Lutheran Social Services is one of the biggest players in the refugee resettlement space. And refugee resettlement is one of the biggest players in the migration and terrorism space. Opponents of national demographic transformation have been regular critics of Lutheran Social Services. But now the Afghans that LSS is supposed to be resettling are also coming forward with some interesting allegations about how the actual organization distributes its resources and services.
More than two dozen interviews with Afghan clients of the agency, current and former employees and volunteers who work closely with the organization uncovered stories about multiple failures to perform services.
Some employees, sources say, have provided inadequate food, housing and other services to refugees and played favorites among clients. They also say some staff have failed to securely store sensitive documents, falsified case notes, skimmed funds from petty cash and paid questionable bonuses to employees.
What US News can’t quite come out and say in its voluminous article is that LSS hired Afghans to do the grunt work of social services and they’re doing what most in a tribal society do, skimming money and helping out their family members.
“You just scratch your head going, ‘Is anybody watching this office? Is anybody auditing them?’” says Ted Vinatieri, a pastor at Pillar Church in Stafford, Virginia, and one of several volunteers who expressed apprehension about the treatment of Afghan refugees by Lutheran Social Services.
Concerns about the agency have already made their way to the federal government, where the Department of State monitors refugee resettlement during the first few months after their arrival. Individuals close to Lutheran Social Services have reached out to the State Department, which is now investigating claims about client mistreatment.
One of those individuals reached out to the FBI with concerns, and the law enforcement agency has contacted at least one former and one current employee to discuss their experiences. The FBI would not confirm whether there is an official investigation.
There has to be some bad stuff going on to justify this level of involvement. The article doesn’t quite justify that. But what it lays out is a familiar story.
In late June, Amir, a Lutheran Social Services client and former member of the Afghan special forces, is sitting behind his coffee table in his sparsely furnished apartment in Hyattsville, Maryland. As his toddler darts in and out the room, he holds up his phone and shows his text message exchanges with his caseworker.
“Hello brother,” he starts out each text, before asking for help with things like rent, a bus card and English-language classes. The caseworker doesn’t always respond, but when he does, it’s with phrases like, “in a meeting” or “will call you back.” The problem, according to Amir, is that he never does.
“Hello brother” would suggest he’s talking to a fellow Muslim and/or Afghan.
One current employee says they saw a caseworker give a family of seven $200 in cash, had them sign a receipt and later wrote on it that the family had been given $700.
Another current employee says they have gone through several audits, including annual financial audits and monitoring by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the parent organization. In the weeks before each audit, which they tell U.S. News are “very easy to pass,” they say some staff members forged client signatures on receipts and other documents to be compliant. Whether or not the services were actually provided to refugees, the employee says, was unclear.
“What they do is they quickly call the families and see what they are missing. They sometimes provide it right before the audit – a day before. … I, myself, dropped off furniture almost in the middle of the night – at 10 p.m. – because the auditor was coming at 8 a.m. to see and check the furniture.”
Whether or not a family receives something as basic as a couch can come down to their position on a hierarchy determined by Lutheran Social Services staff, sources say. Refugees and volunteers say some staff members, who are mostly well-educated Afghans, can be dismissive of Afghan refugees who struggle to read and write or who speak a different first language. Sources say refugees with strong U.S. ties, and those savvy enough to leverage them, are often the ones who get the most attention: prompt responses to their questions, rent paid beyond the required three months, new furniture, funds from the petty cash box.
Current staff members said there’s another factor that can give refugees an advantage: sharing the same last names as staff.
“Some clients who are relatives are getting better services,” one current employee says plainly. They reported seeing relatives get more rent, more cash, better furniture, more job assistance and more Uber trips for transportation.
A member of another organization helping Afghan refugees says they saw nepotism firsthand. Their organization was working with Lutheran Social Services to do home setups, using private donations to ensure families had furniture, basic house supplies, food and other necessities they needed when they first arrived. Lutheran Social Services would flag needy homes for them, but half of the time, they say, the group would show up to find that homes flagged as needy often had more than enough supplies.
“A handful of times, that person would turn out to be a relative of a case manager or employee,” they say. (Lutheran Social Services declined to comment on some of these claims, but said its legal investigators did not find evidence to sustain allegations that its case management team treats clients differently based on their ethnic backgrounds.)
While sources say well-connected Afghans see their complaints addressed quickly, others are said to be ignored, dismissed or even threatened if they share their concerns.
Two refugee families told U.S. News they’d been instructed by the same caseworker not to complain to the media about their treatment by Lutheran Social Services. A father with a young child was so worried during his interview with U.S. News that he closed his window blinds, nervously peeking outside to see if anyone was watching. One of the families said the caseworker also told them they would be deported by the State Department if they complained.
I don’t know what anyone else expected. This is Afghanistan. And most of the Muslim world where everything operates around clan/tribe/family. Corruption and theft are routine. We couldn’t run anything in Afghanistan because of this sort of thing. Why did anyone think that putting a lot of money into the hands of Afghans to resettle Afghans would work any differently?
Beyond Afghans being Afghans, Lutheran Social Services was enthusiastically throwing a lot of taxpayer money around.
It was, in fact, common for staff to receive thousands of dollars in bonuses, even in a single two-week pay period, Floyd says. She says she processed one paycheck in which a single employee earned a $9,000 bonus. Over three months, she says she processed more than $100,000 in the surge stipends. She recalls an employee who was so confused by her pay bump that she called HR just to make sure there hadn’t been an error.
Floyd also expressed concern about an issue several other current and former staff members mentioned to U.S. News: insufficient accounting of community donations, which, like refugees, were flowing in at levels not seen in decades.
“Everybody wanted to be a part of the cause, and not just with the money, but with the physical donations,” she says. “They had everything: cribs, laptops, iPads, gift cards of $5,000.”
The problem, she says, was that there were no records of how many donations were received, or who ended up receiving them. Theoretically, in other words, anyone could have taken the items home.
One employee of Lutheran Social Services says that they did indeed see theft, albeit on a small scale. A handful of employees, they say, sometimes took home donations meant for refugees, including gift cards, backpacks, toys, home items and hygiene supplies. They say some staff used the Uber account meant for refugee transportation for personal errands.
The same employee says a senior staff member in one office treated the petty cash box like his own “personal cash box,” taking money out to pay for his wife’s shoes.
Don’t worry, they’re just modeling the behavior that they learned from the best.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is led by Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, a Washington insider who previously served as policy director for Michelle Obama and as senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Hillary Clinton is the best role model that anyone could ask for.