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Digging up dirt on donation bins

Some items are sold for profit

THEY SEEM to be everywhere - outside gas stations, in mall parking lots, or beside a neighborhood minimarket. They are donated-clothing bins, those sturdy steel containers where you drop off used clothing for the needy.

Ever wonder where those old shoes, shirts, belts and coats go? The answers may surprise you.

For starters, many of these bins are not run by charities. And most of the stuff you donate isn't given to needy folks in the region.

And two groups active in the donated-clothing business have been linked to a cultlike Danish organization that has been investigated by the Danish government and Interpol.

There are legitimate nonprofits out there, their bins marked with familiar names: Goodwill, the Salvation Army and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. But, they are in the minority these days.

Many other bins are owned by businesses, which resell the used clothing, usually overseas, and pocket the profit.

One of the largest for-profits is USAgain, which has 10,000 bins in 17 states - including 10 in the Philadelphia area. It collects 60 million pounds of clothing, shoes and other textiles a year.

Another 10,000 bins nationwide are operated by Planet Aid, a charity that says it uses the money it makes to fund aid programs in some African nations.

But Planet Aid has been criticized by watchdogs for its high overhead, as only 30 cents on every dollar goes to its aid program.

None of the clothing gathered by USAgain, Planet Aid and other for-profit operators goes to help needy people in the areas where the clothing is collected.

According to Planet Aid spokeswoman Tammy Sproules, once the clothing is picked up from a donation bin, it gets shipped to one of 14 warehouses throughout the country, including one in Hatboro. And from there?

"Most of the clothing donated to Planet Aid gets sold directly to overseas customers," Sproules explained by email.

USAgain and Planet Aid have been linked to a mysterious Danish group, known variously as the Teachers Group and Tvind.

The group has been the subject of investigations and prosecution by the Danish government, which alleges that it is a multimillion-dollar business masquerading as a humanitarian organization.

The group's leader is Mogens Amdi Petersen, a mysterious figure within the organization. He founded it in 1970, and its original mission was to run alternative schools in Denmark. It later expanded, prosecutors said, into a global business operation.

In 2002, the Danish government brought charges against Petersen and other associates, alleging that Tvind set up phony companies to collect grant money and that upper management embezzled most of it.

Petersen and seven other members of the Teachers Group were tried on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. Petersen and six others were acquitted. Prosecutors immediately announced they would appeal the verdict to a higher court, but Petersen and the others fled before the courts could take action.

After the trial, questions were raised about links between Planet Aid and Tvind.

The Boston Globe reported that Ester Neltrup, the general manager of Planet Aid, along with members of the group's board, were members of the Teachers Group, but Neltrup denied any ties to Petersen. "He has nothing to do with Planet Aid," Neltrup told the Globe, "and his situation has no consequences for Planet Aid."

Questions also arose about links between Tvind and USAgain.

When a Seattle television station ran stories about the USAgain-Tvind link, Mattiaws Wallander, president and chief executive officer of USAgain, admitted he was a member of the Teachers Group but separated himself from the issues in Denmark.

"We are not associated with any organization in Denmark, and if anyone is accused of wrongdoing in Denmark, it doesn't have anything to do with USAgain," Wallander told a TV reporter.