By Finlay Young for ProPublica, May 3, 2019
Monrovia, Liberia — Seven months ago, protesters thronged the streets here, demanding that the American charity More Than Me be held accountable for the rapes of girls it claimed to be saving from sexual exploitation. ProPublica had revealed how charity leaders gave senior staff member Macintosh Johnson significant power over vulnerable students, missed opportunities to keep them safe, were not transparent about the extent of his abuse and did not take steps to safeguard all possible victims when they learned Johnson had AIDS when he died.
In a country where abuse of women is endemic but often kept quiet, the investigation seemed to spark a kind of reckoning. Musicians, poets and artists spread the message that rape should be reported and those responsible should be held accountable. Activists erected billboards referencing the ProPublica story’s headline: “We are Unprotected.”
The Liberian government took the unprecedented step of establishing a seven-agency “joint ministerial committee” to investigate. The charity announced it would conduct two separate inquiries: one guided by its U.S. board of directors and another by its Liberian advisory board. The latter would take “2-3 weeks,” officials said in October.
With the reports still pending, founder and CEO Katie Meyler resigned in April. A charity spokesperson said Katie Borghese, the marketing director and former board chair, is gone, and former President Saul Garlick, a senior adviser, is leaving the organization.
But those who promised transparency and accountability are sending mixed messages about whether it will ever come.
Officials with Liberia’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, which is leading the commission, said it was a high priority but was taking time because of the involvement of multiple agencies. “We are very sure that there will be justice served,” Deputy Minister Alice Johnson Howard said.
The minister of justice, whose sex crimes prosecution unit had teamed up with the charity to discredit our reporting before it was published, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. The minister of education did not respond to a letter, a message with his communications department, a text message or three visits to his office.
Few countries have relied on international aid as much as Liberia, and few charities have gained as much proximity to power as More Than Me.
This continued even amid a 2015 trial held behind closed doors, in which 10 girls testified that Johnson raped them after the charity put him in charge of their scholarships and that it sometimes happened on school premises. Meyler, who did not testify in the trial (which ended with a hung jury), was traveling internationally with Liberia’s then-minister of education, George Werner, selling the idea of donors funding charities and private companies to manage the country’s struggling primary schools. The Liberian government ultimately awarded the charity 18 public schools to run, as part of a larger program.
“Consideration of safety records wasn’t part of it,” a member of the original selection panel told ProPublica. “Some of us knew something had happened … but we were just judging their proposal. And More Than Me is very good on paper.”
In the wake of the ProPublica investigation, the Liberian government announced that the 18 schools would be under supervision amid its fact-finding.
On March 23, as Liberia’s minister of education, Ansu Sonii, described the success of this program onstage at a global education summit in Dubai, a journalist asked about the More Than Me scandal.
Sonii said: “I wish it never happened again. And I’d like for us to close that case, really.” He said it was “a single incident, happened five years ago.”
But just nine days earlier, another incident was reported by a Liberian journalist. The headline: “Dismissed Principal of More Than Me School … Suspected of Sexually Assaulting Students.”
Reporter Henry Gboluma, a journalist with Local Voices Liberia, reported in a radio segment and article that Arthur Sharpe, principal at the government school the charity operates in a rural town called Bomboma, was fired after an incident the night of Nov. 29. The principal was selected and paid by the charity.
More Than Me’s spokesperson declined to answer any of ProPublica’s questions on the matter and said they should be directed to the Ministry of Education, which did not respond. ProPublica reviewed communications and statements obtained by Gboluma and conducted its own interviews.
Late at night, after a dance in the town, the principal told a 14-year-old girl to bring two other girls to him, she said. Then, he took her by the blouse and arm and began escorting her toward his house. Teacher Daniel Tokpah saw them. Tokpah said he shone his flashlight on them as they reached the door; the girl pulled away and ran. Then, the two men fought. The upper edge of Tokpah’s ear was bitten off. Residents said Sharpe left town after the incident and never returned.
ProPublica could not reach Sharpe. Gboluma’s story cites a handwritten statement he says is from Sharpe: “I was truly under the influence of alcohol and was unable to record whatever went wrong or right. … I was standing with one of the students and I saw a light shining right in my face.” The statement says Tokpah hit him with the light. “I don’t remember anything about taking any girl into my room that night.”
Ten days after the alleged incident, the charity’s chief program officer, Alexandra Fallon, sent a letter to the government’s district education officer, Charles Kabba, copying the school’s PTA chairman and attaching an internal incident report and statements. Fallon wrote that the charity had put Sharpe on unpaid administrative leave and asked the local official to “investigate this situation to determine whether the reported incidents are true.”
Kabba told ProPublica that he then went to the town and took statements, but that he didn’t have any control over Sharpe because he was not on the government’s payroll. He said interviews he conducted did not suggest previous misconduct by Sharpe. Residents told ProPublica Kabba and Sharpe are friends, but Kabba denied this. Gboluma’s radio piece uses a sound bite from what he said was an interview with Sharpe: “MTM people visited me several times. … They know where I am. So I did not escape from anybody.”
Gboluma’s article quoted Bomboma residents who said problems with the principal extended beyond the one night. Deddeh Sirleaf, chairwoman of the town, is heard on the radio segment saying girls had come to her multiple times, telling her the principal was “giving hard time … they say, at night the man can disturb us.”
