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US bans aid workers in Turkey-Syria scam

Ex-GOAL staffer gets 10-year contract ban; 20 firms and individuals named

Ellie Van Houtte/USAID
Kit Sets and emergency supplies at the IOM Emergency Supply Warehouse.

A former logistics officer with an Irish NGO has been banned from doing business with the US government for 10 years for his key role in a corruption ring that sought to pocket a slice of Syrian aid budgets.

USAID has only applied a handful of 10-year bans in over 100 listed cases since 2015. For the Irish charity GOAL, the debarment marks the end of a sprawling US probe into its procurement operations in Turkey, which threw it into crisis.

In the latest set of measures, implemented in late June, and confirmed by IRIN this month, GOAL’s former global logistician Ernest Halilov (also listed as Ernest Khalilov) was given a 10-year debarment. Halilov did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Luan Meraku, the former Turkey country director of another NGO, the International Rescue Committee, was one of nine individuals debarred for five years. Neither GOAL as an institution nor its management are named in the findings. While the US debarment process is not a criminal conviction, it requires a “preponderance of the evidence of a cause of a serious and compelling nature”.

Since March 2015, the USAID Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigation has been looking into “bid rigging, collusion, bribery, and kickbacks” in cross-border humanitarian aid supplied from Turkey to Syria. The fraud, first reported by IRIN in 2016, allegedly involved multiple individuals, some working for NGOs, acting with Turkish vendors tendering for aid contracts.

Most aid into opposition-controlled areas of Syria is delivered across the borders from Turkey, Jordan, and occasionally Lebanon and Iraq. The value of formal cross-border aid from major donors is now at least $500 million per year. The early days of the cross-border operation from Turkey into Syria from 2012 onwards were marked by security concerns and what a senior aid official working there at the time said was a “cloak and dagger” atmosphere.

The ongoing OIG investigation is broad, involving at least five NGOs. Up to $239 million of funding was suspended while checks were made, an OIG spokesperson said in a statement. USAID made grants to cross-border NGO operators for Syria worth about $70 million in 2013 and 2014, doubling to some $140 million in 2015.

Turkish companies and other NGOs

OIG has offered no details on the background to each debarment, and has made little information public.

However, by examining available information on the investigation, news reports, open source data, and interviewing aid agency staff and donors over the last two years, IRIN has built up a picture of an elaborate scheme that involved several Turkish companies and Turkish nationals as well as figures at GOAL and other NGOs.

An internal Save the Children report dated April 2017, obtained by IRIN, found that one of its staff “shared confidential procurement information” with Halilov. The Save the Children report said OIG had alerted them to Halilov. Evidence was found from Skype records that the Save the Children staff member had engaged in “organised bid rigging and collusion” and that there was a “concerted attempt” to “manipulate procurement processes”.

Save the Children had not previously made its involvement in the scandal public. The affair was costly, even though the findings were ambiguous. The report describes suspicions over the actions of a single staff member, but does not state clearly if fraud took place. Auditors KPMG billed Save the Children over £440,000 for its investigations into the matter.

A spokesperson for Save the Children told IRIN: “We responded to the issues in Turkey by strengthening our systems with a range of measures to improve the way tenders are advertised, vendors are assessed, and controls are established over the bid process. We have raised compliance standards and reinforced the controls.”

Without offering details, OIG says the wider probe, which is still ongoing, has so far resulted in 12 sackings and resignations.

Dan Altman, assistant inspector general at the OIG, said that the probe into “procurement irregularities” in GOAL’s cross-border humanitarian aid operations in Syria is now closed. In response to questions, Altman said GOAL had cooperated and reimbursed USAID for losses.  

GOAL declined to comment on the conclusion of the case, but a spokesperson said via email that it had been through a “necessary process of change over the past two years”, and now “restoration of confidence in the organisation by our donors has long since been established.”

Without offering details, OIG says the wider probe, which is still ongoing, has so far resulted in 12 sackings and resignations.

The OIG’s findings have also led to “exclusions” for four Turkish companies, all of which were controlled by one family, although they had bid against each other as though rivals. Owners and staff of the companies were among 15 individuals also deemed ineligible for US government contracts for varying periods of time.

GOAL hit hard

In a post now removed from GOAL’s website, Halilov, 40, was described as the NGO’s “global logistician” who had worked for the NGO in Sudan and South Sudan. In a separate 2017 job board posting, Halilov said he had 16 years’ experience.

Halilov, according to UK company records, is from Turkmenistan. In 2013, while attached to the GOAL programme in Turkey, he was appointed a director of two UK-registered companies, Noble House Business PLC and Noble House Africa Limited.

The two companies won contracts with the Turkey-based aid operation that was growing fast at the time to supply Syria and service Syrian refugees in Turkey. UN agencies UNICEF and UNHCR contracted Noble House in 2014 for goods together worth over $500,000, transactions listed in the UN’s annual procurement report. Noble House also sold systems for issuing vouchers to be exchanged for aid, a business line that was later spun off into companies operating under the Red Rose brand.

Halilov’s co-directors were then-senior GOAL employees Jeremy Cole and Jonathan Edgar. A fourth director, Jonathan Godson, was the brother of a director of GOAL’s UK branch. One of the individuals sanctioned alongside Halilov this year by the OIG, Anastasia Kara, was a former employee of Noble House.

An investigation commissioned by GOAL was leaked to media in Ireland (one article called it a “dramatic secret report”) and described in more detail the alleged conflicts of interest that arose.

The USAID investigation and related fallout led to the resignations of Edgar, the chief of operations, and the former CEO, Barry Andrews, by late 2016. GOAL’s income dropped rapidly as the investigation became widely known and other donors shied away. In 2017, its income dropped to €116.5 million from €163 million in 2016.

OIG provided the following list of 20 individuals and firms that have been banned from doing business with the US government as a result of this investigation (more details available on http://www.sam.gov).


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