The Miami Herald
August 2, 2000

Free U.S. military surplus proves costly giveaway for charity group

Panama machinery in legal limbo


 PANAMA -- Like victims of a bureaucratic war, the rusting corpses of machinery
 sit in the deserted warehouse: Two trucks. A crane. A forklift. A steamroller. A
 tractor. Two all-terrain vehicles. Piles of outboard motors, meat grinders, kettles,
 tool kits, electric saws, fire extinguishers.

 Abandoned by the U.S. military as it withdrew from Panama last year, the
 equipment was once destined for Honduras, where it would help rebuild villages
 wrecked by Hurricane Mitch. Instead, it is trapped in a legal twilight zone, one of
 several casualties of a far-ranging investigation into the giveaway of $40 million of
 American property.

 An American charity has legal titles to much of the property. Panamanian
 prosecutors say it belongs to the U.S. government. And the U.S. government is
 not talking.

 Meanwhile, the equipment is rusting away, and the bills are mounting.
 Panamanian companies say they are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in
 unpaid charges for storage and repair. And charity officials say they have run up
 tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and other losses.

 ``I never dreamed charity would be so expensive, or so dangerous,'' said Steven
 Foster, a Georgia physician who founded Corazon a Corazon, the relief
 organization ensnarled in the dispute. ``It's the sort of thing that gives you a lot of
 second thoughts.''

 Not only is Foster facing mounting financial losses, he's one of the targets of
 investigations by Panamanian and American authorities -- including criminal
 probes by the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Army's criminal
 investigations division -- into what happened to the property abandoned by the
 American military as it withdrew from its bases in Panama last year. He was
 picked up by Panamanian police and questioned for several hours last month,
 though no charges were filed.

 The investigation has given the community of nongovernmental organizations
 doing relief work in Central America -- many of which get help from the U.S.
 government with transportation and other logistical matters -- a collective case of
 the jitters. Internet sites operated by the charities bristle with worried messages.

 Miami consultant Jorge Giráldez-Benard, who has worked with several groups
 distributing aid in Central America, calls the case ominous. Adds Janet Ray
 Weininger, whose Miami-based charity Wings of Valor delivers relief supplies to
 Nicaragua: ``Dr. Foster may have made some mistakes, but it's really hard to see
 how this all turned into a criminal matter.''

 Foster, 43, operates a clinic in Dalton, Ga., about 90 miles north of Atlanta.
 Moved by the devastation he saw on television in the wake of 1998's Hurricane
 Mitch, he set up Corazon a Corazon (Spanish for Heart to Heart) to help rebuild
 Indian villages on the Atlantic Coast of Honduras, distributing hundreds of tons of

 In early 1999, Foster heard that the U.S. military, overwhelmed by the task of
 emptying out bases that covered 95,000 acres of Panamanian territory, were
 giving away millions of dollars of equipment to relief organizations. Foster signed
 up Corazon a Corazon for the program.

 By early spring, he had sent 13 shipping containers of mostly school and medical
 equipment to Honduras. U.S. military authorities also gave him three 1970s-era
 landing craft. ``Those are perfect for getting into the isolated communities on the
 Honduran coast,'' Foster said. ``They can get into coves and rivers that are much
 too shallow for ordinary boats.''

 Foster's group sailed two of the landing crafts to Honduras and put them to work
 delivering supplies. The third, though, leaked badly and had engine problems, and
 Foster put it into a Panamanian boat yard for repairs. From legal documents filed
 in Panama by criminal investigators from the U.S. Army and Justice Department,
 it appears that decision was a fateful one.

 The documents accuse Foster of transferring ownership of the landing craft to a
 private Panamanian company called Amerecom, changing its name, and using it
 to haul commercial loads.

 And, they added, the connection between Foster's charity and Amerecom was
 suspicious, because Amerecom's president and founder, a retired Army colonel
 named William Anderson, was also a program manager at a defense contractor
 that was in charge of distributing excess equipment from U.S. military bases to
 the relief organizations.

 Both Foster and Anderson denied there was anything improper in their business
 relationship. And they -- along with officials at the Panamanian shipyard -- said
 the title to the landing craft was never transferred from Corazon a Corazon.

 Foster admits that after the landing craft was repaired, it did some commercial
 hauling to help defray storage costs.

 ``The idea that I made any money off this is crazy,'' he said. ``I've spent money.
 I'm probably out over $100,000 at this point.''

 No charges filed against Foster and Anderson, but the Army and the Justice
 Department say their investigations are still open. Meanwhile, the last load of
 equipment donated to Foster's charity -- including the final landing craft -- remains
 in limbo in Panamanian warehouses and docks, running up new storage charges
 every day.