Wyclef Jean's aspirations for his foundation, Yele Haiti, to be more than just a celebrity vanity project have long been outstripped by realities on the ground, people who've worked in Haiti for the organization tell Gawker.
People who have worked for Yele Haiti in the past are speaking up to express concern that Jean's celebrity is drawing urgently needed donations away from established NGOs and to Yele, which they say is ill-equipped to deliver urgently needed disaster relief. The people who spoke to Gawker say they are motivated by a fear that Jean's celebrity and very real desire to help his homeland are diverting scarce resources from more capable and transparent organizations.
UPDATE: See below for Yele Haiti president Hugh Locke's response.
"Yele is a joke among NGOs in Haiti," said a freelance videographer who worked one year for the organization in Port-au-Prince and declined to be named. "It would be like if you gave me and my friends several million dollars and said, 'OK, go help Haiti.'"
Separately, sources are coming forward with new accusations about how Jean personally profited from Yele's charitable operations: Two sources familiar with Yele's finances tell Gawker Jean took a $60,000 "finder's fee" in 2006 after Yele sold a photograph of a pregnant Angelina Jolie to People magazine for $600,000, which was supposed to go to the charity.
It's unclear how much money Yele Haiti has raised so far from the texting campaign Jean has been promoting, but Hugh Locke, the foundation's president, said at a press conference yesterday that their target is $1 million per day, which would put them at $7 million so far. Yele Haiti is one of five charities that will split the proceeds of a telethon being organized by George Clooney and Jean that's set to broadcast later this week. The other beneficiaries — UNICEF, Oxfam America, Partners in Health, and the Red Cross — are all established relief organizations with the logistical capabilities, resources, and skills at their disposal to provide immediate help to Haitians. But former Yele staffers say the outfit — which as of 2007 had zero full-time employees — is simply not in a league with those groups and fear that the money raised will be either squandered or held up while Yele figures out how to deploy it.
"What they need to do is hand over the money to people who know what they're doing," said the videographer, who would speak only under the condition of anonymity because his current employer bars him from speaking to the press. "Frankly it scares me that they have this much money at their disposal, because they don't have anyone on the ground, and when they did, it was mishandled."
At yesterday's press conference, Locke acknowledged that Yele had not spent any money yet in Haiti since the earthquake, but defended the group's ability to immediately help by citing its previous experience distributing food in the slums of Port-au-Prince. Locke said that the the UN's World Food Program came to Yele seeking help in safely distributing free food in neighborhoods controlled by gangs. But the videographer, who was present on some of those food distribution runs, says they were poorly organized and failed to keep food out of the hands of gangsters.
"They had a very disorganized approach," he said. "When we did it, it looked just like it does now on television after the earthquake. The gangsters all knew we were coming, and they'd mob the truck. We'd peel off to get out of there with the gangsters running behind us. The World Food Program would be insulted to think they needed Wyclef to deliver food. The UN has 10,000 troops and logistic and intel. Wyclef has celebrity." A call to the Friends of the World Food Program, the organization's American affiliate, hasn't been returned.
While Yele Haiti is an American charity, which must make its tax returns public, most of its money goes to its Haitian arm, and its unclear where or how the money is spent there. While the videographer witnessed Yele doing some good work, including buying scholarships for schoolchildren, it often spent out-sized sums of money to publicize that work. "The other NGOs, if they pay tuition for 2,000 schoolkids in the countryside, they don't send a team of PR people and videographers on a chartered
plane to go take pictures of them going to school. Yele did that all the time. It always seemed that the objective was to get positive press."
One way Yele got positive press in Haiti was to buy it — the group spent $250,000 in 2006 on airtime on Telemax, a Haitian TV network that Jean co-owns. While Locke previously told Gawker that the airtime was used to distribute information on Yele Haiti's programs, a source familiar with the group's operations told us that the airtime purchase was a cover story to account for the fact that Jean had actually purchased the network with $250,000 of Yele's money. And the videographer — who worked on some of the programming produced to fill that airtime — says the transaction was highly suspicious. "Airtime in Haiti is worthless," he says. "People don't watch TV there." And the programming, he says, was often little more than entertainment. "They did a Yele rap contest," he said. "And every once in a while, they'd do an American Idol-style singing competition. It wasn't Wyclef reading books to children."
