RPCV John Peterson (Senegal) gets out of jail . . . out of Tanzania . . . out of the Peace Corps

 

Story Highlights—from USA Today

  • Peace Corps employee John Peterson was paid $258,000 while on leave and under investigation after killing a woman in a 2019 hit and run in Tanzania, records show.
  • The Peace Corps paid the family of the woman Peterson killed just $13,000, despite a federal law that allows the agency to settle such claims for up to $20,000.
  • The crash happened after Peterson had been drinking at a bar and picked up a sex worker, according to the Peace Corps. Peterson never faced charges in Tanzania or the United States.

John Peterson sat in a Tanzanian police station in August 2019, capping off a chaotic driving spree that left a mother of three dead on the streets of Dar es Salaam. But before he could be criminally charged, Peterson’s employer — the United States government — whisked him back to America and put him on leave while he was under investigation.

Records obtained by USA TODAY show U.S. taxpayers paid Peterson, a Peace Corps employee, more than $258,000 over the next year and a half. That included nearly $20,000 in unused vacation time and a $1,500 “special act or service award” paid about a week after his return to America, records show. When he finally resigned in February 2021, after the agency revoked his security clearance, Peterson’s final paycheck had just $602 in deductions related to the fatal incident, including the cost to tow the Toyota RAV4 he wrecked.

Meanwhile, the agency paid the family of the woman Peterson killed about $13,000, records show, despite a federal law that allows the Peace Corps to settle such claims for up to $20,000.

Family members of late Rabia Issa and a freelance Tanzanian reporter pray at the grave of the late Rabia at Msasani graveyard in Dar es Salaam Tanzania. Peter Mgongo, For USA TODAY

The Peace Corps paid more to the Tanzanian law firm it hired to negotiate the settlements with the deceased woman’s family and two other women Peterson injured, according to an invoice from the firm. The records do not indicate that Peterson’s victims had their own legal counsel during the settlement talks, which concluded about six months after the crash. In exchange for the payouts, the victims agreed to not make any legal claims against the agency or Peterson.

The financial records, obtained by USA TODAY through Freedom of Information Act requests, illustrate the broad protections afforded to federal workers involved in even the most egregious behaviors. Far less consideration was given to those Peterson harmed, including a grieving and impoverished family, despite the agency’s aspirational mission of spreading “world peace and friendship.”

Agnieszka Fryszman, a lawyer who specializes in international human rights cases, reviewed the settlements for USA TODAY and raised concerns over the apparent lack of legal representation for Peterson’s victims. She said she was particularly troubled because the woman Peterson killed, Rabia Issa, had two underage children who did not appear to have been appointed guardians to represent their interests, which almost certainly would have been the case if the incident occurred in the United States.

“They give up all their rights for this relatively low award,” Fryszman said. “And there’s some value to speed and quick recovery. But if people don’t really understand what their rights are and what they might be entitled to in order to protect their interests — and protect the interests of kids who are very young and might need support for a pretty long time — it just doesn’t seem fair.”

Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn, who has been nominated to lead the agency as a Senate-confirmed director, has repeatedly declined interview requests about Peterson. At an employee town hall in January, she said agency officials were restricted in handling the case by “laws and required processes” and stressed that federal law did not allow foreign service workers to be suspended without pay while under investigation. A spokeswoman declined to explain why Peterson’s actions required such a lengthy investigation.

Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn, pictured here in a screenshot from a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has said the Peace Corps was limited in how it could respond to John Peterson’s actions by agency policies and laws. Courtesy of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee

“Federal law and Peace Corps internal policies provide due process protections to employees under investigation for misconduct,” Peace Corps spokeswoman Karla Alvarado-Chavez said in a statement. “With regard to the incident about which you have inquired, Peace Corps fully complied with those laws and policies.”

Spahn, who did not lead the Peace Corps at the time of the Peterson incident, in January said the agency was exploring changes “to address some of the limitations that Peace Corps faced in this matter.”

