The Long Road to Sentencing For International Adoption Guides: Still Not There

In February 2014, four employees of International Adoption Guides were indicted by the US Department of Justice for bribery, falsification of documents, and more, based on a multiyear investigation of Ethiopian adoptions. James Harding, Mary Mooney, and Alisa Bivens, the three American IAG defendants, all pled guilty to various counts about two years ago. They are still awaiting sentencing, three years after the indictment. The one Ethiopian defendant, Haile Mekonnen, as best I know is still in Ethiopia and has not been in court.

According to the 2014 DOJ press release, ” ‘The defendants are accused of obtaining adoption decrees and U.S. visas by submitting fraudulent adoption contracts signed by orphanages that never cared for or housed the children, thus undermining the very laws that are designed to protect the children and families involved,’ said Acting Assistant Attorney General Raman. ‘As today’s indictments show, the Justice Department, alongside its partners both here and abroad, will respond vigorously to these criminal schemes and will act to protect the many families and children who rely on the integrity of the adoption process.’ ”

Behind that legal language is astonishing loss and heartache for many children and their families in Ethiopia and in the United States.

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I recently came across a website, justiceformary.weebly.com, which seems to be written by Mary Mooney. While it mostly has password protected pages, it has a long list of the court documents from 2014 to 2016, including the plea agreements from the three defendants, as well as transcripts of several court appearances. The site mentions a court date in January 2017, but I have yet to see anything to confirm that.

In May 2016, the government recommended a sentence for Mooney of 51 to 60 months of incarceration, per this Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing.

A sentencing hearing was held in August 2016.

In November 2016, there was an order filed on Mary Mooney‘s case. My understanding, as a non-lawyer, is that in January 2015 Mooney had made a plea agreement: she pled guilty to making false statements for the agency’s Council on Accreditation process, and the government then dropped other charges, including those related to Ethiopia.

Mooney could, however, face a conviction on charges related to adoptions from Kazakhstan. Mooney’s co-defendant James Harding had operated World Partners Adoption, located in Georgia; he is an adoptive parent of children from Kazakhstan. WPA lost its accreditation to handle international adoptions in 2008. Harding and Mooney then arranged for Harding to take over at IAG, which still had accreditation at that time. Apparently IAG also has charges against it in relation to adoptions from Kazakstan, and Mooney could face a conviction as a result of those.

Any lawyers who want to weigh in would be welcomed. It is not clear to me whether this means that Mooney will face no punishment in regard to the bribery and falsification of documents in Ethiopia, but that could be correct.

Every month or so, I have called the office of Judge David Norton in South Carolina, the judge handling the case. A pleasant court official consistently tells me that, no, there’s nothing on the sentencing yet. He can’t comment on whether that’s unusual, or on any reason as to why sentencing would not have taken place. He says he will send my inquiry on to someone who might have more information. I’ve never heard anything back.

Unless I’ve missed it, I have not seen any outcry about this case from adoption agencies or from the National Council on Adoption.

The three defendants are, I believe, not in jail. I understand and applaud the value of a full and fair legal process. Still, I can’t help but feel deep disappointment in the slowness of this case, especially when the defendants pled guilty. Will the final sentencing be minimal, with the defendants getting jail time reduced?

I also can’t help but feel this long delay for sentencing is a slap in the face of the Ethiopian adoptees brought here via lies and deception. They have gone through so much, as have their families, in Ethiopia and in the US. What is the message for them about the American court system?

Where is the justice for the innocent victims?

 

 

Sentencing Hearings on IAG’s Fraud, Bribery (Finally) Held Today

Update: On October 20, 2016, I spoke with a clerk in Judge David Norton’s office who said that sentencing would not occur for at least another month. The clerk said that was because a different judge had originally heard the case. That judge has passed away, and Judge Norton “inherited” the case and apparently needs more time to decide on sentencing. The three defendants pled guilty about two years ago. The sentencing hearing was held August 29. The clerk said it is unusual for sentencing to take so long, but it was due to the previous judge’s death and a new judge in charge of the case. I am so sorry for all the families caught up in this. No such thing as closure.

 

More than two years after the staff of International Adoption Group (IAG) were indicted for fraud and bribery by the U.S.Justice Department, the three defendants finally faced a judge today for their sentencing hearing. Mary Mooney, James Harding, and Alisa Bivens, all of whom had pled guilty, appeared in court today before District Court Judge David Norton in Charleston, South Carolina. Judge Norton could make a decision on sentencing within the week, though the exact time frame is unclear.

Camille Smicz and her family are among the victims of IAG. Camille was present in the courtroom today, and provided a victim impact statement. Camille’s voice spoke for the many families, in the U.S. and in Ethiopia, harmed by the criminal actions of IAG.

Today, according to Camille, the judge mentioned his concerns with the delays in this case, including Mary Mooney’s effort to change her plea from guilty to not guilty, (That attempt was denied.) Minimum sentencing could be probation. Maximum sentencing would be five years in a federal prison. Once sentenced, the defendants have 14 days to appeal the decision.

