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Your Rags to Their Riches: Donated Clothes May Fund International Fugitive 

Wednesday, Jun 8 2011
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European prosecutors have shown that some Tvind front groups obtain revenue through ventures such as collecting used clothing and then redirect that money to places (and offshore accounts) unknown. This appears to be done via exorbitant rents and outsized service fees, goods sold at inflated or deflated prices, and the deployment of idealistic volunteers in what turn out to be private moneymaking operations. Money is moved from one account to another in the form of donations, loans, fees, and the sale and resale of used clothes.

It's unclear whether clothing left in a box on Divisadero Street ultimately feeds the opulent lifestyle of fugitive cult members — though Danish investigative journalists have documented links between Teachers Group members' lavish lifestyle and cash flows from the international Tvind business network.

But Campus California's business practices and choice of management fit a general pattern laid out by Danish prosecutors, as well as by journalists in Europe and the United States. Campus California has paid rent, brokerage, and financing fees to reputed Tvind-linked groups. It has shared key management personnel with such groups.

In April, Danish financial filings showed an annual transfer of around $50,000 to Campus California from Faelleseje, which is "the most central foundation in the whole Tvind empire," Danish journalist Frede Jakobsen says in an interview. He explains that Faelleseje has been used as a sort of banker for Tvind-linked entities.

I asked Sako about the transfers and sent him copies of the Danish documents. He said the money consisted of loans that helped fund expansion drives into San Francisco and Phoenix. But after asking to "take a break" from a follow-up interview, he later sent me an e-mail disavowing his prior statement, saying loans from Faelleseje had instead been fully paid back in 2009. That assertion seems to be belied by detailed Danish financial filings.

Also in April, Campus California filed documents with the Arizona Corporation Commission as part of the group's expansion into that state. The documents revealed that Campus California had reincorporated in Richmond on Oct. 25, 2010, with a new board of directors chaired by a woman named Marianne Thomsen.

Thomsen, it so happens, is reputed to be Mogens Amdi Petersen's personal physician. This was a significant relationship, because Petersen is a reputed hypochondriac.

"He wouldn't rely on other doctors," says Steen Thomsen, a former Teachers Group member who ran a Tvind school in Britain. He quit in 1998 because, he says, he was being required to help Tvind skim money.

"Petersen was in charge, trying to pump out money from the school," says Steen Thomsen, who is now headmaster at a non-Tvind-linked primary school in Denmark, and who is not related to Marianne Thomsen. "We had to pay rents that were exorbitant."

During this time, Steen Thomsen periodically received visits from Marianne Thomsen with the stated purpose of giving Teachers Group members medical checkups. He came to believe this was a form of monitoring. "We knew from the way she was speaking that she would confer with Mr. Petersen," he says.

I asked Sako several times if I could interview Keld Duus, Campus California's executive director. I left a phone message for him and e-mailed a list of questions. I hoped he might have answers about Campus California's Tvind links: According to the 2003 annual report of Planet Aid, which has been described as a Tvind front in an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, Duus was previously manager for Planet Aid Mid-West, and clothes collection manager for the reputed Tvind front Humana in France and Belgium.

I didn't hear back from Duus. But Sako later e-mailed me. "Marianne Thomsen has stepped down as the chairwoman of Campus California's Board of Directors earlier this year and she is no longer associated with Campus California in any capacity," he wrote. Calls to phone numbers linked to her in the East Bay and at a Michigan Tvind school, produced no answers.

As for my question about whether Marianne Thomsen was Petersen's physician, Sako suggested it was inappropriate that I asked about his board chair's alleged ties to an international fugitive: "Did you really asked me if two people are in a patient-doctor relationship???" he wrote in an e-mail.

As for an opportunity to speak to her replacement, Sako said he would "forward my request." In a follow up e-mail, he wrote: "It is our belief that Campus California have already provided you with full information about our work."


So who is that secretive man? During the 1970s, Mogens Amdi Petersen gathered a group of idealistic, leftist-minded educators to establish folk high schools, a uniquely Danish tradition of learning centers where adults can extend their education. The group expanded with more schools, overseas development projects, and used-clothing collection operations.

"It's very difficult to describe a truly charismatic person," Steen Thomsen says. "He's very bright. He's able to talk to anybody, wherever he might be. And the only person I can say I've ever heard give a speech at the level of Mr. Petersen is Barack Obama."

Accusations that the various enterprises weren't honest with their accounts surfaced during the late 1970s. Things got so bad that in 1979 Petersen went underground, seemingly for good.

But in 2002, FBI agents acting on a tip arrested him for extradition to Denmark to stand trial on charges of embezzlement and tax fraud in connection with an $8 million scheme to launder money. Danish prosecutors compiled a dossier that describes how, while a fugitive, Petersen personally oversaw the creation and management of a global network of for-profit and nonprofit front groups, offshore companies, and byzantine money transfers with the aim of moving and hiding assets generated by the collection and reselling of — of all things — used clothes. A court convicted one of his associates of embezzlement but acquitted Petersen and six others. Danish prosecutors announced they would appeal the decision in 2006, and Petersen went into hiding.


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Matt Smith

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