Mary Kuntz, a lawyer who specializes in federal employment cases, told USA TODAY that federal law would have prohibited the Peace Corps from immediately firing Peterson and offered him other protections while under investigation. If the agency had moved hastily, she said, Peterson could have appealed his termination to a federal grievance board and received not only back pay, but damages.

Still, Kuntz said, 18 months of paid leave is excessive.

“Why in the world did it take 18 months to investigate a flagrant, awful situation that should have taken two weeks [to investigate]?” she said. “That’s my question.”

Officials from the State Department, which helped arrange for Peterson to be medically evacuated after the crash and jointly investigated the case with the Peace Corps’ internal watchdog, have repeatedly declined to answer questions about the incident.

Peterson, 67, has declined to comment through his attorney, Mark Zaid. Zaid, in a statement, said the “unfortunate incident” was handled by the government and that Peterson had no involvement in the settlement decisions.

New details on reckless spree

The records obtained by USA TODAY also include details about Peterson’s employment history with the agency in Africa, along with previously unreported elements of his 2019 fatal hit and run, which the agency said unfolded after Peterson was drinking at a bar and brought a sex worker back to his government-leased home.

Peterson signed up for the Peace Corps in 1977 at age 22 and volunteered in Senegal. Following two years of service, he worked at a Peace Corps training center in Senegal that was operated by an outside contractor and was eventually hired as training director, according to a letter of reference in his employment file. In the early 1990s, he joined the Peace Corps’ staff, working first in Togo and then helping to open the first program in South Africa, a historic moment for the Peace Corps following the end of apartheid.

The Peace Corps first sent volunteers to South Africa in 1997. John Peterson, second from the left, is pictured here with some of the first cohort of volunteers and then-Vice President Al Gore. COURTESY OF THE PEACE CORPS

The Peace Corps first sent volunteers to South Africa in 1997. John Peterson, second from the left, is pictured here with some of the first cohort of volunteers and then-Vice President Al Gore. COURTESY OF THE PEACE CORPS

Peterson returned to the Peace Corps in 2017 as the director of management and operations in Tanzania. Two of his former Peace Corps supervisors offered positive recommendations, both telling the agency in reference checks that they would rehire him.

In June 2019, Peterson received a $4,000 raise to his roughly $135,000 salary after his work was deemed to be “at an acceptable level of competence,” records show.

Three months later Peterson was drinking at a bar in Dar es Salaam and picked up a sex worker in his diplomatic-plated vehicle, according to agency records and interviews with people familiar with the events. He brought the woman to his home and paid her for sex, the agency said.

Around dawn, while driving the sex worker back to the area where he had picked her up, he struck and injured a Tanzanian woman who was in her early 20s. An angry crowd gathered. According to a memo summarizing the incident sent to the agency’s then-director, Jody Olsen, Peterson told the bystanders that he would drive to a nearby police station. Instead, he drove in the other direction, and a group of motorcyclists pursued close behind. (Peterson’s lawyer has said the crowd attacked Peterson, causing serious injuries. Peace Corps records say only that the group threw rocks at his vehicle.)

As he fled the scene of the first crash, Peterson hit and killed 47-year-old Rabia Issa as she set up the roadside stand where she sold fried cassava and other street foods to support her family. Peterson kept driving, and the sex worker he had hired leapt from his moving vehicle. Eventually, Peterson crashed into a large signpost and was taken into custody by police.

Peterson refused to take a breathalyzer at the police station but was ultimately released from custody so he could receive medical attention, according to the Peace Corps Office of Inspector General. Officials from the State Department and the Peace Corps have declined to say whether any employees from either agency helped secure his release.

Within hours of the early-morning crash, Peterson had emailed a photo of a page of his passport to the Peace Corps Tanzania country director. He left the country that evening on a plane that routed him through Ethiopia and Ireland on his way back to Washington’s Dulles airport.

Taxpayers covered the costs associated with the medical evacuation, including $4,800 for two airline tickets for Peterson and an escort and $400 in travel stipends. About a week after returning to the United States, the Peace Corps paid Peterson $1,500 for what records described as an “individual special act or service award” that had been approved by the agency two weeks before the incident.