The prosecution in this case called a forensic financial analyst as a witness, who spoke about the finances of the victims due to IAG’s actions. The prosecution is asking for restitution for some of the families. It is unclear how or whether that will happen.

Camille noted that Alisa Bivens had been a youth pastor at a church up until last month,  and recruited 26 people from her church who wrote letters on her behalf. There was at least one person from the church who plans to report back to the congregation regarding the sentencing hearing.

While it has taken an inordinately long time to reach this point, the case seems to finally be moving toward a sort of closure. I know families are exhausted from the emotional toll this has taken. The extent of the corruption, fraud, and bribery done in the name of helping children is unconscionable.

My thanks to Camille Smicz for sharing this information, and for speaking out for the victims. I urge you to read Camille’s victim impact statement.

As soon as I hear the judge’s decision, I will post again.

Mary Mooney of International Adoption Guides Has Changed Her Plea

Mary Mooney, the former executive director of International Adoption Guides (IAG) indicted by the Justice Department for fraud and corruption in Ethiopian adoptions and who pled guilty in January, has recently asked the judge to change her plea from guilty to innocent.

You can read about her guilty plea here. You can read the Department of Justice’s February 2014 press release on the indictments here.

Alisa Bivens and Jim Harding, the other two IAG staff people also indicted by the Justice Department, pled guilty last year. None of them has been sentenced yet. There will now be a delay in their sentencing pending the outcome of the judge’s decision as to whether Mooney can change her plea. It is unclear when the judge will rule on Mooney’s request, but it probably won’t happen until sometime this summer.

As far as I know, the fourth person indicted, an Ethiopian citizen apparently now living in Ethiopia, has not been arrested.

I am not a lawyer, and I have no inside information about this. Defendants can indeed change their plea, and will do so for various reasons: new evidence is uncovered, they want to have a trial, the lawyer didn’t provide adequate information about the plea, the deal worked out with the judge and prosecution under the guilty plea was unacceptable to the defendant, or some other reason. I don’t know if making this request six months after pleading guilty will have an effect on the judge’s decision.

If the judge allows Mooney to change her plea to innocent, the whole legal process starts again. She could then go to trial, or there could be a deal worked out between the defense and the prosecution to which the judge must agree.

I don’t know how much this has cost the Justice Department for years of gathering evidence for the indictment, nor how much has been spent for the legal process of the three current defendants.

I do know this is one more level of heartache for the families who adopted from International Adoption Guides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Mooney Pleads Guilty in IAG Adoption Fraud Case

Mary Mooney, the executive director of International Adoption Guides, has entered a guilty plea for fraud and bribery in Ethiopian adoptions. This means that the three Americans charged in this case–the others are James Harding and Alisa Bivens–have all pled guilty to charges brought against them in a Department of Justice indictment last February.

Harding and Bivens have not yet been sentenced. Mooney entered her plea yesterday. The Department of Justice press release about Mooney’s plea is available here. Interestingly, her guilty plea seems largely to involve providing false statements to the Council on Accreditation, which is the entity that accredits international adoption agencies under the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.”Without that accreditation,” says the DoJ press release, “IAG would not have been legally permitted facilitate intercountry adoptions…and numerous families would have never retained IAG to provide adoption services.”

The IAG Ethiopian staff person also named in the DoJ indictment remains, apparently, in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has not yet made any public statements regarding IAG or the fraud and bribery by IAG, which included payments to Ethiopian officials.

These guilty pleas are very big and wonderful news for the adoptive and Ethiopian birth families involved, though of course they don’t change the devastating deception and fraud that occurred.

Sentencing hearings for Bivens, Harding, and Mooney will take place in the US District Court in South Carolina; the date has yet to be scheduled.

 

 

 

 

International Adoption Guides (IAG) Headed for Trial on Ethiopian Adoption Fraud

Almost a year after the Department of Justice indictment for fraud and bribery, two staff members of International Adoption Guides are scheduled to go to trial on January 26.

In February 2014, the US Department of Justice indicted 4 staff members of the adoption agency International Adoption Guides (IAG). Three former staff members from the US–Jim Harding, Mary Mooney, and Alisa Bivens–were arrested for fraud and bribery involving Ethiopian adoptions.The fourth staff member is Haile Mekonnen (the IAG program director in Ethiopia); he remains, apparently, in Ethiopia. The DOJ February 11, 2014, press release on the indictment is available here.

Last fall, Alisa Bivens (IAG Ethiopian program director in the US) pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing. I wrote about it here.

Jury selection for the trial of Jim Harding (IAG’s International Program Director) and Mary Mooney (IAG’s Executive Director) is scheduled to start in South Carolina on January 14, 2015. The trial itself is scheduled to begin January 26. Pretrial meetings start soon.

It is safe to say that, if this trial is like other criminal trials, there have been and will be many meetings and conversations between the prosecution and the defense. Everyone has to have a chance to examine all evidence. The lawyers on both sides are building their cases, deciding on witnesses, and defining their strategies. Until the trial actually begins, schedule and other changes are entirely possible.

For example, a plea agreement could be made for either of the defendants prior to the trial, similar to what Alisa Bivens decided to do. My understanding is that, at this point, no agreement has been reached.

