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.
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.
“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
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.