While on leave with no work assigned to him, Peterson’s salary increased by about $18,000 over the following year and a half due to routine raises given to federal employees and because the agency reassigned him from Dar es Salaam to Washington D.C., records show. (The agency has said that salary is based on the assigned work location.) The inspector general investigated Peterson’s actions and referred the case to the Department of Justice, which declined to prosecute Peterson, citing a lack of jurisdiction. The Peace Corps eventually revoked Peterson’s security clearance.

When he resigned soon after in February 2021, Peterson — who was never criminally charged in Tanzania or the United States — was making $156,950 annually.

His final paycheck included $19,852 in unused leave time.

6 Comments

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  • Should we not all hang our heads in shame? Not just for Peterson’s “accident” but the reactions by our government and his ongoing retention in service for over a year? What is this slug doing now?

  • Get a grip folks.
    Big thorny difficult problems are always difficult to deal with.
    And you don’t have to be or been a PCV or RPCV to do good things.
    Ordinary persons do extra ordinary deeds and pursue high goals.
    Here is an essay of my type of sketch-essay about a bunch of great women and men in the san Francosco Bay area 60 yrs ago —and the one I settle my focus on is Barbara Vincent. And by the way her son is Stephen Vincent is an early RPCV.

    VANISHED LIKE THE AVARS –YOU DON’T GET IF OFF THE GRASS

    A JAZZ RIFF PARABLE about Barbara Vincent who was another brave Barbara (“Barbara Frietchie”) valorized by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier) : Mrs Barbara Vincent 1916-2012 and others of her ilk saved San Francisco Bay many decades past now (she and they pop up in discussions on tv and in published memories, and Josephine Miles’ poems). Quoting from one the obituaries: “Barbara was one of a small but determined and persuasive group of women in post-WWII Richmond who battled incessantly to make Richmond a better place. Their most tangible legacy is the vast amount of public access and thousands of acres of shoreline parks on Richmond’s 32 miles of shoreline. Barbara was also a champion of environmental justice and social equity, and inspired many of younger generations to take up and advance those causes in Richmond. Barbara Moore Vincent 1916-2012 Resident of Richmond, Ca Her family and parents, Marie W. and Joseph H. Moore, were pioneers in Richmond’s early development. Barbara was born in Richmond on March 6, 1916 and died on September 24, 2012, quietly, at her home, in Richmond. “Barbara was educated in local schools, University of California, Berkeley, B.S. Economics in 1937, and at age 50, became a student again by attending Hastings College of Law, San Francisco. Her husband Jay predeceased her in 2005.
    An environmentalist and civic leader, she served on the Richmond Planning Commission, 1957 to 1969, and was the first woman chairperson in 1963. A Board Member of Save the San Francisco Bay Association, serving from 1963 to 1991. She and her cohorts of “little ole ladies in tennis shoes” were major forces in the development of Richmond shoreline for public use. The shoreline Bay Trail, and parks that include Point Isabel, Miller-Knox, Point Molate, East Brother’s Lighthouse, Point Pinole and San Pablo Reservoir, carry the imprint of Barbara’s research, writing and organization efforts. Barbara and her late husband, Jay, both shared and championed this vision of public access to the shoreline, which in 1960,_ had but a 64 foot boat ramp, now Boat Ramp Park. In recognition of both of their years of community service, the City, in 1997, honored their contributions with the naming of the Barbara and Jay Vincent Park on the Bay Trail at Marina Bay. Survivors are son’s J. Michael of Suisun Valley, Stephen of San Francisco, and David of Richmond; grandchildren Tracy Ylarregui, Cathleen Ellis, Lucas and Pearl Ann McGee-Vincent and Alek Gent-Vincent; and great grandchildren, Ryan, Matthew, Katelin, Brian, Magan, Luke and Mason. Son Christopher preceded her in death.”
    Most people these days wouldn’t know about her. But she was a person without a sash and a gun but with a light for right. She represents what a true citizen does. And she did it with others women and men (including her own husband).

