In four small rooms on the fifth floor of an office building in Rosslyn is an agency whose name symbolizes the good intentions of the American people and their government: the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad program.
Since it started in 1971 under the Agency for International Development, ASHA has given more than $100 million in federal funds to demonstrate, in the words of one of its congressional overseers, "American ideas, American Practices, American advances in the field of education and medicine."
Despite the program's intent, however, there are growing signs that ASHA also has been involved in some far less praiseworthy activities.
Federal investigators looking into allegations of congressional influence peddling involving Rep. Daniel J. Flood (D-Pa.) and former representative Otto Passman (D-La.) have been interested in the program. On Thursday New York Rabbi Leib Pinter pleaded guilty to bribing Flood with at least $5,000 for favors.
Pinter told investigators that one favor he received from Flood was Flood's influence in getting Passman to pressure ASHA for a $1 million grant for a school Pinter sought to have built in Israel. Passman was chairman at the time of the House appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, which handles the AID budget.
ASHA officials said yesterday that their records showed an effort by Passman on behalf of the school but that the grant was turned down.
AID officials claim that some of the dozens of ASHA projects have proven to be worthwhile. But interview with past and present AID officials as well as documents released recently to The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act show that ASHA spent millions of dollars for projects abroad that were included only because of intense pressure and threats from a handful of powerful legislators.
Several of the programs, according to ASHA's most recent director and other officials, were given large sums of money after congressional pressure even though ASHA's investigators said the programs were not suitable for funding and should be rejected.
The most vocal and persistent congressional figure to lobby for some of the most controversial programs was Passman, according to AID officials.
"The ASHA program was Passman's water faucet," said a former AID official, who asked not to be named. "He turned it on or off whenever he felt like it. AID never challenged him because officials felt it was a small price to maintain his goodwill."
John Hannah, AID director from 1969 to 1973, said Passman "was only interested in two things - selling rice and ASHA."
"We would go round and round with Passman on some of these programs," Hannah said. "If we were doing the deciding we wouldn't have put the money where we did. But they were his pet projects and we had to go along."
Passman has been indicted on charges of receiving cash from Korean businessman Tongsun Park in return for urging Seoul to buy Louisiana rice through Park. Passman was also accused of putting pressure of AID officials to approve financing of the rice sales. He has denied the accusations.
According to former ASHA Director Arture Costantino, Passman was personally responsible for as much as 20 percent of the grants made by the program while he was in Congress.
One project, called the Ecole TEC and later the C.M. Strauss School in Paris, was funded for $250,000 by ASHA over the strenuous protest of Constantino, according to ASHA documents.
The records show that in July 1972 Constantino inspected the school and reported back in a letter, "All I can say is that this one is another project to stay away from."
On Oct. 18, 1972, AID records show Passman went along with Constantino's recommendation that the school not be funded. "Mr. Passman indicated that he did not want to sponsor any project which could be described as 'irregular' and agreed not to give further consideration to the school despite Mr. Clifford Strauss' urging," a Costantino memo states.
One week later, another memo says, Passman reversed himself. "Unfortunately, Mr. Clifford Strauss of Monroe (La.) prevailed upon Mr. Passman) informed me this morning that he had to have a letter by this evening which he will take with him to Louisiana indicating the agency is reserving $250,000 for the school."
Strauss, a wealthy retired wholesale grocer and Passman financial supporter, denied in a recent interview that he exerted any pressure on the congressman or that he even knew very much about the school. He said he never visited the school after it was funded, despite the fact it was named after him.
The idea of naming the school after him was Passman's, he said. "The whole idea for this thing was Passman's," said Strauss.
Strauss, during a telephone interview, read a letter he said he received in 1974 from Jack Friedman, head of "American Friends of TEC," the group that sponsored the grant request for the Paris school. In the letter Friedman noted that the school's construction site was paid for by funds from the Rothschild Foundation. The letter does not mention what happened to the ASHA money.
Friedman, a New York nursing homeowner, said in a telephone interview recently that he approached Passman in 1972 to get the school funded. After he spoke with Passman he said he called Strauss in Louisiana. Friedman said, however, that he could not recall why he had telephoned Strauss or what they had discussed.
Passman has refused to comment to The Washington Post on any aspect of his dealings with AID.
Another project in Israel funded by ASHA after heavy congressional pressure was the Beth-Bluma Vocational School. Costantino said he agreed to fund the project only after heavy pressure from former House Administration Committee chairman Wayne Hays (D-Ohio).
"The school didn't even own the land where they said they were going to build with the money they wanted from us," Costantino said. "That project came to us from the bosses."
Costantino said he went to Hays to protest. "He said he had an interest in getting the project funded," Costantino recalled. "Then he said, 'You folks have too many people on your staff because you had someone investigate.' He threatened to cut our staff in half if we didn't go along."
The school was funded for $1 million. An audit report by AID released last month notes that none of the money was spent as of Feb. 28 this year and the audit was canceled without a site visit to the school.
In another ASHA program an AID audit shows that the World Mercy Fund, a private nonsectarian organization in Alexandria, Va., received just over $900,000 from 1970 to 1976. The money, according to AID officials, was used to build and equip three field hospitals in Nigeria.
The AID audit said, however, that World Mercy has not been able to show whether the money was ever used to build the hospitals. "World Mercy officials in Alexandria stated many of the records had been misplaced and it was doubtful if they could ever be located," the audit said.
In addition, the audit said the organization had failed to transfer the money to Nigerian banks, as required by terms of the ASHA agreement. John Rooney, a Roman Catholic priest who heads the World Mercy program, said the funds were mixed in with other accounts and "used in the procurement of Nigerian pounds and services at 'black-market' rates of exchange," according to the audit.
Rooney said in a recent interview that the money was deposited in U.S. banks. He said it was used to reimburse U.S., British and Italian businesses and individuals in Nigeria who loaned World Mercy construction funds.
Rooney said that he had no records to support his story. He also said World Mercy made a substantial profit on the currency transaction. AID officials said yesterday they have demanded that a large amount of the World Mercy funds be repaid by the organization.