ICYMI: Johnny Isakson’s Peace Corps bill passes Senate

Late last night, as this latest showdown in Congress over spending suddenly vanished, the U.S. Senate indulged in a rare moment of bipartisanship and passed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011.

The legislation, named for a Georgia volunteer who was murdered in 2009 while serving in Africa, is intended to mandate better security and protection measures for those who join the 50-year-old agency.

The bill is the joint effort of Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Isakson serves as the ranking member on the Subcommittee on African Affairs, and Boxer serves on the Subcommittee on the Peace Corps in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A House version of the bill has passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee and could come to a floor vote as early as next week – especially if House leaders want to demonstrate that their chamber can still function without tearing itself apart.

Here’s the background of the bill and Isakson’s involvement, posted this summer:

My family includes a 25-year-old daughter who recently informed her parents that she was filling out an application to join the U.S. Peace Corps.

So it has been with more than detached interest that I have watched a rare, intense relationship form between Harry and Lois Puzey of Cumming and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey back home in Cumming, Georgia with her brother David, father Harry, and mother Lois. MCT

Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey during a trip home to Cumming, Ga. -- with her brother David, father Harry, and mother Lois. MCT

On March 12, 2009, the couple’s 24-year-old daughter Kate, a Peace Corps volunteer, was murdered as she slept — her throat slit — in a small, interior village in the west African country of Benin.

Only hours before, Kate Puzey had emailed her supervisor, accusing a local, male Peace Corps staffer of molesting village girls. The young volunteer asked that her supervisor keep the communiqué confidential. It was not — the man’s brother worked in the country’s Peace Corps headquarters.

Last week, several members of Congress, led by Isakson, introduced the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011, which would require the U.S. government’s ultimate good-deed agency to give protected whistle-blower status to volunteers who report wrongdoing — and to treat victims of sexual assault with a measure of respect.

It has been a long road for the Puzeys and for Isakson. And there are still miles to go.

Politicians are hesitant to attend the funerals of strangers without invitation — the likelihood of trespassing on private space is considered too great. In the spring of 2009, Isakson made an exception.

He was moved by the account of Kate Puzey’s death he read in the newspaper. “The article was on the right-hand column of the front page, above the fold,” the senator remembered. “That young lady died for the country, as sure as any soldier did.”

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) keeps the photo of murdered Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey at his desk on Capitol Hill. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) keeps the photo of murdered Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey at his desk on Capitol Hill. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

Unbidden, Isakson made the long drive from Cobb County up Ga. 400, and sat through the two-hour service. Afterward, he quietly told the Puzeys to call him if he could help.

Though the Peace Corps’ Atlanta office is a mere hour away, the Puzeys were informed of their daughter’s death with a phone call. Six months later, her effects from Benin were delivered. Dropped off in the driveway by a FedEx truck like an Internet order of office supplies.

That’s when the couple called Isakson. Harry and Lois Puzey are worldly people. Until 2006, they roamed the globe — with their son and daughter — as teachers in schools run by the U.S. Department of Defense. This is how Kate Puzey came by her language skills.

But the parents told Isakson that when it came to the details of how their daughter died, the Peace Corps had become a black hole. They had been treated as potential lawsuits or, worse, an embarrassment to be pushed into a dark corner.

For more than two years, the Puzeys have trod a diplomatic path. The three men accused of complicity in Kate Puzey’s death, including the Peace Corps staffer and his brother, remain in jail, untried — and the parents don’t want to jeopardize the fragile thing that is justice in Benin.

Neither do they want to discredit the agency their daughter joined. “We were in a dilemma. We realized that Kate loved the Peace Corps. But on the other hand, they weren’t doing what they needed to do for our family,” Lois Puzey said.

Isakson has likewise been in a delicate position. As a man who came of age in the Kennedy era, he is a fan of the Peace Corps, and can remember JFK’s call to establish the agency in 1960. Isakson occupies the U.S. Senate seat once held by Paul Coverdell, a director of the Peace Corps under the first Bush administration.

Isakson is also the ranking Republican on the African subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. And with then-Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Isakson introduced a bill in 2010 to protect Peace Corps whistle-blowers. It stalled.

Frustrated, the Puzeys agreed to cooperate with ABC News’ “20/20” on a report about their daughter’s death, and the Peace Corps’ treatment of volunteers who had found themselves victims of sexual assault.

That resulted in a hearing last month before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Lois Puzey testified, with Isakson beside her, holding her hand. “Washington can be an intimidating place. You need a friend now and then,” Isakson said.

