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Founder of Foundation behind White Helmets Admits Fraud

According to its founder, fraud has been committed in the Dutch organisation that received over a hundred million euros in donations for the rescue workers of the White Helmets in Syria. European governments ended their subsidies without going public about the wrongdoings.

Members of the White helmets carry a wounded child to an ambulance in Maaret al-Numan, Syria.Beeld Hollandse Hoogte / AFP

The foundation concerned is Mayday Rescue in Amsterdam. Founder James Le Mesurier informed the donor countries – including the Netherlands – about the fraud and financial abuse in November last year. In his letter, which de Volkskrant has, he offers his resignation.

Three days later, Le Mesurier died after a fall from his apartment in Istanbul, Turkey. The death of the 48-year-old British rescue worker was world news. The Turkish authorities assume that he killed himself.

The White Helmets gained international praise for saving civilians from the rubble in Syria, often after bombardments by Syrian government forces or its ally Russia. A Netflix documentary about the rescue workers won an Oscar. The White Helmets were twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Until the end of last year, the Mayday Rescue Foundation in Amsterdam was the European cashbox for the White Helmets. Western governments donated dozens of millions through the foundation. The Netherlands contributed 12.5 million euros. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs ended the support in 2018, shortly before Le Mesurier reported the fraud.

The problems at the foundation came to light in November last year, when a Dutch accountant visited the Mayday office in Istanbul. He uncovered false receipts that were made up to reveal that 50,000 dollars had disappeared. Le Mesurier admitted to the accountant that he had paid out of the money, which was intended for the White Helmets, to himself.

He wrote to the donor countries that he believed this to be fraud, even though, according to him, it was not done on purpose. ‘I accept the full and sole responsibility.’

After Le Mesurier’s death, the donor countries instigated a forensic inquiry of Mayday’s books. The governments involved wish to keep this inquiry secret, according to the new Mayday administrator, Cor Vrieswijk. This paper has had access to the inquiry’s summary.

The summary says that there is no evidence for embezzlement. However, most of the financial administration of Mayday is missing. Some of the larger transactions can therefore not be checked anymore. The fraud reported by Le Mesurier himself is the result of a ‘misunderstanding’, according to the investigators.

‘It’s an enormous relief for us and the donor countries’, says Vrieswijk, who is a former top manager with Transavia and EasyJet and was appointed ‘trouble-shooter’ at Mayday in March.

So far as is known, the donor countries did not inform their parliaments about the financial wrongs. The Mayday Foundation was funded by public money. Germany and Great Britain, the two biggest donors, declined to answer questions.

Germany is now re-claiming almost 50,000 euros from Mayday. The Netherlands will not transfer a final subsidy of over 57,000 euros. Vrieswijk says that the foundation will be discontinued within a couple of months.

Accountancy firm SMK found a number of problems in November. For one thing, Mayday was not just a non-profit Dutch foundation but also had commercial branches in Turkey and Dubai. There was no supervisory board, which meant that administrators could decide their own salaries, which in some cases amounted to 26,000 euros a month.

Such figures are above the approved salary ceiling of a subsidised organisation in the Netherlands. In addition, Le Mesurier, his wife – also one of the administrators – and a third administrator would pay themselves cash bonuses, on top of their salaries. Vrieswijk calls the salaries ‘excessive’. ‘But the donor countries knew about this and had given their consent.’

The White Helmets are still active in Syria, at the moment mostly doing COVID-19 prevention, such as disinfecting refugee camps. Director Raed al Saleh states that the White Helmets ‘have nothing to do with the Mayday Rescue Foundation’. Subsidies now reach them through other organisations.

This spring, Mayday suspended its financial director. He had ‘an initiating role’ in bringing the problems at Mayday to light, was the conclusion of the Amsterdam court in a verdict concerning the employment conflict. The financial director declined to respond.

Full report

Rescue workers from the White Helmets in Syria risk their lives for a small fee. The directors of the Dutch organisation receiving the grants pay themselves bonuses in cash and borrow money from the safe for their wedding. $ 50.000 goes missing. Founder James le Mesurier admits fraud three days before he died last year. Read the full report in English here. 

De Nederlandse versie van de reconstructie leest u hier.

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