Mogens Pedersen founded Tvind as a teachers’ collective in Denmark and then took it worldwide — including Chicago’s used-clothing charity, Gaia. Now he faces trial for embezzling and other charges.
Ted Lewis was summoned to Denmark to meet the guru.
An idealistic 30-year-old who wanted to work with the poor around the world, Lewis played a minor role in the multinational charity known as Tvind. He ran a small Massachusetts school that trained volunteers to work in overseas development projects.
The year was 1988, and Lewis didn’t know then what prosecutors allege today: that Tvind was slowly morphing from a countercultural teachers collective into a criminal enterprise.
Tvind’s charismatic founder — a lanky, long-haired Dane named Mogens Amdi Pedersen — preached solidarity with the poor as he established schools, overseas development projects and profitmaking businesses in some 35 countries.
Making international news in 1978, one of Pedersen’s “traveling folk high schools” built the world’s tallest windmill as a class project. His academies for troubled youth won funding and support from government agencies in Virginia, England and war-torn Africa.
To fuel his expanding empire, Pedersen set his sights on the United States, a wellspring of charitable dollars and volunteer workers.
Lewis recalls Pedersen arriving at the spare, Tvind meeting room in Denmark that day in 1988. He was “like an Oz, really grandiose,” Lewis says today. “He was the man with great vision who gets you thinking about the big possibility.”
The Tvind leader spread a U.S. map before them, Lewis recalls.
“Let’s dream,” Pedersen said.
In the 16 years since that meeting, Pedersen brought an astonishing vision to reality: America is now stitched from coast to coast with Tvind schools, charities and businesses. Tvind’s multimillion-dollar U.S. empire is growing even as Pedersen faces criminal charges in Europe. Danish officials have charged Pedersen and seven top aides with embezzling $9 million from Tvind’s main charity and illegally evading $11 million in taxes. In Belgium, a separate trial is under way in which Pedersen and five Tvind leaders face money laundering charges.
Chicago is dotted with the red-and-white-checkered clothing collection bins of Tvind’s Elgin-based for-profit U’SAgain and the green boxes of the Chicago charity named Gaia, which promises environmental projects that have yet to materialize.
Sharing directors and funds with the clothing businesses are three U.S. “institutes” whose students labor in Tvind-run development projects overseas. Registered as charities, they took in a total of more than $3 million from 1999 through 2002. But in Tribune interviews, a dozen former students said their training was paltry.
Lewis quickly grew disenchanted with Tvind and quit the group within a year of meeting Pedersen. Today, he directs programs for the Global Exchange human rights organization. He is among the disillusioned former members whose stories show how Pedersen set out to harvest this country’s wealth and generosity.
Pedersen did not respond to an interview request made through his Danish attorney. But from conversations with former members, a portrait emerges of Tvind’s multifaceted leader: Radical hippie teacher. Hard-charging CEO and master franchiser. Trusted friend. Paranoid, controlling father figure.
Pedersen found ways to infiltrate the hearts of his followers and exert his control. Sometimes he decided whether and when Tvind members might marry and have children. Sometimes he separated couples for the supposed good of the group.
In 1979, amid Danish press reports that Tvind was engaged in deceptive practices, Pedersen went into hiding, telling followers that right-wing operatives had attacked him with guns. He continued to oversee Tvind while shuttling among secret locations around the world.
FBI agents arrested him between international flights at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002, and began the process of extraditing him to Denmark to face trial. Scribbling his signature on a Los Angeles federal court affidavit, Pedersen requested a public defender because he had only $2,000 to his name. As “part of a communal group,” he said he owned no property, bank accounts or stocks.
But to fight his extradition, Pedersen somehow found the cash to hire Robert Shapiro, the swashbuckling Hollywood attorney who defended O.J. Simpson.
At a February 2002 federal court hearing in Los Angeles, Shapiro told the judge that “there is no doubt in my mind that [Pedersen] is an honorable man. He is a humanitarian.”
