The unexpected and early resignation of Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams and the possible change in the political party winning the White House in November may mean trouble ahead for the Peace Corps. Four of the most egregious crimes against serving Peace Corps Volunteers occurred during a time of transition or anticipated transition from one political party in power to the other. The extraordinary number of political appointees in the Peace Corps agency and the always rapid staff turnover due to the Five Year Rule may have contributed to a lack of support to Volunteers during such times. Four crimes over more than thirty years do not a pattern make, nor are these by any means the only crimes against serving Volunteers. What they do is highlight the inadequacy of the agency’s response associated with a time of political transition.
The mid-70s were a time of political turmoil. Under threat of impeachment, Republican President Nixon resigned in August of 1974, and Vice President Ford assumed the office. Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter successfully challenged Republican Ford in the Presidential election of 1976. He took office in January of 1977. In October of 1976, PCV teacher, Dennis Priven, murdered Deborah Gardner, a fellow PCV teacher in Tonga. Priven was tried and convicted in the host country courts.The sentence could have been death by hanging. However, Peace Corps intervened and persuaded the Tonga government to release Priven into the custody of the United States government, with the understanding that Priven would be committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. Priven was returned to the US in January of 1977, the closing days of the Ford administration. For whatever reason, when Priven refused to be hospitalized, he was allowed to simply walk away from the Peace Corps agency. He suffered no criminal penalties. Gardner’s family was not even notified of his release. The crime, here, was not the actual murder, but the release of the criminal. Phillip Weiss, investigative journalist, has written of this tragedy in his book, American Taboo. Read an excellent review of the book, by RPCV Bob Shacochis at: http://www.salon.com/2004/07/20/weiss/
At almost the same time, February 11, 1977, the insurgency group, FARC, kidnapped PCV Richard Starr, a botanist serving in Colombia. Sam Brown was the newCarter appointment to head up the federal agency ACTION. Peace Corps was a subdivision of that agency. Neither the Peace Corps nor the State Department were successful in securing Starr’s release. He was held for three years, before columnist Jack Anderson was able to privately arrange ransom and Starr was finally released. (See: Remember with Honor http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/2019711.html)
The year 2000 was another year of political uncertainly. The Democrats had been in power for eight years. The Electoral College vote to determine the winner was not decided until December of 2000. Republican Bush was declared the winner. Sometime in December of 2000, Bolivian PCV Walter Poirier III went missing. Peace Corps Bolivia had lost track of the Poirier. Despite the efforts of his parents and the belated response of Peace Corps, Poirier is still listed as missing.
In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency and the Democrats took over the White House after eight years of Republican rule. All political appointees at the Peace Corps, including the Director, resigned on January 21st 2009. A new Director was not confirmed until the following August. In March, PCV Katy Puzey was murdered in her site in Benin. Again, Peace Corps was criticized for its handling of this crime. The outrage over this crime led, ultimately, to the Katy Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011. Provisions in that law are designed to protect Volunteers. It is hoped that these new legal mandates will continue to provide for safety and security for Volunteers during such transitions.