The dusty orange road that runs north from Monrovia to Bomboma cuts a narrow, bumpy path through deep green forest. The small town is barely 50 miles out, but it took almost four hours to reach in a Toyota Land Cruiser. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, questions about the incident attracted a curious crowd.
Residents said how happy they were with the charity’s involvement in the school. Enrollment had surged. Teaching improved. Matenneh Konneh, a volunteer community health assistant at the school, said what happened was just a disagreement over music when both men were drunk. “I was on the scene for all,” she said, though she later said she had been in bed during the fight.
Nobody mentioned the girl.
After ProPublica noted the alleged involvement of a student, general town chief Francis Chowoe made an announcement: “I will say to my citizen, for anything that will go over media, before they talk, they should prove it. If you don’t prove it, I will take you to task.”
He said the town, and the school, do not accept rape. He had heard of no previous complaints and had not been present that night. The girl involved was a relative, he said.
Sirleaf, the chairwoman whose voice was captured in the reporter’s story speaking of complaints she’d heard from girls, now said: “Whether he involved in girl business? I not hear it, and I not see it.”
She said complaints she had heard were about the principal overreaching with discipline.
Stephen Kollie, a teacher at the More Than Me school speaking in a personal capacity, said the issue was what he called “entity protection” of the charity. “That the same thing happened in Monrovia should happen again? It’s embarrassing for the institution.” He said parents were worried about the repercussions of a scandal. “The institution is the one helping them here. If there is issue that might cause the government to retrieve the partnership with that institution, that is their concern right now.”
With permission from her guardian, ProPublica spoke to the girl.
“The man not do anything to me,” she said. “That night, we didn’t do anything. People say the man rape. The man not rape.”
She said she didn’t know why he was pulling her to his room. “I was scared.”
It wasn’t the first time she had been to his room. She said she and two other girls used to go there to get his clothes, to wash them for him. “We were friends,” she said.
During the conversation, a woman interviewed the day before stood by the school. She had grown irate at ProPublica’s questions. “I thank God for the work they are doing with our children,” Hajah Kamara, mother of five daughters, had said about the charity. She said the principal was a good man, a pastor who fed the children when they were hungry and provided discipline at night, with a rattan. “If you need 5 dollars, he will give you 5 dollars,” she had said. In the background, she was now visibly upset by the interview, and remonstrating to a More Than Me supervisor.
“The man not do anything,” the girl repeated.
“I forgive the man. I only want the man to come back.”
The list of questions ProPublica sent the charity included whether it had sought references and conducted a background check — a process the charity said it implemented following Johnson’s arrest in 2014 and accusations against another longtime staffer in 2016. The spokesperson said she would return with answers.
ProPublica then spoke to district education officer Kabba on the phone. He said More Than Me had not followed up about the matter after sending the letter, but just that day, he had been asked by his superiors to write a report. “Now they carry the complaint to the deputy minister’s office. It’s surprising to me.”
A few days later, More Than Me’s spokesperson said the charity couldn’t comment as it was “an open matter with the Liberian government.”
The charity would not say when it will release the results of two inquiries it announced following ProPublica’s report.
In October, its U.S. board announced an “in-depth, external audit of our organization” to be overseen by law firm McLane Middleton, and said it would be “transparent in communicating the findings and recommendations we receive.” Asked earlier this year whether the findings would be made public, the spokesperson said, “We anticipate their learnings will be meaningful, and expect to share the steps we incorporate to continue improving.”
The organization’s Liberian board had also announced an independent panel to “come up with findings to get the Liberian perspective and present it to the public … in 2-3 weeks.”
Asked about it earlier this year, a representative of Heritage Partners, the Liberian law firm overseeing the panel, told ProPublica: “The investigative panel’s report is not intended to be published. The report will be submitted to the Liberian advisory board, which will make further determinations as to what should be done thereafter.”
More Than Me’s spokesperson said in April that the report was shared with the charity’s leadership “for purposes of verifying accuracy. The organization did provide additional information requested and one factual correction for accuracy, but no edits.”
The charity had said it would “establish a mechanism for anyone to submit information to the investigative firms anonymously.” The spokesperson now says, “While in Liberia, McLane Middleton had open office hours where staff, students and parents could come talk to them individually.”
The charity had said it would provide voluntary confidential HIV testing at the school. Now, the spokesperson says testing was not offered at the school “due to parental concerns about privacy and stigma.” The organization provided financial assistance to the government’s National AIDS Control Program to “offer in-depth training on HIV to parents, MTM Academy students and scholarship students,” which included how to access testing.
In West Point, the Monrovia community that was ground zero for Johnson’s abuse, the absence of the promised reports feeds disbelief. “We will not want to run judgment on allegations,” said William Wea, commissioner for the township. “We hope and pray for a full investigation.” He said he needed more proof to believe that Johnson had raped children and had AIDS when he died, describing him as “still one of our best sons.”
Facia Harris and members of the Liberia Feminist Forum continue to wear black each Thursday as part of their “We Are Unprotected” campaign, and they wait for the outcome of the government’s investigation.
“Women of Liberia have gone through years of abuse. Yet still our children are experiencing the same. And you expect society to be very angry that it’s happening. But people we would expect to be angry, they’re not,” Harris said.
“Their actions are not showing that they are angry.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by ProPublica.