    In late years such persons may be called “activists”, but that word is a faded generality versus who these great citizens were. There is an old saying from my birthplace, “the patch” in Niagara Falls on the American side, New York about all those successful children: YOU DON’T GET IT OFF THE GRASS. It is the parents who worked so hard to get here and made it all happen. Happily for these parents, their kids would do well, and that is what matters to these vanished heroes, vanished like the Avars, like the oak forest woodlands lost, Oakland, Oak City.

    © Copyright Edward Mycue

  • Peterson is a RPCV, but he was not a serving Peace Corps Volunteer when this crime happened. I hope the general public as well as USA Today really understands the difference. Look at all the benefits Peterson enjoyed as a federal employee. Serving PCVs have none of these. The difference between those who supervise and manage PCVs and seving Volunteers mirrors the difference between what so many of us saw in host countries. The poor were powerless. The rich were not.

    There is an alumni group of RPCVs who served in Tanzania who do good work. They have been sponsoring projects in their former host country for many years. Here is the website for Friends of Tanzania: https://www.peacecorpsconnect.org/companies/friends-of-tanzania

  • It appears that the agency had a strong basis for taking performance-based action, including suspension without pay or dismissal, regardless of the status of the investigators’ crime-focused final report. At the time of the August 2019 incident, OIG was in Tanzania conducting an evaluation. Its report (IG-20-02-E dated March 2020 and findings communicated to HQ management probably in October-November 2019) found compliance deficiencies with the agency’s most important post policy, MS 270 “Volunteer Trainee/Safety and Security.” Per the report, five years had lapsed since the last Volunteer safety and security review, and five years since the last country risk assessment. In addition, site files were missing numerous crime incident reports, and missing updated Volunteer contact information (such as needed for an evacuation) in 86% of the sampled files. The DMO’s job description (see it on usajobs) includes “volunteer support and safety and security,” including “ensures that established procedures are followed and criteria are met.” We’ve also learned that he was driving recklessly and had an unauthorized person in the government vehicle (vs. Peace Corps Manual MS 522 “Motor Vehicle Use and Insurance,”). From the facts provided, it appears the agency could have used these performance issues to take action without waiting for the investigators’ final report, potentially saving several hundred thousand dollars of funds to be put to better use. My hunch is that the March 2020 volunteer evacuation put everything else on the back-burner, and that HQ staff all working at home facilitated his remaining on the payroll site-unseen.

  • The regrettable John Peterson case stands in sharp contrast to the one in which the wife of an American diplomat stationed in England killed a 19-year-old British motorcyclist while driving on the wrong side of the road in 2019. The woman left the country quickly and has claimed immunity from prosecution in Britain. The U. S. Government has refused to extradite her despite high-level requests to have her sent back. Nevertheless a civil suit for damages brought by the victim’s family has been settled for an undisclosed amount. The outcome of a proposed criminal trial via the internet has not been reported.

    In the Peterson case, we learn that the family of the deceased woman struck by Peterson was awarded a paltry $13,000. But not a word has been reported about what actions, if any, the Tanzanian government or its justice system have taken in response to this shameful incident. It would appear that said government has been less interested in achieving a modicum of justice for the victim’s family than in maintaining cordial relations with the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

  • I worked with John Peterson In Togo in the early 90’s where he came as the Admin officer after his service in Senegal

    In Togo I found him to be an extremely unpleasant individual and there were many sinister rumours about his behaviour told to me by the appalled local staff who were too afraid to do anything about it.
    I confronted him on some of these issues

    He subsequently made my life extremely difficult even to the point of refusing to put in security measures in my home while putting it in all the other direct hire employee’s homes. The country at that time was going through a civil war.

    Without security my daughter ( then aged 4 yrs old ) and I nearly died when we were robbed by armed robbers. My daughter had to watch me being physically assaulted. I lost everything.

    John still refused to upgrade my home or compensate me. I appealed to Sandy Robinson The regional Director at the time and also informed her of the rumours. I asked for some compensation and upgrades to be made to my home for safety.

    I subsequently left and went back to Medical School in North Dakota.

    Nothing I reported was ever followed up on.

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