PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti >> In a new memoir, Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born hip-hop celebrity, claims he endured a “crucifixion” after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake when he faced questions about his charity’s financial record and ability to handle what eventually amounted to $16 million in donations.
Portraying himself as persecuted like Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr., Jean, 40, writes with indignation about insinuations that he had used his New York-based charity, called Yele, for personal benefit. He says he did not need to — “I have a watch collection worth $500,000”— and that doubters will someday understand “Yele is Haiti’s greatest asset and ally.”
But on his book tour for “Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story,” Jean, who made an aborted bid for the presidency of Haiti after the earthquake, neglects to mention two key facts: a continuing New York attorney general’s investigation has already found financial improprieties at Yele, and the charity effectively went out of business last month, leaving a trail of debts, unfinished projects and broken promises.
“If I had depended on Yele,” said Diaoly Estime, whose orphanage features a wall painting of Jean and his wife, “these kids would all be dead by now.”
Even as Yele is besieged by angry creditors, an examination of the charity indicates that millions in donations for earthquake victims went to its own offices, salaries, consultants’ fees and travel, to Jean’s brother-in-law for projects never realized, to materials for temporary houses never built and to accountants dealing with its legal troubles.
On the ground in Haiti, little lasting trace of Yele’s presence can be discerned. The walled country estate leased for its headquarters, on which the charity lavished $600,000, is deserted. Yele’s street cleaning crews have been disbanded. The Yele-branded tents and tarps have mostly disintegrated; one camp leader said they had not seen Yele since Jean was disqualified as a presidential candidate because he lives in Saddle River, N.J., not Haiti.
This summer, the charity foundered.
At the end of August, Derek Q. Johnson, Yele’s chief executive, announced his resignation to supporters.
“As the foundation’s sole remaining employee, my decision implies the closure of the organization as a whole,” wrote Johnson, a former Time Warner executive who replaced Jean at Yele’s helm when the musician declared his candidacy in August 2010.
His resignation came after Jean declined to accept a settlement proposed by the attorney general covering the charity’s pre-earthquake activities, and he hired Avi Schick, a lawyer who had been a member of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s transition team.
The settlement would have required Jean and the two other Yele founders to pay $600,000 in restitution “to remedy the waste of the foundation’s assets.” It also would have required Yele to pay for a forensic audit of its post-disaster expenses, as it had done for its pre-earthquake finances, and to start “winding down its affairs.”
On Thursday, Jean’s spokeswoman said he and his lawyers “are working assiduously to resolve any pending issues with respect to Yele prior to its closing as Mr. Jean continues his tireless commitment to his beloved country.”
Neither the spokeswoman nor Hugh Locke, a Yele co-founder, responded to specific questions.
Jean founded Yele, a word he coined to mean “cry for freedom,” in 2004. Now 40, he had emigrated to the United States as a child, becoming an international star with his 1990s band, the Fugees. In his memoir, he says his journey from “a hut with a dirt floor” to “a mansion in New Jersey with Grammys on the mantle” motivated him to give back to his homeland.
But from the start Yele was lax about accounting and tax filing, blurring the boundaries between its founders’ personal and charitable enterprises.
The forensic audit examined $3 million of the charity’s 2005 to 2009 expenses and found $256,580 in illegitimate benefits to Jean and other Yele board and staff members as well as improper or potentially improper transactions. These included $24,000 for Jean’s chauffeur services and $30,763 for a private jet that transported Lindsay Lohan from New Jersey to a benefit in Chicago that raised only $66,000.
The audit considered it appropriate, though, for the charity to pay Jean $100,000 to perform at a Yele fundraiser in Monaco because that was his market rate. It also found it acceptable for Yele to spend $125,114 on travel and other matters related to a “60 Minutes” report on “Wyclef’s mission to help the people of Haiti and his personal success story” because it appeared to have heightened awareness of Yele. It was deemed legitimate to have spent $57,927 on private jets to fly Matt Damon and others to Haiti because they gave “substantial contributions” afterward.
Schick said of Jean, “While most of the audit findings and recommendations do not in any way relate to him, he is nevertheless committed to ensuring that things are made right.”
Yele was small before the earthquake, with only $37,000 in assets. Immediately afterward, money started pouring in. Jean said he raised $1 million in 24 hours when he urged his Twitter followers to text donations. His charity also benefited alongside more established organizations like UNICEF when he co-hosted MTV’s “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon with George Clooney.
In 2010, Yele spent $9 million, and half went to travel, to salaries and consultants’ fees and to expenses related to their offices and warehouse. In contrast, another celebrity charity, Sean Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief Organization, spent $13 million with only 10 percent going to those costs.
Although Penn’s group spent $43,000 on office-related expenses, Yele spent $1.4 million, including $375,000 for “landscaping” and $37,000 for rent to Jean’s Manhattan recording studio. Yele spent $470,440 on its own food and beverages.
Some of Yele’s programming money went to projects that never came to fruition: temporary homes for which it prepaid $93,000; a medical center to have been housed in geodesic domes for which it paid $146,000; the revitalization of a plaza in the Cite Soleil slum, where supposed improvements that cost $230,000 are nowhere to be seen.