Shapiro said: “This is, in fact, one of the most humanitarian organizations in the world.” Nearly a million African people depend on the group “on a daily basis for shelter, for education and for AIDS awareness and prevention.”
If Pedersen were locked up, Tvind development projects might wither, Shapiro warned. “Millions of people around the world who are on the poverty level, who are depending on this for education, will indeed be cut off.”
Despite Shapiro’s pleas, Los Angeles federal magistrate judge Stephen J. Hillman extradited Pedersen to Denmark, where his trial is scheduled to begin later this year and last through 2005.
A long, strange trip
In a Danish police photograph, the 64-year-old fugitive wore a metal-studded motorcycle jacket. With blue-gray eyes and thin snowy hair above his high forehead, he smiled wanly at the camera.
It has been a long, strange trip for the rebel teacher who captured the imagination of the Danish public in the 1970s.
Born in a small Danish town to a middle-class family — his father worked as a school headmaster — Pedersen (whose name is sometimes spelled Petersen or Pederson) became a high school teacher at 23, in the Danish city of Odense. According to Tvind lore, he was fired for wearing long hair in 1969. Pedersen bounced back, founding his first “traveling folk high school” in 1970.
With horn-rimmed glasses and an infectious grin, the 30-year-old attracted a cadre of dedicated educators who embraced his pedagogical method: Teach youngsters how the world works by taking them deep into it. In ramshackle buses and reconditioned sailboats, Pedersen’s students made monthslong journeys to Africa and the Far East.
“It was all these young people singing into the night,” recalled former member Hans la Cour.
Pedersen lectured against drugs and casual sex as he built wide support for the collective he called “Tvind” — the name of the small farming village where he first gathered them — or sometimes “the Teachers Group.”
He initially won the backing of the Danish government, which provided grants and teacher salaries. Tvind schools sought out troubled youth. Returning pupils became teachers to the new followers. Over time, some 300 to 500 Scandinavians pledged their time and money to the collective, along with an unknown number of others in Europe, Africa and the Americas, prosecutors in Denmark and the U.S. say.
With little success, they experimented with novel sewer technologies, energy-efficient cars and machines that convert waste into energy. Tvind constructed schools with relentless zeal, enlisting students as brick-and-mortar laborers.
Pedersen “was always the first one up in the morning and the last to go to bed. He was the one with the ideas,” la Cour said. Tvind “set out to conquer the world. Their original ambition was world revolution.”
Although Pedersen’s collective seemed from the outside to be loose and democratic, he asserted growing control over Tvind’s treasury and the lives of its members, according to prosecutors in Denmark and the U.S.
When Pedersen went underground, “the nature of the beast started showing,” la Cour said. “As Amdi became more isolated from the real world, he wanted to create this feeling of us against everybody else — `Look, they’re after us.'”
Pedersen instructed some members to go to their family homes and burn old photos and letters so that nobody could trace them if they also went underground. “His followers say farewell to their history,” former Tvind member Steen Thomsen wrote in a 1998 report to the Danish Ministry of Education.
Following Maoist principles of `constructive self-criticism,’ followers who balked at Tvind directives were subjected to relentless, hourslong rounds of group criticism. “Anybody who dared stand up would get worked on,” la Cour said.
La Cour quit the group in 1990, walking off a Tvind sailboat when it docked in New Zealand. He had fallen in love with an American crewmember, and Pedersen had forced them to separate.
Pedersen felt “the relationship would divert attention from what I was there to do,” la Cour says today. “He was grooming me to be a leader and said I had to sacrifice.”
In America, Pedersen had initially given free rein to Ted Lewis and his friends to launch Tvind’s first U.S. institute in 1987 to train students for overseas development projects.
But Lewis said Tvind leaders asserted control over the finances and the Americans’ personal lives.
