This article was originally published on the DW website.
Brigitte Fuzellier has faced a decade of lawsuits in Paraguay at the hands of her former employer, the German charity Kolping, after she uncovered financial misdeeds. She says the Foreign Ministry has failed to help.
A former head of the Paraguayan branch of one of Germany’s biggest Catholic development charities, Kolping, has said she has faced a decade of legal harassment for uncovering corruption in the foundation.
Brigitte Fuzellier has not been able to leave Paraguay since prosecutors filed new defamation charges against her late last year, a new blow after she had been acquitted of financial misconduct charges in the summer.
This followed a conviction for defamation in March, a charge filed for a private email. At the time, an international donation campaign saved her from prison by raising enough to pay the €24,000 ($27,000) fine.
The latest judicial action, she says, follows a familiar pattern: Once again, she was never questioned about the accusations before the charges were filed, and once again, as soon as one case against her was concluded, new charges suddenly materialized. Human rights group Transparency International has called Paraguay “a monolith in the study of corruption.”
“I lost everything, and it’s still not finished,” Fuzellier told DW. “I haven’t really had any interest in Kolping for years, but they never stopped. My reputation is being broken, my finances, my health, everything. A normal person would probably have committed suicide by now with all the stress.”
Irregularities left unpunished
As a consequence, the long travel bans that go with the court cases mean that she was unable to attend trade fairs to support her business, or to present her case in person to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington.
Fuzellier first reported financial misdeeds at Kolping in 2010, after she had been hired two years earlier to “restore order as managing director,” she told DW.
“I just did my job, and after we established that a few things were going wrong, we looked a bit deeper, uncovered everything and filed charges.” She maintains that she would have been liable to prosecution if she had not reported the crimes.
Kolping Germany refused to comment to DW about the series of lawsuits against Fuzellier, on the grounds that they were a matter for the Paraguayan authorities. Fuzellier, meanwhile, maintains that the suits, brought by her successor Olaf von Brandenstein, must have been approved by the foundation’s headquarters in Cologne.
The misdeeds Fuzellier uncovered in 2010 include false accounting of European Union investment in the foundation. Kolping is a huge development network, operating in 60 countries around the world, specializing in job training in the developing world.
Fuzellier said she found stacks of invoices for projects that never happened, as well as 323 signed checks worth about €164,000 ($184,000) in her predecessor’s safe, with the account numbers cut out in an apparent attempt to cover the financial gaps.
In 2018, Fuzellier uploaded a video to YouTube showing some of these checks and what she said were fake invoices, as evidence that hundreds of thousands of dollars of EU funds never made it to Paraguay. “There were many, many such irregularities that came to very high sums,” Fuzellier said. “We just don’t know what happened to the money. It got lost somewhere on the way.”
Though Fuzellier filed charges for these cases on behalf of Kolping, they were withdrawn by von Brandenstein after the board had dismissed her for “spreading false information that is very damaging to the Association,” according to a 2010 Kolping press release.
In Fuzellier’s account, her sacking was rather abrupt: She turned up for work one day to find herself locked out of her office. “It was all just swept under the carpet,” she said. “But we knew too much and we wouldn’t keep our mouths shut. First they came after my assistant and then they came after me.”
Fuzellier accused the organization of obstructing the investigations that brought libel charges against her, and, as the court battles continued, her travel ban. Meanwhile, her assistant Thomas Schilling spent two years in a Paraguayan jail without charge over a German court summons that he only saw five months after it was issued. This jail time also cost Fuzellier and her family money: “Here in Paraguay you have to pay protection money to make sure someone doesn’t die in jail,” she said.
Other evidence of corruption at Kolping in Paraguay was uncovered by Der Spiegel magazine in 2010, which found that a building the charity was supposed to be running as a vocational school, and which Germany’s Development Ministry (BMZ) had co-funded, was actually a brothel. As a result of this and other revelations, the BMZ forced Kolping to return €241,000 of taxpayers’ money after looking into the investigation, though a probe by the EU’s anti-fraud office was never completed.
German government ‘fails to help’
Fuzellier appealed to the German embassy in Asuncion for help with her legal costs, but was denied. In a statement to DW, the German Foreign Ministry only offered a brief response: “The case is known to the Foreign Ministry. The embassy in Asuncion has been in contact with the affected person.”
In fact, emails seen by DW show that the Foreign Ministry refused to intervene on the grounds that Fuzellier wasn’t in an “acute emergency situation.” Given that the judicial travel bans have prevented her from earning a living, Fuzellier argues this does describe her circumstances.
“Kolping has tried for years to break Brigitte’s spirit. But they won’t succeed,” said Mark Worth, executive director at the Berlin-based European Center for Whistleblower Rights, which has taken up Fuzellier’s case. “Not only has the retaliation failed to stop her quest for justice, it has taught her that striving for justice is among life’s highest pursuits.”
“If there was such a thing as a whistle-blower retaliation textbook, the reprisals Ms. Fuzellier has suffered would be in Chapter 1,” he added. “It’s one of the most irrational campaigns I’ve ever seen. And, as we have seen in this terrible case, they can continue to punish former employees for years on end.”