White House aide resigns amid probe of Cuba funds

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 28, 2008 

WASHINGTON — A White House aide has resigned amid a Justice Department investigation into allegations that he misused an unspecified amount of U.S. grant money intended to promote democracy in Cuba.

Felipe Sixto, a Cuban-American from Miami, was the special assistant to President Bush for inter-governmental affairs, dealing with Cuba, Native American issues, state legislators, Latino elected officials and Puerto Rico.

The White House announced his resignation Friday. Before joining the administration last summer, Sixto had been chief of staff to Frank Calzon, the head of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, which receives some of the funds through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Sixto didn't respond to e-mails or phone calls to his home.

Officials provided no details on the allegations. White House spokesman Blair Jones said the White House learned of the allegations from Sixto when he resigned from his post on March 20.

''Our understanding is that Mr. Sixto allegedly had a conflict of interest with the use of USAID funds in his former employment,'' Jones said. White House lawyers investigated and referred the matter to the Department of Justice.

Calzon said he welcomed the investigation. He didn't say how much money was involved.

Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart said in a joint statement that they were ''deeply disturbed by any allegation of misuse of taxpayer funds'' and urged the Department of Justice and the USAID's inspector general ''to move thoroughly and swiftly in investigating all the facts in this matter.''

Joe Garcia, a Democrat running to unseat Mario Diaz-Balart, said the resignation underscored ''the fundamental flaws of a policy designed to win votes in Miami and patronize partisan supporters, not bring freedom to Cuba.''

''Millions of dollars intended to fuel a democratic change in Cuba are ending up in the hands of Bush/Diaz-Balart cronies and never makes it to the island,'' Garcia said. U.S. policy should require that at least 80 percent of the money be made available to Cuban opposition groups on the island, he added.

In 2006, the Government Accountability Office pointed out that most Cuba grants were awarded without competitive bids, and it found some instances of abuse, such as the purchase of cashmere sweaters with U.S. taxpayer money. But the report also found that the grant money led to large amounts of equipment and literature getting distributed to Cuban democracy activists.

Calzon's Center for a Free Cuba works with foreign governments and activists in Cuba to raise awareness of human rights abuses and distributes literature and other materials on the island. Calzon said it was the center that initiated an investigation in mid-January when the allegation of misused funds emerged.

Calzon said he expects that any misappropriated funds will be returned to the federal government.

Sixto, who is in his late 20s, is married and has one child.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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