There were questionable contracts, too: Jean’s brother-in-law, Eric Warnel Pierre, collected about $630,000 for three projects including the medical center and the plaza — what Yele’s tax forms called “the rebuilding of Haiti.” Pierre did not respond to messages left for him.
And a Miami company called Amisphere Farm Labor, incorporated in 2008 and dissolved in 2009, received $1 million in 2010 to provide hot meals to displaced Haitians. Yet a Haitian caterer has sued Yele for $430,000 in nonpayment for these very same meals, thus far succeeding only in getting the charity’s Haitian bank account frozen.
It is a tangled story.
A week after the earthquake, Lusmene Bien-Aime was recovering in the Dominican Republic from the broken leg she suffered when her hotel, the Flamboyant, collapsed. King Kino, a well-known Haitian musician and a friend of Jean’s, proposed that she return to Haiti to prepare meals for Yele, they both said. She and Jean sealed the deal on the phone, they said, and she hobbled from bed with her leg in a cast and crossed back into Haiti.
King Kino, whose real name is Lord Kinomorsa Divers, said he asked Amsterly Pierre, the president of Amisphere, to oversee the food operation. But Bien-Aime said in an interview that she had never heard of Amisphere or of Pierre, a former licensed barber in Florida who runs a transportation business in Haiti. She said that two weeks after the disaster, she provided 8,000 containers of meat, rice and salad and Jean, cameras in tow, distributed them to earthquake victims.
All told, she said, she was owed for 810,000 meals at $10 a plate and was paid, in cash, less than half that.
Divers said she had overcharged, “taking advantage of the emergency.” Yele, though, agreed to pay Amisphere $10 a plate, according to a contract that was, curiously, signed a year after the meals program ended. In seeking to free its assets, Yele has argued in Haitian court that it contracted with Pierre and that he must have subcontracted the work. Pierre could not be reached for comment.
For her part, Bien-Aime said: “I fulfilled my end of the deal, and I don’t know why they won’t fulfill theirs. Wyclef raised millions and millions of dollars. Where is the money?”
In its relief operation, Yele operated outside the coordination system set up by other nongovernment groups; it did not want to be burdened by rules and meetings, Locke said in a 2010 interview.
Other organizations focused on providing concrete services like sanitation or health care.
Yele chose to work more broadly than deeply. It supplied food, water and supplies to what it said were dozens of tent camps.
Julie Schindall, then spokeswoman for Oxfam America, called it a “dump and run strategy.”
Penn told The New York Times in 2010, “My impression is that Yele is at the service of Wyclef Jean and his reputation.”
Yele’s biggest program was a job corps, through which it said it hired thousands of Haitians for a month each to clean streets and canals. Some aid experts believe such interventions worthy while others criticize them for not providing lasting employment or, with street-cleaning, lasting results.
Yele’s program cost more than $5 million, with only about half of that going to the laborers.
This program, too, left trouble in its wake. Last week, the Haitian police jailed a Yele employee at the behest of a garbage hauling company that says it is owed more than $100,000 for two months’ work, Locke said in an email to friends.
While Yele describes its support of the Jean et Marie Orphanage as one of its most significant accomplishments, the help provided was not really what the orphanage wanted, its director says.
After the orphanage was flattened by the earthquake, another group, the Global Orphan Project, quickly replaced it with a simple concrete structure. The day that the children moved back in, a Yele team stumbled upon them, the director, Diaoly Estime, said.
“They offered to rebuild the orphanage and I said it was already rebuilt but we needed help to survive,” she said. “They started giving us $3,000 a month for food. Also, Clef’s wife came with a soccer star and police officers and journalists and gave the children presents.”
Then in summer 2010, Yele cut off the stipend entirely, for a while sending the orphanage a weekly basket of vegetables and rice instead. The children were always hungry and crying, said the Rev.
Jean Claude Dorcelly, whose Haitian-American Rock Apostolic Church in Spring Valley, N.Y., began scraping together money to help.
At the same time, Yele pushed forward with its building plan. Jean’s brother-in-law got a $154,000 contract to construct a second floor atop the dormitory and a second building with a cafeteria and classrooms.
Dorcelly said they were grateful.
“But it is an incomplete gift,” he said. “They have a new dormitory but they only have beds for half the kids. They have classrooms but no money to pay teachers. They have a cafeteria but no money to buy food.”
The vegetables came through another Yele program that ended abruptly. A peasant farmers’ collective was paid $600,000 to provide weekly deliveries of produce for a year to what the charity’s website identifies as 35 orphanages.
Asked for a list of the beneficiaries, the Rev. Occide Cico Jean, who runs the collective, provided one with 19 orphanages. Nine were visited or reached by phone. Only four said they had received weekly baskets for a full year. One, Village of Hope, which has 29 severely disabled children, who were being fed gruel for supper during a recent visit, said it had never received a single basket.
Derek Q. Johnson, then the chief executive of Yele, was skeptical of the program and canceled it.
Occide Cico Jean, in protest, sent an angry email to Yele:
“Are we Haitians, once again, going to show ourselves incapable of carrying a project to conclusion?” he asked. “Are we going to do this Haitian-style — ‘Wash our hands and dry them in the dirt?”’