There's no doubt Wyclef Jean — who has raised $1 million since the Haiti earthquake — wants to help his homeland. But a look at his personal foundation's finances raises questions about whether it's wisely managing the donations it's collecting.
UPDATE: Go here for more on why Jean's charity may not be the best way to help Haitians right now.
The Smoking Gun took a look at the finances of Yele Haiti, the foundation Wyclef Jean founded to help his homeland—and it's ugly. Jean founded Yele Haiti in 1998, according to TSG, but didn't file any tax returns until five months ago, in August 2009. And the returns filed so far—for 2005, 2006, and 2007 only—reveal that Yele directed huge sums of money to commercial entities that Jean and his business partner Jerry Duplessis own stakes in.
The most eye-popping expenditure is $250,000 that the foundation paid in 2006 to Telemax, S.A., a Haitian television company that Jean and Duplessis own a controlling interest in. The payment for "airtime and production services" appears to have been related to a telethon of some sort that Yele Haiti produced in the country—its chalked up to "outreach"—and amounts to one out of every five dollars that the foundation took in that year. The return claims the fees were "below market" and constituted the "most efficient" way for Yele Haiti to conduct outreach.
The foundation also paid Platinum Sound, the production company that Jean and Duplessis co-own, a $100,000 fee for Jean's performance at a Yele Haiti fundraiser in 2006.
And Platinum Sound charges Yele Haiti more than $31,000 in annual rent for office space at its Manhattan studio. UPDATE: A tipster familiar with Platinum Sounds' set-up just e-mailed to say that the "office space" that Yele rents from the studio consists of one staffer who works out the kitchen, at a cost of $2,600 each month paid from the charity to Jean and Duplessis.
All told, TSG says, Yele Haiti has paid out $410,000 in the three years for which it has provided tax returns to businesses owned by Jean and Duplessis.
Which makes it even more stunning that the foundation ended 2007 with a $489,000 deficit. That year it took in only $79,000 in direct public support—not much more than the $54,711 it spent on travel—and reported $503,000 in cash with $956,000 in liabilities, including a "30-day demand note" in the amount of $500,000 borrowed from a foundation controlled by music impresario Lou Adler. Its only charitable activity that year was a $270,000 grant to Yele Haiti's Haitian operation, which presumably then distributed the funds to recipients there.
When we called a contact number for Duplessis listed in Yele Haiti's tax return, a receptionist at Platinum Sounds answered the phone and referred us to a public relations firm. We haven't heard back from the publicist. We also tried to contact Hugh Locke, the head of Orsa Consultants, a firm that Yele Haiti paid $82,000 in 2006. According to this 2005 press release, Orsa is a "corporate social responsibility consultancy" that managed Yele Haiti's programs; we couldn't find any public references to Orsa independent of Yele Haiti, and the firm's web site is no longer operative. When we called Lock, he immediately handed the phone to someone identifying herself as "Mrs. Lock," who referred us to the PR firm. When we asked her about Yele Haiti's expenditures, she said, "Our finances are totally straightened out. We have filed, and are up to date on everything."
None of this means that Jean, Duplessis, and Yele Haiti aren't doing important work in Haiti, or that they can't play a constructive role in responding to the earthquake crisis. It does mean that, if the past is any guide, they are unlikely to wisely manage any of the money they are currently collecting from concerned Americans on behalf of the victims in Haiti.