protests came after two closed-door meetings including parents and students. It is unclear who convened the meetings; an MTM spokesperson told ProPublica that the organization was aware of the meetings, but that it was not involved in them.
As girls in MTM’s black and red checked uniforms marched, journalists filmed interviews. Some students said they had been stigmatized by the report; others still questioned whether Johnson had AIDS when he died.
In clips widely shared by Liberians on social media, one student said that Johnson was “a very good man. … He helped us a lot. He made sure we were in school.” She said she wasn’t a victim, but that he had fondled girls and penetrated her with his finger. Under Liberian law, this constitutes rape if a girl is under 18. Her mother had told her to just avoid being close to him, she said.
Front Page Africa published a story claiming that Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor had met with parents and “sponsored” the protest. The vice president’s director of communications said meetings had taken place but denied that Howard-Taylor sponsored the protest.
The newspaper quoted a parent anonymously: “In one of our meetings, she told us not to push this thing too far. She made us to understand that (Macintosh) is already dead and Katie should not be held for his action, especially since the new government is re-investigating the case.”
Two days after her inauguration in January, Howard-Taylor visited the MTM Academy. But two days after ProPublica’s report she issued a statement saying she “vehemently” denounced “this act of exploiting our young girls and putting an organization’s interest before the lives of our children.” She was later presented with a list of demands by protesters seeking accountability for what happened within the charity.
She promised a “thorough investigation.”
MTM has begun to give information to Liberian officials conducting a multi-agency government investigation. The charity provided the letters Meyler wrote to officials just after Johnson’s arrest, disclosing that girls had reported sexual abuse, as well as a timeline of measures charity officials say they took after Johnson’s arrest.
The charity’s committee of board members overseeing its internal review announced it has retained the law firm McLane Middleton to conduct the “in-depth, external audit.”
In a news conference last Friday, Saydee-Tarr said the government has put its 18 schools run by More Than Me under supervision and are reviewing credentials of teachers at the charity’s academy. “We call for laws to be enacted immediately to make sure everyone teaching in Liberian schools is qualified,” Saydee-Tarr said.
She said government investigators want MTM to make a full declaration of assets and financial transactions. “Right now, it’s very heartbreaking that we haven’t seen many life changes for the millions of dollars raised for the support of these girls,” Saydee-Tarr said.
They want Meyler’s cellphone records from before and during the incarceration of Johnson. ProPublica reported that they’d had an intimate relationship years earlier and that she was in contact with him after his arrest.
The minister of gender said investigators want to question Meyler “about setting up a bad workplace by engaging in a relationship with her subordinate.” They also want to question the board of directors and charity employees.
The government is establishing rape task forces in each village, she said. “Sadly, no records exist at the Ministry of Gender of the case in 2014, and of what actions the ministry took during the trial of Mr. Johnson.”
At the conclusion of her news conference, Saydee-Tarr said, “We finally want to debunk the myth that before Katie Meyler came to Liberia, no one cared about the poor girls of Liberia. That is not true.”
But in one protest banner, MTM parents declared the opposite, saying of Meyler:
“She had been there for us when (no) one else was.”