It’s the ultimate rags to riches story.
Big, yellow bins banking on your kindness.
Planet Aid says it now has more than 1,000 of these bins in our area.
“It’s a busy box, collect a lot of stuff,” says Charles Frank, the owner of an Exxon gas station on New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring. He let the charity put two of its bins on his property and says he can tell it takes a lot of work to collect all the donations. “The cost of doing all of this stuff,” Frank says, “I can’t imagine they can be making much money.”
But Fox 5 found Planet Aid’s tax records show the non-profit brought in almost $30 million in 2007 by selling the donated items.
Planet Aid’s president, Ester Neltrup, told Fox 5 in 2005 that “The money we generate from that, we donate to projects we support all over the world, mostly in Africa.”
But when we took a close look at it most recent tax records, we noticed many of the charities have the same address. Planet Aid claims it gave more than $2 million to about a dozen charities in South Africa, for instance. But all of those charities have the post office box in Johannesburg.
We asked the South African embassy to look them up for us. A spokesman for the embassy says none of the groups are registered charities.
Our investigation found all of the charities listed in Planet Aid’s most recent tax returns are controlled by the same parent organization, a group called International Humana People to People Movement, who according to its own website, also controls Planet Aid.
“It frankly makes my blood boil to think the public is being hoodwinked this way,” says British journalist Mike Durham. Based in London, Durham has spent a decade investigating Planet Aid and Humana and created a watchdog website devoted to them.
Durham says, “I would definitely characterize it as a form of what’s called transnational organized crime.” He says the British, French and Belgians shut down Humana controlled groups after officials found the money wasn’t being used for charity.
Instead, European investigators say the money paid for multi-million dollar homes, a yacht and off-shore bank accounts controlled by a Danish man named Amdi Pedersen.
Some consider Pedersen a cult leader, including nationally recognized cult expert Rick Ross.
“Amdi Pedersen began as a 1970s idealist,” Ross says. “He created what he considered to be a charity to help the Third World to help people. But over a period of time, it evolved into this labyrinth of corporations and charities that many call a cult.”
Danish court records from 2002 allege Pedersen instructed his followers to ensure the money was “protected from theft, taxation and prying by unauthorized persons” by creating a financial network so complex, it would become “a twisted access path with only ourselves as compass holders.”
Danish authorities say Pedersen controls as much as $850 million.
“Amdi Pedersen has control with a small group of leaders at the top and they control everything,” Ross says. “All of the charities, all of the people, all of the cash flow.”
The Danish government has tried to shut Pedersen down. In January, one of his top assistants was convicted of tax fraud and embezzlement.
But Pedersen vanished during the trial and has managed to evade an international manhunt.
“If he goes back to Denmark he will be prosecuted,” says Durham.
Planet Aid refused to do an on-camera interview with Fox 5, but did tell us in a statement it was “not aware of a recent trial in Denmark that is linked to Planet Aid” and that Pedersen does not have “any relationship with the organization.” As for calling it a cult, Planet Aid says that’s “a most ridiculous claim.”
But on its own website, Planet Aid admits some of its members do belong to Pedersen’s group, claiming “It is a lifestyle choice that may not be for everyone.”
“Planet Aid may present itself as a charity and its representatives will go blue in the face saying, ‘Yes, it is a charity,’” says Durham. “Placed in context, it’s a part of a really large and shady organization. No, it’s not a charity. It’s a means of making money.”