F is for Fraud

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.

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18 thoughts on “F is for Fraud

    1. I can comment on Mickey’s activities since your involvement with him. His organization has been audited; he’s been caught embezzling funds to the tune of $100,000 and an arrest warrant has been issued in Thailand for his failure to appear in the criminal proceedings brought against him by Hands Across the Water. He has stepped down from COSA, assembled a new board and they are vigorously attempting to do damage control before the ship sinks. I presume you are the same John Curtis who founded Grey Man Organization. If my presumption is correct and the stories aren’t true about your rescue missions and posting blatant photos of exploited children on your Facebook page to garner funds, why did you step down from Grey Man and why was the organization subsequently disband?

  1. If you bothered to read the link i sent you then you would know why but hey, don’t let the truth get in the way of your opinions and presumptions. Have a nice day.

    1. The link you posted leads to an article about the unraveling of SISHA in Cambodia. It has nothing to do whatsoever with Grey Man or its operations in Thailand or its demise. Southeast Asia wasn’t the only region to release articles about your organization’s credibility and your military style rescue missions. Of course you blame vested interest Sean. I’ve read enough to know. What’s highly suspect is that there is virtually no reports on the dissolution of Grey Man. No more web site. No more Facebook page. No more anything. Care to explain that?

      http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/doubt-cast-over-charity-groups-sex-trafficking-rescue-claims/story-e6frg6nf-1226238636704

      http://www.smh.com.au/national/rescue-boss-out-over-claims-of-fake-victims-20120325-1vsox.html

      http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/grey-man-fights-to-regain-credibility-20120403-1waiq.html

  2. hahaha so gullible. if you bothered to read from Post 66 by Tony Ryan then you would have the full story. the article starts off about SISHA but the posts discuss Grey Man and that is where the information is but that would mean you would actually have to read my post here. . And seriously, to keep putting up links from the mainstream media without bothering to look at the link I provided tells me more about you than I needed to know. Don’t bother. It is obvious your mind is closed. for someone who worked in Thailand you seem pretty uninformed. Why are the lack of reports on the dissolution of Grey Man highly suspect? Grey Man still operates. Simple. Why did I step down? Standard procedure for any organisation that has been accused of some scandal until the outcome. There was no outcome. What you should be asking is why there are no reports about my arrest by the AFP or why the Thai police never laid charges if I did what they alleged I did. I will tell you why. The story was a complete beat up. The AFP were completely aware of the operation because I informed them of it. You realy need to get some life experience before you comment on things you know nothing about but hey ignorance is bliss. I suspect your life will be incredibly blissful. :-).

  3. BTW the new president took down the facebook site and the website which I personally think was dumb but his argument was that they had decided to stop doing rescues and did not want to have people donating if they weren’t doing rescues. They could have just removed the donation page or kept it since donations didn’t go to rescues anyway. They went to supporting children’s education and school transport. The new president also doesn’t like social media, the internet, emails and anything technological.

  4. Noël I’m 100% with you. This John clearly try to hide something and is afraid of the consequences. Surely liked with the army.

  5. Just for the record, the new Board of COSA that was organized in mid-2015 was not involved in “damage control,” but in fact removed Mr. Choothesa from the US COSA 501(c) organization, and immediately acted to coordinate with Hands Across the Water to recover any assets that could be returned to Hands. One of the members of the new Board met with Peter Baines in BKK to offer assistance and collaboration. Another US based board member flew to Mae Rim to investigate the welfare and safety of the girls, as well as the volunteers and staff at BYS. The new COSA board immediately terminated access to US COSA accounts by Mr. Choothesa, who retaliated by shuttering the girls’ shelter. The Board then coordinated with Chiang Mai’s FOCUS and Dept. Of Human Services ( on a literal hour-by-hour basis) to protect each girl, and place her in a new school or return her to her family, if she wished.

    Despite the active involvement of the new COSA Board, the US-based board had no functional control over Mr. Choothesa, or any access to Thai or foreign accounts that may have been created. COSA’s 2015 board acted as strict fiduciaries with sponsor funds, and ended all fundraising immediately upon learning of accounting irregularities at the Thailand offices. Like all who put faith in COSA and hopes for the futures of these wonderful girls, the Board was dismayed at what was found after investigation, but always acted with the wellbeing of each and every girl at the BYS shelter as its first priority. Noel, those on the 2015 new Board joi you in the heartbreak over the closing of Baan Yuu Suk.

