In early 2013, I was hired as a Project Manager for Children’s Organization of Southeast Asia (COSA). I had been in-country for two years at that point. For 15 months, I worked as the International Department Coordinator for DEPDC – Thailand’s longest-standing anti-trafficking NGO. When my contract with DEPDC was up, I moved from Mae Sai to Chiang Mai in search of additional anti-trafficking work. While I do not profess to be an expert in the field of human trafficking, I was in a unique position coming into COSA in that I had previous experience and had learned quite a lot from a large organization that, at the time, had been on the ground for 22 years. It did not take long to realize COSA had systemic problems. I discovered early on that COSA was not registered in Thailand, Australia or the US – the main countries providing financial support to the organization. When you solicit contributions and claim they are tax deductible, but you do not have a tax exempt entity in good standing, this is a big problem. In the US we call it fraud. COSA’s founder, Mickey Choothesa, was continually vague and evasive about the histories of the girls in his care and his tactics in the field. I was also wary of his previous collaboration with the Grey Man – an organization known for doing covert rescue missions. Read more about The Grey Man’s scandal here and here.
Upon my hiring, COSA had just partnered with Hands Across The Water (HATW) a large donor organization based in Australia. Together they planned to start up two additional shelters and quadruple the number of girls in COSA’s care in about a year’s time. I believed that in order for Mickey to grow his organization at such a large rate in such a short time, he needed capacity building professionals to help strategize an executable plan. A Ph.D. professional with 15 years of international experience was vetted, but he rejected her and instead promoted a COSA volunteer as his Director. This volunteer had been in country for only three months. She had no previous NGO management or anti-trafficking experience. While she brought her own set of skills to the table, she was highly unqualified for the position. There were many red flags.
COSA was in a tenuous stage and the anxiety was palatable. The partnership with HATW required a lot of work and follow up. Shine Global – a film company out of NYC was beginning to make a documentary about Mickey and COSA, several of the girls were being flown to Australia for the first time and required flights, passports and visas (not a small feat for stateless individuals). The web site was being redesigned. On top of all this, Mickey was restructuring the entire NGO. He was also taking on additional girls that we had no room for. It seemed all he cared about was getting more girls, getting bigger and growing COSA without actually doing so in a way that was sustainable and manageable. I watched Mickey continually say yes to every volunteer group who wanted to come, to every person who emailed an inquiry, and to every visitor who wanted to show up last minute. We simply were overextended and incapable of managing it all. I had a conversation with Mickey one day urging him to put on the brakes before we crashed. I told him we were well beyond our capacity and that he needed to start saying no. His response to me at the time was, “I want to be the biggest and I want to be the best.” I knew then that our values were grossly misaligned.
I questioned whether COSA was a good fit for me at that time, but human trafficking is an issue I take to heart and I am not one to give up easily so I continued working for COSA in hopes that we could improve with time. After Songkran holiday (Thai New Year) I returned to the office and was fired on arrival by Mickey and his Director.
A year after my termination, I learned that HATW had conducted an independent audit of COSA, utilizing forensic accountants and auditors from Bangkok. This audit allegedly unveiled financial fraud by Mickey. This included Mickey putting land purchased by HATW in his own name, presenting forged documents, as well as funneling large amounts of funds into personal accounts. Upon this discovery, Peter Baines, founder of HATW, released a public statement of immediate termination of the partnership with Mickey and COSA. Hands Across the Water presented the evidence to the Royal Thai Police and as a result of the investigation the State Attorney is now prosecuting Mickey for fraud in the criminal jurisdiction. To date, Mickey has failed to appear to the criminal hearings and it is most likely that a warrant for his arrest is forthcoming.
While this came as no surprise really, I was unaware of just how bad it really was. I am finally free to discuss what I know about COSA – something I didn’t feel I could do at the time of my termination because I did not have enough substance to go on and I was certain Mickey and his Director would discredit me. Now that the gloves are off, I’m ready to get in the ring.