What did they know? And when did they know it?

This is the follow-up to my blog post “The Peace Corps & ABC 20/20” published on January 19th. It is my second — and last — blog on what happened in Africa to Kate Puzey.

What Appears to Have Happened in Benin in 2009

SHORTLY BEFORE BENIN PCV KATE PUZEY  was scheduled to complete her service and leave the country in 2009, she emailed staff members at the Peace Corps/Benin office to inform them that a teacher at her school — puzey-k-2a person who was also a part-time local-hire employee of the Peace Corps doing in-country training — was molesting young female students at her school. This individual was identified recently by ABC’s 20/20 in a  segment “Scandal Inside the Peace Corps: Investigation into whether the Peace Corps puts women into dangerous situations” as Constant Bio, a citizen of Benin. Kate urged the PC staff to not rehire Constant Bio to train newly arriving PCVs. She also asked that her name be kept out of any discussions regarding this matter.

At least two people on the Peace Corps staff in Benin read Kate’s email; but in spite of Kate’s request for anonymity, word of the complaint and its author got out to one of the locally-hired Associate Peace Corps Directors — who was the brother of Constant Bio. Subsequently Constant Bio was dismissed from his contractor position as a training instructor by Peace Corps/Benin. Shortly thereafter Kate Puzey was as found with her throat slit. It is believed that Constant Bio’s brother, the APCD, told him that Kate Puzey had fingered him for molesting her young students.

Following the murder, three people were arrested and are still in prison and awaiting trail — nearly two years later. These individuals are: Constant Bio; his brother, the Peace Corps APCD; and a Nigerian. No trial date has been set. A friend who knows the “system” in Benin says that they will never be brought to trial. “They will simply “rot away” in jail, he believes.

It is the opinion of the family of 24-year-old PCV Kate Puzey that Peace Corps staff in Benin “set her up” to be murdered by revealing her role in the dismissal of an employee she accused of sexually abusing girls at her school.

What Did Happen in the U.S. in 2011

ABC’s  20/20 broadcast the “Scandal Inside the Peace Corps” on January 15, 2011,  that focused on the murder of Kate Puzey.

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams — who would not go on the air with the ABC News 20/20 segment — subsequently issued on the Peace Corps website  an apology to the Puzey family. In his statement, Williams said that he grieved with the Puzey family and extended an apology.

I would like to offer my apologies to the Puzey family if either the former leadership or the Agency under my direction could have been more compassionate. Personally, it is heartbreaking to learn that they ever felt abandoned by the Peace Corps. This has never been our intent.

Kate represented the best America has to offer the world with her dedication to her community and commitment to public service. We continue to grieve with the Puzey family and Kate’s friends.

. . .

We cannot comment on the ongoing investigation into the 2009 murder . . . or do anything else that could risk compromising that investigation or a successful prosecution. Peace Corps does not have a role in the ongoing investigation, but we have been assured that the Benin government is supporting the legal process necessary to conclude the investigation and begin a trial. The Department of State and the FBI have been working with the Benin authorities.

The murder took place before Director Williams or Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet — who was interviewed for “Scandal Inside the Peace Corps” —  were appointed. At the time of the murder the woman in charge of the Peace Corps was Acting Director Jody Olsen (RPCV Tunisia 1966–68); head of the African Region at the time was Lynn Foden.

Also involved in responding to the family after the murder was the Regional Recruitment Office in Atlanta — where the Puzeys live. I am told by an RPCV, whom I trust, that this Regional Office went out of its way to help the family and they, along with U. S. Senator Johnny Isakson, participated in the memorial service for Kate, and were extremely supportive of the family.

Meanwhile, Back at HQ!

Another key person at the Peace Corps during that period was Elisa Montoya, White House Liaison and Senior Advisor to the Office of the Director. She was assigned as liaison to the Peace Corps by the new Obama Administration — while Olsen was still “acting” director and well before Williams’ appointedment.

Montoya, a young lawyer from New Mexico, had worked on the Obama political campaign. She had never served in the Peace Corps.

She brought with her into the Peace Corps a team of wholly inadequate personnel, beginning with Allison Price, known around HQ as “toy girl” because of her fondness for playing with toy guns during work hours, shooting darts at a large map on her office wall. Price, who is the Peace Corps press person, had worked on the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania, and she was brought in to the Peace Corps to help handle the press because of Puzey murder crisis. She then leveraged that assignment into a full-time job.

Besides Price, Montoya added to the Peace Corps roster other political appointees, none of whom had any Peace Corps experience and were never Volunteers.