“That’s when the whole thing started to fall apart,” he said. “They started to do things that very quickly crossed my line,” when they “started to tinker with people’s destinies.”
When the Americans demanded greater autonomy, Tvind sent over a top official — the now-indicted Bodil Sorenson — who “effectively split the group,” Lewis said. “We decided to leave without trashing it or tearing them down. We turned over the keys.”
All four of the institute’s founding board members eventually quit Tvind.
Over the 1990s, Pedersen dropped any pretense of living a Spartan life. A Tvind-run company called Chilton Intervest began purchasing luxury condos on exclusive Fisher Island in Florida, for Pedersen and his top aides, Miami-Dade County land records show.
Blending charities and businesses
While Pedersen remained out of sight, Tvind’s expanding U.S. operations skillfully blended charities and profit-taking businesses into a flourishing operation.
The Tvind members who manage the group’s American operations say they have no connection to the criminal allegations in Denmark. But court and corporate records reveal ties.
In one example, Tvind’s U.S. institutes to train development volunteers have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent to a for-profit Tvind company called AS Properties Ltd., land and tax records show. That company’s vice president, Tvind attorney Kirsten Fuglsbjerg, has been indicted in Denmark. She uses the alias “Christie Pipps” in U.S. land transactions, records filed by the Danish prosecutor show.
Pedersen scrupulously kept his name off all Tvind documents. But from behind the scenes, Assistant U.S. Atty. Matthew E. Sloan wrote in court papers, he became “the undisputed leader of an organization that controls well over $100 million in assets worldwide and had gross income of over $100 million as recently as 1995.”
Building the type of capitalist empire he once railed against, Pedersen used humanitarian funds to transform Tvind’s Malaysian rain forest conservation project into a commercial sawmill, U.S. and Danish prosecutors say in court papers.
“It seems to me that they started out in the early days with an aim to create some very good things,” Danish prosecutor Poul Gade told the Tribune. “But perhaps it got out of hand — power corrupts, and it is more fun to be a CEO of a multimillion-dollar company and to live in Miami than to do hard labor to help the poor.”
Meanwhile, Tvind’s clothing operations continue to flourish in the United States, while Pedersen is free on bond preparing for the two criminal trials in Denmark and Belgium.
When Pedersen was arrested, “the newspapers were quick to say that Tvind would be shut down,” la Cour said. “I said, Forget it. They are going to be stronger than ever. It is a misunderstanding that all of this is driven by Amdi alone.”
La Cour said: “Those foot soldiers are out there thinking they are doing a good job. They’re living Spartan lives and working long hours. They’re not grabbing money.
“This is the reason the whole empire still exists, I think,” la Cour said. “You can’t really shut down things that people believe in.”
Gaia is only one of Tvind’s U.S. operations
The Denmark-based organization known as Tvind runs schools, charities and for-profit businesses in more than 35 countries around the world. In the U.S., Tvind runs several linked clothing collection businesses, as well as three schools. The operations share officers and funds with each other.
GAIA: A Chicago-based charity that reported earning a total of $2 million, 1999-2002.
PLANET AID: A charity that resells castaway clothing and donates the profits to humanitarian projects mostly run by other Tvind companies. Active on the East Coast, Ohio and Michigan, it has reported total earnings of $15.6 million, 1999-2002.
PLANET AID PHILADELPHIA: A charity that reported earning a total of $2.1 million, 1999-2002.
U’SAGAIN: The for-profit firm has registered offices in several states, including Illinois, Georgia, Minnesota, Texas, New York and Washington. Its finances are not public.
GARSON & SHAW: This Atlantabased for-profit clothing broker takes commissions from the charities and U’SAgain to market their clothes overseas. Its finances are not public.
INSTITUTES: In addition to its clothes collection businesses, Tvind runs three U.S. “institutes” in Michigan, Massachusetts and California that recruit volunteers to labor in Tvind-run development projects overseas. The institutes took in a total of more than $3 million, 1999-2002.