Charity troubled by anonymous accusations

November 26, 1999|By VIRGINIAN-PILOT

NORFOLK, Va. -- Anonymous e-mails accusing Operation Smile of mismanagement and lax surgical procedures have led the Norfolk-based humanitarian organization to hire an attorney to investigate the allegations.

Norfolk lawyer Bradford Stillman is exploring accusations that Operation Smile -- which provides free reconstructive surgery to children across the globe -- has used substandard monitoring that may have contributed to the death of a 2-year-old girl in China.

There have been 14 deaths since 1982, the group said, among 53,000 children treated in 19 countries.

One of the two e-mails also accuses the organization of using an "accounting trick" to inflate the value of its donated services so administrative costs would appear smaller.

The organization's founders, Dr. William Magee and his wife, Kathy, held a news conference Tuesday to address the allegations, which were made anonymously by two people.

One of e-mails was signed a "Concerned Op Smile mission volunteer."

The e-mails -- which the Magees made public Tuesday -- were originally sent to board members, staff and corporate sponsors.

The Magees said they did not want the allegations to derail the organization.

"There's a Chinese saying that short pain is better than lingering suffering," said William Magee, a Norfolk plastic surgeon.

"There's no sense in this dribbling out when we have nothing to hide."

While the Magees described the allegations as either untrue or distorted, they also said that some procedures have been adjusted.

For instance, monitoring of anesthesia was increased in overseas missions after the 1998 death of the girl in Beijing.

The 2-year-old, who had a heart condition, suffered cardiac arrest while anesthesia was being administered.

The organization has also made inquiries to the Internal Revenue Service and to an independent accounting firm about its tax returns.

William Magee said that in one recent tax return, the organization combined its $38 million in donated services with $12 million in cash donations it had received.

Magee said Operation Smile has asked for guidance on how the donations should be tallied.

One of the e-mail writers, however, said the organization was trying to inflate the figure to make administrative costs look smaller.

That e-mail, sent in September, also reported unrest within the organization, problems with high turnover among staff members, and tensions between board members and the Magees.

The September e-mail said the organization sponsors expensive management retreats, uses fancy jets to travel the globe and hires pricey public relations firms to get more stories about Operation Smile on TV and in magazines. "We have been blinded by fame and intoxicated by publicity. We have lost our way," the e-mail read.

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