The leader of an international religious organization accused of mishandling funds for starving Africans today called the charges a "witch hunt" and said his group had provided $168,575 so far for Ethiopian relief.
At a news conference, International Christian Aid (InterAid) president and founder Joe Bass and his staff presented telexes from their Amsterdam office and an Antwerp lading bill to show that an automobile, medical supplies and protein blend food had been dispatched to Ethiopia in late December.
Last week a French medical team in Addis Ababa said it had not received money and supplies promised by the California-based relief and religious organization.
Bass, who cut short a Mexican vacation to respond to the charges, said today that it had needed time to compile the data and that much of the organization's aid apparently had been delayed in transit from Europe and by Ethiopian red tape.
In the meantime, he said, "it appears to me there is a witch hunt going on. Wild and reckless statements have been made, which are not only unfair to our organization but also hurt all relief efforts and, ultimately, the needy people we serve."
Bass said he was channeling much of his aid through the Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA), which he said is an umbrella group representing many foreign organizations and is headed by a Brother Augustine O'Keefe. A spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development said it had no record of such an organization. There was no reply today to a telex sent by The Washington Post to an Addis Ababa number for CRDA provided by InterAid officials.
The California state attorney general's office has begun an investigation of InterAid, based in Camarillo, Calif., for possible misappropriation of funds. Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury, who has also been investigating complaints from former InterAid employees about misuse of funds, said today he will meet Thursday with federal prosecutors interested in the case.
Bass, a Christian minister, said InterAid has a two-man medical team in Ethiopia led by Dr. Eric Mercier. Mercier, reached by telephone in his Addis Ababa hotel room, verified this and said three more team members were waiting in Kenya for Ethiopian visas.
Mercier said he is French physician with several years experience in Africa. He said he began working for InterAid in September and "I have no problems with them so far."
He said he had located the $10,000 in drugs dispatched to the French group, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) on Dec. 26 and planned to deliver them later Tuesday. He said the drugs had been temporarily lost in a shipping mix-up.
Bass described his organization's activities in Ethiopia since it began on Nov. 9 a major U.S. advertising campaign for contributions for starving Ethiopians.
Using newspaper ads, mass mailings and television appeals, InterAid raised $251,487 for Ethiopian relief by Dec. 31. Bass said another $83,000 has been collected since then.
Bass said InterAid spent $25,000 for 25 tons of protein blend food dispatched Dec. 19, $12,500 for a Landcruiser shipped Dec. 21 and $10,000 for the drugs shipped via Ethiopian Airlines. He said, on top of $6,000 in initial expenses, an additional $115,075 was dispatched Dec. 31 for the support of Mercier's team. Mercier said he thought that money was now waiting in Kenya.
Bass said "grossly overstated reports" that he had raised $20 million for Ethiopian relief "created a major problem." He said that the Ethiopian government was demanding that "the full nonexistent millions" be spent and that Brother O'Keefe had "expressed confusion."
Bass said of the $33 million raised by InterAid worldwide in fiscal 1984, 16.5 percent was spent on fund-raising and 3.8 percent on administration.