  • Head of the Office of Private Sector Initiatives.
  • Head of the Office for liaison with the public.
  • Head of the Crisis Corps, now called the Peace Corps Response.
  • Head of the original office for coordinating the 50th.

Additionally, thanks to Montoya, the Peace Corps still does not have a Congressional Liaison Officer. Astonishing!

But back to the main story — while Aaron Williams  should have been out front on the ABC 20/20 story — and Carrie Hessler-Radelet should not have appeared in it at all — the fact is that neither one of them were employed by the Peace Corps at the time of the murder in the spring of 2009. If anyone was to be front and center on 20/20, it should be have been Allison Price!

The Past as Prologue

But what of Acting Director Jody Olsen at the time of the murder? During her term as Deputy Director under Bush’s appointee, Gaddi Vasquez, she was not permitted to travel overseas though she was the only one with any Peace Corps experience on the senior staff during th0se long Republican years. After Gaddi left the agency, another good Republican and RPCV (India 1966-68) Ron Tschetter  took over and Jody was freed to travel. When Obama was elected, Ron left, and turned the Peace Corps ‘keys’ over to Jody and briefly she was allowed to travel and speak and freely walk up and down the halls of the agency.

While she was free, she flew to Atlanta for the funeral, but it appears that is all she did. Kate Puzey’s  father would says on the 20/20 program: no one in the Peace Corps called the family for a year after his daughter’s murder. He also said that Kate’s personal effects from Africa arrived by mail in  a cardboard box that was “dumped” in their driveway without any word from the Peace Corps. That, perhaps, was the most unkind cut of all for the agency.

This wasn’t Aaron Williams or Carrie Hessler-Radidad fault. They weren’t working at the Peace Corps. No, that was the fault of Acting Director Jody Olsen, African Regional Manager Lynn Foden, Elisa Montoya and Allison Price.

10 Comments

Leave a comment
  • John – thanks for this. I was very concerned the Kate Puzey incident (still am!) – it’s helpful to know these details. Do you think anything will come of this – for PC?
    Liz

  • John. You did a much better job of reporting the incident than 20/20 did; their report left me puzzled, to say the least. I’m glad to get some facts.

    The Peace Corps has dealt with a bad situation badly, or appears to have, which is almost as important.

    One smallish thing that bothers me is that neither Williams nor the Dep Dir felt that they could “…comment on the ongoing investigation…”. On the contrary: they could have given us the information that you did, e.g., the Bio brothers were fired and the Bio brothers and a Nigerian have been arrested and are in prison and are awaiting trail.

    I also believe that Williams, as the head of a government agency, is responsible for the actions of that agency, whether or not he is “at fault” in a particular instance, so I thought his wording in his website apology, “…if either under the former leadership or the Agency under my direction..” was kind of weasly.

    Thanks for helping us understand is a very disturbing situation.

  • There are a lot of basic facts that are correct here. There are also some very wrong things. There was no cardboard box left in a driveway. Her personal items were hand delivered, A FedEx package was later sent with some materials from Benin but not personal effects. Price does not run around shooting darts. No one calls her toy girl. Montoya is pretty worthless though.

    • I sensed an agenda….The line “good Republican” was a cheap shot….no need to pander. Just try andbe level, for once. Save the jive for Mother Jones magazine.

  • Captawesome–I heard her father say on 20/20 that his daughter’s personal effects arrived unannounced in a cardboard box and they were dropped in their driveway. I guess, according to you, her father was lying to 20/20. When I was in Price’s Peace Corps office she was shooting darts with a toy gun at a map on her wall. Later one of her staff called her ‘toy girl.’ I guess that staffer was lying to me.

  • More information about the Puzey investigation.

    The original email that Puzey sent her Country Director on February 27, 2009:

    “I am contacting you because I’ve heard on good authority that he had sexual relations again with a stagiaire during this time. I was first made suspicious when he approached me out of the blue to ask about a health volunteer from PSL 21. He said that he had tried repeatedly to call her but that whoever answered said she had left the country. He wanted me to find out if she had ET’d. When I asked one of the girl’s good friends the story came out that she had actually changed her phone number to avoid his calls. From what I understand, after sleeping together during stage he had failed to call her once when she got to post and she decided to cut ties. I understand the complications that may arise from terminating a person’s connections to Peace Corps based on rumor. This could pose even greater problems because the man is Constant BIO, the younger brother of APCD Jacques BIO. However, the nature of these rumors – combined with personal interaction that I believe substantiates them – should at least be grounds for serious consideration. Please believe I’m not someone who likes to create problems, but this has been weighing heavily on me. I’ve loved my time as a volunteer and it’s important to me that Peace Corps remain a respected organization in the eyes of our host country. This man is notsomeone I want representing Peace Corps to the Beninese community and especially not to new arrived stagiaires. For obvious reasons, it’s important to me that I remain anonymous in this situation. However, please feel free to contact me if you have further questions (cell phone 979011962) I would appreciate if you could respond, even briefly just to let me know you received this email.”

