In Haiti, Little Can Be Found of Wyclef’s Charity
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., Mr. Jean, 40, writes with indignation about insinuations that he had used his charity, Yéle, for personal gain. He says he did not need to — “I have a watch collection worth $500,000”— and that doubters will someday understand “Yéle is Haiti’s greatest asset and ally.”
But on his book tour for “Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story,” Mr. 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 Yéle, 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 Yéle,” said Diaoly Estimé, whose orphanage features a wall painting of Mr. Jean and his wife, “these kids would all be dead by now.”
Even as Yéle 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 Mr. 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 Yéle’s presence can be discerned. The walled country estate leased for its headquarters, on which the charity lavished $600,000, is deserted. Yéle’s street cleaning crews have been disbanded. The Yéle-branded tents and tarps have mostly disintegrated; one camp leader said they had not seen Yéle, which is based in New York, since Mr. 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, Yéle’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 Mr. Johnson, a former Time Warner executive who replaced Mr. Jean at Yéle’s helm when the musician declared his candidacy in August 2010.
His resignation came after Mr. 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 Mr. Jean and the two other Yéle founders to pay $600,000 in restitution “to remedy the waste of the foundation’s assets.” It also would have required Yéle 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, Mr. Jean’s spokeswoman said he and his lawyers “are working assiduously to resolve any pending issues with respect to Yéle prior to its closing as Mr. Jean continues his tireless commitment to his beloved country.” Neither the spokeswoman nor Hugh Locke, a Yéle co-founder, responded to specific questions.
Mr. Jean founded Yéle, 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 Yéle 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 Mr. Jean and other Yéle board and staff members as well as improper or potentially improper transactions. These included $24,000 for Mr. 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.
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