According to the DOJ indictment, “the defendants allegedly engaged in a five-year conspiracy to violate laws relating to the adoption of Ethiopian children by U.S. parents. The scheme involved, among other things, paying orphanages to ‘sign off’ on contracts of adoption with the adopting parents as if the children had been raised by those orphanages — even though the children had never resided in those orphanages and had not been cared for or raised there. These orphanages could not, therefore, properly offer these children up for adoption. In some instances, the children resided with a parent or relative.

…the defendants then allegedly submitted or caused to be submitted these fraudulent contracts of adoption to Ethiopian courts in order to secure adoption decrees, and submitted or caused to be submitted the fraudulent contracts of adoption and the fraudulently procured adoption decrees to the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia in order to obtain U.S. visas for the children to travel to the United States to be with their new families. The indictment also charges that the defendants’ scheme involved paying bribes to an Ethiopian government official and agreeing to create counterfeit U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service forms that were to be submitted to the Ethiopian government.”

If the defendants are found guilty, the penalty for fraud and bribery could be five years in prison and a fine of the greater of $250,000 or twice the value gained or lost.

 

 

That’s the current factual update. Here are some important questions to consider in light of adoption policy:

How, if at all, will these charges and the trial affect the way adoption agencies work? How will they affect the way adoptive families pursue adoption?

The charges are for defrauding the US government. Many of the affected families, in both the US and Ethiopia, were also defrauded, and their lives immeasurably and unfairly damaged. There will be no direct compensation for them, though they have experienced considerable trauma and harm. This is especially true for the children, who are all now 7 or 8 years older than they were during the time this fraud was allegedly occurring. How can these families–now the witnesses and victims in this trial–best be helped and healed?

Some have suggested that IAG should be charged with trafficking. Trafficking, though, involves the transfer of children internationally for purposes of exploitation, such as forced labor, sexual purposes, military service, drug trade, or forced begging. While these end purposes were not the intent, as best I know, of either IAG nor the adoptive families, the way that these children were “internationally transferred” appears jarring and exploitative. The children may not have been trafficked under the current definition of international law. That does not mean, though, that serious thought should be given to a new definition of criminal offense that may not be “trafficking,” but that does relate to the way fraudulent international adoptions are handled. Such a definition should include compensation and support for all victims: birth families, adoptive families, and the adoptees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update on Trial of International Adoption Guides

Latest news, as of September 17: The trial of Mary Mooney and James Harding has been rescheduled for January 15, 2015, and it is possible there could be additional continuances. Both are out on bail at this point, and forbidden from working in adoption.

Following the February 2014 indictment by the US Department of Justice of the adoption agency International Adoption Guides, three former staff members were arrested for fraud and bribery involving Ethiopian adoptions. One staff member, Haile Mekonnen (the IAG program director in Ethiopia) remains, apparently, in Ethiopia. Of the three arrested, Alisa Bivens (IAG Ethiopian program director in the US) pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing. You can read more here.

The trial of the other two US agency staffers, Mary Mooney (IAG Executive Director) and James Harding (IAG International Programs Director), was scheduled to start tomorrow, September 16, in South Carolina District Court, but it looks like it will be rescheduled. This is not unusual in our court system, and happens for a number of reasons. Maybe the lawyers need more time, or the defendants are working on a plea agreement, or there is more evidence that needs to be shared and reviewed.

Alisa Bivens will be sentenced later this year. In the meantime, victim statements are still being accepted by the Department of Justice Victim Advocate office. I urge all families who were victims of the IAG crimes–fraudulently obtaining adoption decrees and signing off on adoption contracts, misrepresenting information about children and adoption, submitting counterfeit forms to the US State Department, and bribing Ethiopian officials–to speak up.

This is from the DOJ press release in February:

“If you believe you have been a victim of this crime involving the named individuals or International Adoption Guides, please call 1-800-837-2655 and leave your contact information. If you have questions or concerns about adoptions from Ethiopia in general, please contact the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State through the email address AskCI@State.gov. If you have specific questions about an adoption from Ethiopia that IAG facilitated, you should contact the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State through the email address IAGadoptioncases@state.gov. 

This ongoing investigation is being conducted by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The prosecution is being conducted by Assistant United States Attorney Jamie Schoen of the District of South Carolina and Trial Attorney John W. Borchert of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.”

While it is heartening that the prosecution and punishment of IAG officials are moving ahead, it is dismaying (unconscionable, horrifying, unbelievable–I’m not sure of the right word) that this even happened. So much grief, loss, and heartache for so many children and families, in the US and in Ethiopia.

Adoption agencies, adoption-related organizations, COA (the Hague accrediting entity), and others are, I hope, looking long and hard not only at the crimes allegedly committed, but also at what services have been and should be offered to all the families who were affected by this. I hope they speak up for the children and families as well, acknowledging what is at stake here and how justice might be achieved.

Given that IAG is obviously out of business, how will adoption agency professionals step up and speak out? What standards will the supporters of Children in Families First insist on? How will this affect future families placing their children and those adopting? How will governments and agencies work to ensure that adoptions are not based in fraud and corruption?

Many victims here. Please speak up.