While Yele's questionable accounting practices and apparent self-dealing with Jean's business interests have been previously reported, and both Locke and Jean acknowledged mistakes in yesterday's press conference, Gawker has learned of a new accusation that Jean pocketed funds directed to the charity. In 2006, a pregnant Angelina Jolie took a break from shooting a film in the Dominican Republic to visit Haiti with Jean and see Yele Haiti in action. A Yele staffer photographed her, and Jolie allowed Yele to sell the photograph — the first proof that she was pregnant with Shiloh — to People magazine for a reported $400,000. The money was to have gone to Yele Haiti. According to two sources familiar with the transaction, the actual purchase price was $600,000 — and Jean took a 10% "finder's fee" for himself, totaling $60,000. One source says the fee was actually paid to Jean by Yele Haiti, as opposed to skimmed off the top of the purchase price. According to Yele Haiti's 2006 tax return, the group paid out a total of $173,115 in management and general expenditures on "management consultants," "other consultants," and "professional fees." While $82,000 of that is accounted for as going to Orsa Conultants, Locke's consulting firm, the remaining expenditures are not itemized. That leaves more than $91,000 in unaccounted for consultancy and professional fees expenses.
We've asked Yele's publicist for a response, and for a detailed accounting of the group's 2006 consultant expenditures. We also called some other group's participating in the relief effort to ask if they share the videographer's concerns about Yele diverting resources. The Red Cross declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for Worldvision, which works with children in Haiti, said, "It would be inappropriate to comment at this time."
"Why isn't Worldvision getting $7 million?" the videographer said. "Yele Haiti isn't down there with an army of people handing out food. It's not a reality, and it never was."
UPDATE: Locke responded to our request for comment. Overall, he characterized the comments from former Yele Haiti employees as "absolute, outright lies" and says he is "speechless" that anyone would characterize Yele as "a joke" in Haiti. He says that, due to a nondisclosure agreement, he can't state the amount Yele was paid for the photograph of Angelina Jolie, but states "categorically that the money that was paid by People went directly to the Yele account. There were no side deals or finder's fees. I challenge whoever is saying otherwise to come up with some proof." When we asked Locke specifics about the various consultants and "professional fees" that Yele spent $91,000 in 2006, the year People purchased the photo, he said, "I'm not disclosing that, because it's not relevant."
He also says it is routine for NGOs to charter flights in Haiti—and that, contrary to our initial report, which misquoted our source as saying Yele chartered "jets," Yele would occasionally rent prop planes to get around Haiti. "We like to get the children together at least once a year to give out rewards and backpacks," he says. "There are times when it makes sense that we use charters. We do that all the time." The cost, he says, amounts to about $900 for a flight for 15 people versus $90 per person for individual airplane seats.
As for the videographer's account of Yele Haiti's facility with food distribution, he says there were two occasions in five years when riots broke out during Yele distributions, once when a food truck broke down, but that "we have done literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of food distrbutions. We're known for food distribution. Is your videographer an expert on food distribution?"
Locke says the Telemax programming, including singing and rap contests, "may not be scintillating programming, but our decision was that in order to fulfill our mission, we needed to reach this group of people in the slums who watch television." The contests in question, he says, advanced Yele's mission by asking youths to write rap songs about "environmentalism and garbage clean-up" in concert with a Yele Haiti streetcleaning program.
Locke also questioned our sources' veracity and claimed that, "by and large, Yele didn't hire videographers," and that any videography work the group needed would have gone through Telemax. Our source provided us with e-mails between himself and Yele staffers from the spring of 2007 demonstrating that Yele workers were directly hiring him to do freelance work in Haiti.