    1. Thank you for your lengthly comment Michael. What I find absurd is that the newly formed board put into place after Mickey was caught in the financial fraud aspect of this nightmare was comprised of newbies who had very little experience or history with COSA and you say it was not assembled for “damage control” and that you removed Mickey from his own organization rather than him stepping down on his own volition when the shit hit the fan. I could potentially believe the latter but I don’t entirely believe the former because if that were true, COSA would have stopped all operations right away and COSA had a board in existence that had been in place for years. I know many of them likely walked away yet I would say most of them maintained some stake in dealing with the fallout. I’m in close contact with Peter Baines and have been throughout this ordeal and he would never agree with your statement that you coordinated with Hands to recover assets. Mickey’s breach of contract and embezzlement are what brought Hands to bring criminal proceedings against Mickey and COSA. I think we all need to turn our attention now to the filmmakers at Run Riot Films who made the documentary, The Wrong Light (fka Selling Our Daughters). The film will showcase the demise of COSA and is set to hit the festival circuit right about now. I do not currently know the status of Mickey other than there is a warrant for his arrest for failure to appear at his hearings that he has successfully dodged for months. Regardless of where the chips may fall when this is all said and done, exploiting the good will of donors, sponsors, volunteers, international and domestic staff, the girls themselves and their families whom he was supposedly advocating on behalf of, none of what he has done is acceptable and in the end, more damage than good was done by far. And quite frankly, removing Mickey from the 501c(3) in the states means nothing for actual hands-on activity in Thailand. For the entire time I worked there, his status as a 501c(3) in the states had lapsed so technically he wasn’t even a US based tax-exempt organization even though he presented himself as such.

      1. Noel, agains for the record: “I’m in close contact with Peter Baines and have been throughout this ordeal and he would never agree with your statement that you coordinated with Hands to recover assets.”

        I wrote and corresponded with Peter Baines, and one of our board met with him to offer collaboration and assistance. I went to BYS and gathered evidence that I hoped could be helpful to Peter re some vehicles that had been purchased with Hands’ funds. I agree with you that this help was not material to Hands’ legal actions in Thailand, as in the end Hands rightfully hired lawyers in Thailand and were then well represented. What I am saying is that the ‘reform Board’ tried in 2015-2016 to do all we could to right any wrongs, and to help Peter in any way that we could. The Board were not “newbies” in a pejorative sense, but lawyers, businesspeople, NGO executives and accounting experts that frankly did a great job moving quickly after the issues arose at COSA Thailand.

        At the end of the day, I am glad for the film “The Wrong Light,” and glad that the story is being told. I hope that this film educates and warns, so that what happended at COSA Thailand never happens again. It’s not just the money at risk, but there were young women and girls involved, and I can mention that the reform board’s immediate action on the ground in Chiang Mai resulted in, with FOCUS and CPS Chiang Mai’s critical intervention, in the immediate placement of these girls with homes and schools.

      2. Sorry for the late reply Michael. I’m not very active on my blog these days. I never stated that I coordinated with HATW to recover assets because I did not. How could I? I was in the US pregnant at the time the audit was conducted and fraud detected. I began communicating closely with Peter Baines at that time and with the old board members whom I’d worked with and knew personally. I continue to communicate closely with Peter Baines to this day. I was and am fully aware of the criminal case brought in Thailand against Mickey and I know he pled guilty to all charges. I also reached out to the filmmakers at Run Riot Films at that time to make sure they knew of the fraud allegations because when I was at COSA the POV of the film was that Mickey was a hero and that – as we all know now – is gravely false. I always knew something wasn’t right at COSA. I knew many things weren’t right, but I did not know the full scope of it. I didn’t last there longer than 60 days because it was a toxic work environment and the organization clearly did not align with my values. I am in the documentary film. I am also in the trailer that hit the New York Times this year. Thankfully the film got this exposure because now the FBI is involved in an ongoing investigation and I am working with them as well. I appreciate what everyone did and continues to do to uncover the truth and protect the girls in this sick situation. I’m delighted COSA is gone because it did more damage than it did good in my opinion. I appreciate what the reform board did to expose the truth, take Mickey and COSA down, and deal with the collateral damage as best they could. I understand fully that it was a very difficult time to be there.

  6. Noel I am grateful you wrote this. I was a trauma therapist volunteer at BYS two times and based on my work with the girls and Mickey definitely felt something off and now I know why which I learned from Lani Hollandse two years past in 2015. I had also volunteered there in 2009 and 2013. I was personally traumatized by the news and connected with one of the girls who I am in touch with. I felt and still feel so angry and betrayed. I have returned once to Chiang Mai and worked with other orgs and in Chiang Rai.

  7. Noel I am grateful you wrote this. I was a trauma therapist volunteer at BYS two times and based on my work with the girls and Mickey definitely felt something off and now I know why which I learned from Lani Hollander two years past in 2015. I had also volunteered there in 2009 and 2013. I was personally traumatized by the news and connected with one of the girls who I am in touch with. I felt and still feel so angry and betrayed. I have returned once to Chiang Mai and worked with other orgs and in Chiang Rai.

    1. Ali, I apologize for taking such a long time to reply. I’ve not been active on my blog for a while. I was there in 2013 but don’t think we met. I’d love to discuss further with you what is going on currently and what your experience was back then. Please email me at noelza@gmail.com if you are interested in talking more.

  8. Reblogged this on jameswith and commented:
    Oh, what a tangled web is woven when first they preach and then practise to deceive… There are so many evil people, misleading and inducing others in this world… human trafficking is a plague on humanity…

    1. Human trafficking is rife with misconceptions and over-sensationalization. That is not to say exploitative labor doesn’t exist because it does globally. Unfortunately some are using that for personal gain.

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