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Florida Aid to Haiti the Target of Attempted Graft

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti - Thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid donated to a Florida aid agency and bound for an orphanage outside this city almost didn't make it into the country Saturday because of customs officials who demanded illegal payment and extra paperwork.

Despite a sign labeled, "No fees for humanitarian aid," customs agents told those bringing in the supplies if they didn't pay $120, the aid would be held indefinitely.

The goods - baby food, diapers, toys and cribs - were not allowed to leave the airport until demands were met.

"The government is so corrupt," said Cape Coral, Fla., pilot David Beauvois. "What they really need to do is get the American military here to regulate, like they do in Port-au-Prince."

He said customs agents also have been known to take the aid to keep or sell it.

The supplies eventually got through to the orphanage, said Brett Furlong, executive pastor of Cape Christian Fellowship, which collected and sent the donations to Haiti.

"Where there isn't customs before, now there is," Furlong said, speaking from Cape Coral. "This is the third time this week we've been held at Cap-Haitien. For us it's become normalcy. But, everyone takes it in stride; it's worth any hassle to get everything down to the orphanage."

The orphanage, in Quanamithe, is an hour outside of Cap-Haitien.

A flood of children fled there after the Jan. 12 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince.

It was a disappointing leg of a journey that began with high energy.

Brooke Edmonds, director of CCF's children's ministry, had been excited about the response of Southwest Florida to the Haitian disaster.

"The donations coming in have been amazing," Edmonds said.

But the elation at the chance to help was soon overshadowed by disappointment.

And it's not the first time that has happened.

Beauvois said he and co-pilot Sean Sanders of Atlanta have encountered similar situations, and some pilots will no longer land aid into that airport because customs agents gouge them: $65 for "overtime" and $50 for a "gate fee" to open a gate and allow in the aid. Other times, the aid has been stolen.

Even after the Cape group paid the $120 fee for the aid, customs initially refused to release it.

"It's just sad because people out there really need this," said Michelle Schwartz, a Cape Coral occupational therapist who also was onboard. "I mean, it's all for kids."

Schwartz, Edmonds and two others - physical therapist Pamala Feehan of Fort Myers and Dr. Milton Aponte of Port St. Lucie - shared a passionate discussion on the two-hour flight about how they felt called to help the children of Haiti.

But after 10 minutes at the Cap-Haitien airport, their smiles faded.

A single U.N. police officer, an American, was the sole security at the airport. He merely shook his head, mumbling about how wrong it was. He said there was nothing he could do.

Stephanie Dubois, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, said late Saturday she would try to find out more about protection for groups providing humanitarian aid.

Beauvois also said allegations by customs agents that proper paperwork had not been filed were untrue. In fact, manifest forms were completed before takeoff in Naples.

Sanders and Beauvois tried frantically to work out something with the agents, who insisted the pilots had to make a 30-minute drive to a residence to file additional paperwork. But time was short; the pilots also had contracted with a fuel company providing gas to American military planes.

They had to fly to Port-au-Prince, pick up a fuel sample and fly it to Miami to be tested; all fuel for American military aircraft has to be tested on U.S. soil. If they missed their deadline, all the military planes out of Port-au-Prince would be grounded indefinitely, bringing dozens of other aid operations to a halt.

"I don't think it should discourage people from giving," Beauvois said. "But it probably will."

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