Free U.S. military surplus proves costly giveaway for charity group
Panama machinery in legal limbo
BY GLENN GARVIN
PANAMA -- Like victims of a bureaucratic war, the rusting corpses
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
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
An American charity has legal titles to much of the property.
prosecutors say it belongs to the U.S. government. And the U.S. government is
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,''
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
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
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
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
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
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
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