Lois Puzey told House members that one of the investigating judges involved in her daughter’s murder case had recently declared there was not enough evidence to move the case forward.

Days later, Isakson was in Benin, in the office of Thomas Yayi Boni, the country’s president. The Georgia senator carried one letter from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and another from Lois Puzey.

Isakson spent two hours with the president, and another five with Benin’s minister of justice — who wrote out a reply to Lois Puzey on the spot. Isakson hand-delivered it to the Puzeys two Sundays ago.

Kate’s grave isn’t far away — in a cemetery off Buford Dam Road. But Isakson has vowed not to visit it until his bill is passed.

“He’s taken it very personally. We know that. We can tell that,” Lois Puzey said, her voice tightening.

“He’s my hero. All politicians talk the talk, but he’s walked the walk for our family,” said Harry Puzey. Cancer and the lack of resolution have given Kate’s father a translucent appearance.

Both parents know that the bill now before Congress may be all the closure they ever get. David Puzey, Kate’s older brother and a public policy grad student in California, has helped with the language.

But even without the legislation, the Puzeys say their daughter’s death has made a difference. New protocols have been established by a new director. A safety net is in place.

If your daughter wants to join the Peace Corps, they said, let her.

“Absolutely,” Isakson agreed.

I don’t usually do this, but the bill might be worth a phone call to your congressman.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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24 comments Add your comment

Road Scholar

September 27th, 2011
3:25 pm

Good work, Johnny. But I find it interesting while the bill protects peace corps workers, isn’t it more regulation? Don’t get me wrong; I support regulation and abhor over regulation. It’s nice to see common sense win out now and again.

cs

September 27th, 2011
4:02 pm

Yep, them republicons is serious about saving money and spending cuts. How about doing away with “peace” corps and people stay their arses in their own country?

The Anti-Gnostic

September 27th, 2011
4:19 pm

What does the Peace Corps actually do, I mean, other than convince women to spend their youthful prime in bankrupt, dystopic countries where they can be victimized by the natives?

GaBlue

September 27th, 2011
4:34 pm

What kind of people are we that we have to make a special law mandating that members of this organization protect whistle-blowers and treat victims of sexual assault with some measure of respect?

Will this law apply likewise to members of our armed forces and civilians employed by “defense contractors” working overseas?

(Yeah… Rhetorical. I already know the answers.)

findog

September 27th, 2011
5:16 pm

Was the peace corps not covered under existing laws?
Have we now created yet another special class of citizen?
Have we put the creep on death row yet?
Is his brother behind bars for life?

Independent voter

September 27th, 2011
5:23 pm

Isakson can sign peace corp bill but he cant sign job bill.That why I say this country is going down the drain because who we got passing bill. This is disgrace to America that people in America need job but they can pass a peace corp bill.

honested

September 27th, 2011
5:55 pm

Isakson worked with a civilized Senator as a co-sponsor?

Color me astounded.

Now if he would take a couple of days thinking about voters over contributors we might be on to something.

Decatur Resident

September 27th, 2011
6:01 pm

Jim, I can’t tell you how much I’ve appreciated you following this story. My wife works at the CDC, and has regularly traveled to some pretty dangerous countries to provide aid and build capacity among local nonprofits and governmental institutions. Every time she leaves, I think of this story. I remember hearing about Katy’s death when it first happened, and I’ve never forgotten. I’m grateful to our state’s senator for everything he’s done to honor the memory of a young Georgian who committed her life towards helping others. And I’m grateful to you for covering this story from start to finish.

Bonannie

September 27th, 2011
8:14 pm

My daughter is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Africa. She is a UGA Grad who is very happy enabling better global communication, education and integration. We wholeheartedly support the Peace Corps and this bill. Thank you Sen. Isakson and bless you Puzey family; Kate did not die in vain – doing the right thing is what makes the world go round and thanks to her bravery volunteers will be safer.

Ben

September 27th, 2011
8:34 pm

It is nice to pass this legislation but how about working on a jobs bill, a new tax code or a new immigration bill? Let’s get on with what we really need.