    Read the rest of the email and the reply from her country director at:

    http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/4000805.html

    Here is the email that is circulating among members of Puzey’s group that provides a lot of background information on the murder as well as steps taken by RPCVs in her group to assist the Puzey family:

    “We’re approached by Lois (Kate’s mom) to be part of a task force to seek justice for Kate, both in terms of a trial as well as Peace Corps reform. Lois expressed to us how initially the Peace Corps was sympathetic to their loss, but that soon turned to complete stonewalling when they started asking questions. Not to mention how they were notified: Kate’s dad received a phone call as he was hooked to an IV in the hospital, despite the fact that they live in Atlanta, one of the cities with a Peace Corps office. Her effects were simply dropped off some time later with no note or representative. For several months, we compiled information and brainstormed various ways to affect chance. This all came to a head in February 2010 when we, along with Kate’s parents and her cousin Emilie, went to Washington to meet with Director (of the Peace Corps) Williams, Senator Isakson, and several other staff members for various other Senators and Representatives. Our goal was to present the reform we see necessary to ensure that nothing like this happens again to a volunteer. So throughout this whole process the lack of media attention for Kate’s murder has been kind of astounding. The Puzey’s are very much interested in Kate’s story being told on a national/international platform. The sooner the better as Harry (Kate’s dad) is terminally ill. The Puzey’s were approached by 20/20, and jumped at the opportunity. As part of this process, we were interviewed. The experience seems to have been quite positive and therapeutic for Kate’s family. However, for us, it was really pretty terrible. We realize our position as former volunteers creates a different dynamic than that of family. Although we feel strongly that Kate’s story be told and that Peace Corps reforms are put in place, we didn’t feel like we were in the position to do any speculating or name name’s on national television, much less on a sensationalistic program. 20/20 wasn’t so happy with our position. We still agreed to be interviewed, discussing only first-hand knowledge, as the Puzey’s really wanted that. All of this to say, the first segment of the program will be airing in December 3, 2010 at 10pm (EST). We have no idea what to expect. We’re quite frankly nervous that anything we, or anyone else, might have said will be misused as fodder for the show. ”

    Read the rest of the memo at:

    http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/4000802.html

    Read our complete coverage of the Puzey murder with a chronological listing of stories at:

    http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/4001029.html

    Best regards,

    Hugh Pickens

  • One “staffer” calling her “toy girl” is not the same as “known around HQ as “toy girl” would you not agree? And the 20/20 piece did not reflect all the facts one how they were treated. So no, he was not lying but the peice made it seem different than the facts in regards how personal effects were delivered.

  • Now that some time has passed, it is obvious that Aaron Williams and other senior Peace Corps officials are neither as sensitive nor as transparent as most of their predecessors. While it may not have been “Williams’ fault”, he certainly had a lion’s share of responsibility for being accountable to the Puzey family, (R)PCVs worldwide, and the American public. I hope that, retrospectively, it is clearer to everyone now that Peace Corps has an institutional cultural problem, which consists in part of a tendency to shunt responsibility off onto vulnerable individuals (such as whistleblowers and rape survivors), and is complicit in broader rape culture by continuing to relegate blame to PCV survivors and failing to implement best practices into their SARRT policies, as they promised they would five years ago. Peace Corps does not cope well with criticism, whether internal or external (Searles 1997). This is a weakness of the organization. It has an opportunity to grow here, and to win back alienated (R)PCVs and members of the public. Instead, it has chosen to circle the wagons even tighter. The Kate Puzey Act, the PCV Service Improvement Act, and all of the reports and critiques generated since 2010 are neither condemnations nor attempts to destroy Peace Corps: they are wakeup calls. Admitting wrongdoing and changing institutional culture are abilities that demonstrate an organization’s strength and accountability, but in its 50+ year history, these behaviors are, for Peace Corps, last resorts. This is not merely a high-level admin problem. I know from my time in Peace Corps that these institutional culture values of secrecy, victim-blaming, and denial of institutional responsibility are reflected right down to their boots on the ground: PCVs. Therefore, each and everyone of us has a responsibility to address the agency’s shortcomings, and to self-reflect on when and how we become embodiments of those institutional values.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2019. Peace Corps Worldwide.