Ex-White House aide at the center of investigation
By WILLIAM E. GIBSON | Washington Bureau Chief
March 29, 2008
WASHINGTON - Federal investigators are looking into allegations that a
former White House aide misused funds that were supposed to help
dissidents in Cuba, casting a shadow over the controversial
Felipe Sixto, who came to the White House in July and was recently
promoted to special assistant to President Bush, resigned March 20 while
disclosing he was suspected of a "conflict of interest" involving
pro-democracy funds while previously working for the Center for a Free
Cuba, the White House said.
Frank Calzon, director of the Washington-based independent group, said
on Friday he had received information in mid-January indicating that
Sixto, his former chief of staff, had been improperly diverting
government grant money intended for pro-democracy causes.
"We immediately alerted U.S. AID," Calzon said, referring to the Agency
for International Development, which provided the grants. "We're ready
to help get to the very bottom of it."
"Yes, there were problems," he said. "The purpose of our efforts, first
and foremost, was to get the money back."
U.S. AID's inspector general is investigating, and the Justice
Department has taken the matter under advisement while deciding whether
Calzon and the investigators would not comment on how much money may
have been diverted and what Sixto allegedly did with it.
Much of the program's funds is funneled through independent groups in
Washington and Miami that support the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Sixto, a
former student at Florida International University, worked in the White
House office of inter-governmental affairs as a liaison to
Cuban-Americans, state legislators, Puerto Ricans and Latino officials.
The Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, warned
in 2006 that federal officials had failed to properly oversee the $73
million that poured into the pro-democracy program from 1996 to 2005.
GAO investigators found evidence that some of it had been spent on
computer games, crabmeat and leather coats.
"Presented with this compelling evidence, the Bush administration sat on
their hands and allowed taxpayer dollars to be wasted," Joe Garcia of
Miami, a Democratic candidate for Congress, said on Friday.
Three Cuban-American members of Congress from Miami who strongly back
the program, issued a joint statement on Friday:
"We are deeply disturbed by any allegation of misuse of taxpayer funds,
and urge the Department of Justice and the inspector general for U.S.
AID to move thoroughly and swiftly in investigating all the facts in
this matter," said Republican Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart. "If any wrongdoing occurred in this
case, it is necessary that the full weight of the law be applied."
The investigation gives ammunition to critics and puts pressure on
Congress to consider curbing funds for the program.
"I'm certainly going to ask more questions when we authorize again,"
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a frequent critic of administration policy,
said on Friday. "I think it just adds more weight to the argument that
we should allow Americans to travel to Cuba and make contact with its
people. I don't know why we pay for programs that could happen organically."
William E. Gibson can be reached at email@example.com or
202-824-8256 in Washington.