Hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean bristled at suggestions that he used the money his charity organization raised in 2010 for personal gain rather than for the Haitian earthquake relief for which it was intended.
In a new memoir, the Haitian-born star claimed he endured a “crucifixion” in the aftermath of a devastating 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 wrote 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 that “Yéle is Haiti’s greatest asset and ally.”
But on the book tour for “Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story,” Jean neglects to mention the continuing New York attorney general’s investigation into financial improprieties at Yéle or that 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 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 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 the New York-based charity since Jean was disqualified as a presidential candidate in August 2010 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.
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 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, 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 Jean continues his tireless commitment to his beloved country.” Neither the spokeswoman nor Hugh Locke, a Yéle co-founder, responded to specific questions.
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.
Yéle was small before the earthquake, with only $37,000 in assets. Immediately afterward, money started pouring in. Mr. 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 the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) when he co-hosted MTV’s “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon with George Clooney.
The January 12, 2010 quake quake was responsible for the deaths of more than 300,000 people and left roughly a million Haitians homeless.