Former Peace Corps General Counsel reacts to “5 Peace Corps Scandals”


William Josephson writes…..


Five Peace Corps scandals could have benefited from some fact checking, editing and consultation.

The overall impression is that they are characteristic.  They are not.  They occurred over a very long period of time.

“Scandal” is a misnomer in many of these cases.

The Kate Puzey 2011 murder is so well known that it engendered a congressional reaction, and the Peace Corps’ continuing efforts to develop effective policies that reduce Peace Corps volunteer sexual harassment or worse.

Bill Josephson

The death of the PCV wife of a Tanganyikan PCV dates to my 1960s time as Peace Corps General Counsel.  Not so incidentally, the husband’s verdict was “not proven,” not not guilty.  The Scottish system of three verdicts, guilty, not guilty, not proven, was followed there at that time.

The Tonga killing occurred in 1977.  Sex would seem to have been a, or the, motive.  Tragic it was, scandal?

The subsequent history of the defendant’s release in the States might well qualify as scandalous.  But what exactly did the Peace Corps have to do with it?  The story says that the State Department promised his mental hospital commitment.

Nick Castle’s death occurred in 2013.  The cause of death and whether or not it could have been prevented are unclear.  Hardly a scandal.

Not included, but certainly relevant, is the death in 2020 of Comoros volunteer Bernice Heiderman from malaria.  That probably could have been prevented if the Peace Corps doctor had properly diagnosed her.

I have previously written in this blog about the Peace Corps’s truly scandalous mishandling of John Peterson in 2019.  The Jody Olsen Peace Corps, as far as I know, has never defended, nor even issued an explanation, for its series of violations of long-standing Peace Corps policies, that staff, like volunteers, are not entitled to diplomatic privileges and immunities, nor to any other level of internationally recognized immunities under the Vienna Convention or bilateral treaties or executive agreements between host countries and the United States.

To call for the abolition of the Peace Corps, on the basis of two cases of possibly preventable deaths from medical causes, three cases of volunteer deaths related to sexual assault, one instance of staff vehicular homicide over 61 years seems more than extreme.

On the other hand, the current Peace Corps seems to be marginalizing itself, a handful of volunteers here and there in countries most not clearly central and certainly not due to lack of appropriations.

If the Republicans do well in the midterms, we can be sure that questions will be asked about the disproportionate level of program expenditures compared to appropriated funds.

How can we effectively correct the misleading public record this story creates?

Bill Josephson was the first lawyer to help lay the groundwork for the Peace Corps in February, 1961. Until May 1, he was the only lawyer in the new organization and he thus became the principal author of the President’s Executive order which brought the Peace Corps into existence. After his service to the agency, he would spend his career working at the New York law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP.


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  • So much good has come out of the PC experience that it saddens me that some would condemn the whole for a few maybe mistakes. Let’s learn how we can do better and move forward.. Thank you Bill for providing a bit of perspective.

  • Bill, I respect your opinion very much, Your analysis “that disproportionate level of program expenditures compared to appropriated funda” is, I believe, correct. I believe that recruiting people for diffecult jobs is a nationalwide problem. The military, hospitals schools, as well as the police are all underfunded and having trouble finding people to fill necessary positions. I think this is the
    problem Peace Corps is also having.

    I also think the USAToday article highlighting five scandals over 60 years as well as including information about the RPCVs who would like to see Peace Corps out of exisitence by 2040 are all designed to discredit the Peace Corps. I just don;t understand what is USAToday/ motivation for doing so.

    However, I disagree with your assumption that the “scandals” named are the main ones which have faced Volunteers over the last 60 years. Volunteers have had many problems due to inadequate medical care and lack of adequate protection from sexual assault and harrassment. Many have died in service. In the conference room at Peace Corps Headquarters, we do have our own wall with the names of those who died in service.We need to be very honest about what Peace Corps has accomplished, what it has not and at what cost to Volunteers.

    I would hope that kind of comprehensive evaulation could be done. I believe Peace Corps is worth it.

  • Bill,

    Actually, Tanzania did not follow the Scottish verdict system. Athough Judge Platt wrote as though he wished he could. Here is the language from the Judge’s decision:

    In this welter of conflict and speculation, the weight of the evidence seems to me to be fairly evenly divided. I think it would be wrong to say that there was not a genuine doubt that the deceased’s death could have been caused by accident rather than assault. It may be that with more astute investigation the accused would have been found guilty, but then, on the other hand, it is possible that it might have been proved to be a clear case of accident. Having given anx- ious thought to the evidence in this case, I am of the opinion that the charge has not been sufficiently proved against the accused so as to enable me to find that he is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. While the accused must, therefore, carry with him the suspicion that he may have been responsible for his wife’s death, he must, in justice, be acquitted and set free unless held for any other lawful cause. And I so order.
    Delivered in Court at Mwanza on 19 September 1966.20

    Bill, you were most helpful to me when I interviewed you about the case and I think everyone appreciates all you did and have done for the Peace Corps.

    Below is the text I wrote to the USA Today reporter:

    “I have read your article in “USA Today” about the Kinsey case. I think my book, Every Hill a Burial Place, demonstrates that the Peace Corps acted honorably in this case. Despite considerable criticism in the US asking that the military be sent in to liberate Bill, the PC officials allowed the case to go forward and for the Tanzanian justice system to function. In fact, Bill wound up spending 6 months in jail waiting for the trial. Initially, the Peace Corps did not pay for his defense, and only after the PC law was changed, and after trial, were they able to reimburse Bill’s family for the costs.

    In contrast with later responses by the PC, it seems to me that Paul Sack, Tony Essaye and other PC officials acted properly in the circumstances and in a most unfortunate case.

    At the same time, I commend you for shedding light on these issues. No agency should be exempt from criticism.”

    Peter Reid, author, “Every Hill a Burial Place: The Peace Corps Murder Trial in East Africa.”

  • Mr. Josephson,
    Your articulate defense against the absurd article alleging numerous Peace Corps “scandals” makes perfect sense, but misses one point. There is a scandal here and that the biased and irresponsible reportage of the original piece. That anyone with an axe to grind for any reason can author a piece of garbage such as this is a true scandal and the fault must be laid at the feet of today’s irresponsible social media.
    I would add an addition criticism of the original “Article” to what you wrote and that is the article’s conclusion that the Peace Corps should be ended because if it hasn’t already solved all of the world’s problems therefore it is time to end Peace Corps is conclusion that is a moral scandal. The article’s absurd logic is not worthy of any serious consideration. If this sort of illogic holds true does this mean that because Russia has not yet been ejected from the Ukraine should the Ukrainians welcome the Russian invaders? Does this mean that the third goal of the Peace Corps to bring global awareness back to the United States should be given up too?
    The absurdity of the original piece is monumental.

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