Christine Solomon

September 27th, 2011
8:36 pm

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Lome, Togo from 1991-1993, I was terrorized by a Belgian national who was drunk and enraged, broke down three of the locks on my door, and only left when the local Togolese came to defend me with clubs. He vowed to be back. To do harm, for sure. When I reported what happened to the Peace Corps office, they told me I would be immediately ‘early terminated’ back to the US if I reported the incident to the Belgian Consulate, which is what I had planned to do. The ambassador told me through Peace Corps that I would be sent back to the US immediately if I talked to any of the authorities, Togolese or otherwise. They did provide an unarmed Togolese guard at my gate for a while. I had screaming nightmares for five years afterwards. I think this is a great law to pass for the protection of Peace Corps volunteers abroad. Christine Citrini Solomon

BobDog

September 27th, 2011
9:16 pm

Anyone who is criticizing the senator surely didn’t see the 20/20 piece. I applaud Senator Isakson for his work.

janet

September 27th, 2011
9:37 pm

It was the right thing to do. And the great work of the Peace Corps must continue changing lives around the world.

Schultzie

September 28th, 2011
1:42 am

So let me get this right: a Senator works to pass legislation to prevent a future family from having to endure the horrors that the Puzey family endured, and he gets criticized on this board for it?

Ben, what you really need is a heart. This bill IS what the Puzey family really needed.

Independent Voter, then reason you can’t get a job is because of your seeming inability to master writing the English language in a way that is understood by other English speakers.

Honested, really? Worry about voters over contributors? Maybe the dumbest comment on board, especially when the whole story is about helping a constituent family.

CS, you’re just an ass, plain and simple.

Jim, for the love of sanity close the thread to comments and save these people from themselves, from trampling one the memory of a 24 year old girl, and from insulting her family, including her dying father.

Capitol Hack

September 28th, 2011
9:39 am

Thank you Schultzie, for saying what the silent majority of us were all thinking.

I hold the AJC responsible for allowing and encouraging the trolls to continually dominate these boards with hateful, uninformed, and bigoted diatribes. Why has the AJC not adopted a sensible posting policy that encourages civility and respectful dialogue?? Other newspapers have figured it out, why not the AJC? That this newspaper allows and encourages the low level of discourse on these boards is a tragedy. Hey AJC: Don’t you understand that this diminishes your brand, diminishes our civil society, and makes us ALL poorer because of it? You can — and should — do better.

Turqoise Brisket

October 2nd, 2011
10:04 pm

you can’t legislate justice or freedoms….

ESL teacher

October 2nd, 2011
10:52 pm

I think this bill is definitely a step in the right direction. However, I think it should also encompass protection for other Americans working overseas such as contractors and ESL teachers.

chris

October 3rd, 2011
4:35 am

I don’t believe that a “bill” is going to solve this situation. Being in Africa of all places isn’t like being here, at all. If they are willing to slit someone’s throat that easily I don’t think they care if there is an administrative law protecting someone.

TovahG

October 3rd, 2011
6:58 am

I applaud Sen. Isakson and the Puzey family. There’s never a wrong time to do the right thing. Sure, there are lots of issues to be addressed in Washington…but that doesn’t diminish the need for this legislation. I’ve written to my Congressman but he’s Tom Graves so who knows what take he’ll have on this issue. He’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, ya know…

Bill

October 3rd, 2011
9:05 am

Kusos to the Senator. I often disagree with Senator Isakson, but he has done well here. Perhaps when he has time, he might want to get to know the families of some unemployed folks. I don’t mean that to take anything away from what he has done. I would just like to see him keep moving in this direction.

Bill

October 3rd, 2011
9:09 am

Captain Hack,
I agree completely, but you slipped into a little name calling yourself.

Steve From Tucker

October 3rd, 2011
9:14 am

Good work, senator. Interesting to read the negative comments, too. Peace Corps is one of the best investments America has ever made. There is a place for the military, but there is also a place for philanthropic intervention in foreign countries. Making friends is just as important as destroying enemies.

SAD

October 3rd, 2011
11:39 am

Very thankful this looks like it will pass and it was needed. However, that will not stop the foreign corruption in these countries nor the underhandedness in which the Peace Corps covers these atrocities up (or tries to) for years. These young girls are threatened administratively by the Peace Corps and it has gone on for quite a while.

No – I would NOT wish my daughter to ever join the Peace Corps – I fault them equally.

Why it's a Ruger, thank you

October 3rd, 2011
11:49 am

It is a wonderful bill as it is written. But it doesn’t provide the real protection that is necessary….physical protection. Some how, some way, that is what needs to be implemented for the safety of these volunteers. Who will provide it, us or the host country? Who do we trust more? No matter how much we do to reach out to others there is such a large segment of the world that hates us, for whatever reason. Continue the Peace Corps and it work, but let’s protect them with a bit more than a rolled up paper.