Albanian Daily News - Dec 02

US Investigates Funds Misuse

Albanian Economic Tribune

PRISHTINA - US disaster relief officials are investigating the possible misappropriation of money intended to go to winter relief programs for poor villagers in Kosovo, the Associated Press reported.

US officials working in Prishtina declined to give specifics on the case. However, a source close to the investigation put the amount potentially missing at $800,000 to $1 million. US emergency programs to help Kosovo residents through the winter exceed $40 million.

According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the money was directed through a unit of the US-based International Rescue Committee in Macedonia, which was given the money to buy roofing and winter materials.

The source said that an IRC employee set up a shell company with the help of a woman in Macedonia. The money was then diverted to the company to buy the materials, which were never purchased. The IRC employee has since disappeared, the source said.

US Agency for International Development officials in Washington, DC, declined to confirm the details of the allegations, saying that the case was in the hands of internal auditors. Jess Sarmiento, a spokeswoman for USAID, insisted they acted as soon as any potential irregularity appeared. Ed Bligh at IRC in New York said the agency was aware that USAID was looking into the mismanagement of a grant. He would not elaborate.

Aid agencies in Kosovo have been racing through this devastated province in hopes of carrying plastic sheeting, wood stoves, lumber, blankets, food and clothes to thousands of people bracing for the region’s harsh winter. The need is overwhelming: some 125,000 homes are severely damaged. Aid groups are trying to create one warm dry room per house, but even that ambitious goal takes into account that up to three families will agree to live under one roof in some cases.

The massive effort to provide winter relief supplies has been plagued by difficulties throughout Kosovo. Though USAID suffered troubles in procuring enough lumber and getting it into the province, it has insisted in recent weeks the problems had been solved. Deliveries were expected to be completed in a few weeks.

Pam Fessenden, of the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in Prishtina, insisted that no one in Kosovo will suffer as the result of any missing money.

"We watch our programs very carefully," Fessenden said. "If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have been alerted to the potential of missing funds."

She also insisted the investigation won’t have an impact on the existing winter relief programs.

"We have several different mechanisms by which we can procure shelter materials," she said. "The only thing I can say is that we have other contracts that are delivering."

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