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(A second debacle involving Bogaerts’ domestic affiliate does not appear to involve Bogaerts himself, but raises concerns about the whole Albert Schweitzer Society gambit, not to mention that Tesfai has sought to legitimize herself at the U.N. by associating with both entities: In April 2003, the Alabama Securities Commission ordered the Albert Schweitzer Society to cease and desist from investment activity after it played middleman in an offshore securities scheme that bilked investors out of $3 million.)
Tesfai’s involvement with Bogaerts dates back a decade, according to a U.N. spokesperson. In 1998, in support of her application to the NGO section of the U.N., Tesfai listed a joint project with his international society in Eritrea as an example of her humanitarian contributions. The U.N. spokesperson says ACRC claimed credit for developing a medical clinic in Eritrea in 1994 on land donated by the government, and stocked it with two years’ worth of medical supplies from Bogaerts’ outfit. “It never worked out,” Tesfai now says. Officials at the U.N. confirm that ACRC has applied to the NGO section of the U.N. each of the last three years and has been deferred each time.
In 1998, Tesfai further represented herself as the president of the Albert Schweitzer Society International, and made a separate application to the NGO section naming Bogaerts as chief executive officer and an officer of his domestic affiliate as her treasurer. The application, which lists headquarters on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, contains an organization chart and boasts provision of medical care, equipment, food and supplies to more than 25 countries for the last 30 years.
Tesfai appears bewildered when asked about the application. Charles Mercieca, a former president of the International Association of Educators for World Peace, known as IAEWP, has heard it all before. In the late 1990s, Tesfai and Bogaerts were supposedly building an AIDS research clinic in Burundi, and they wanted his help, Mercieca says. “I could have provided them with employees and volunteers for the clinic, but I told Nikki she would have to get the clinic up and running on her own,” he says. “Bogaerts was involved, but he wears many hats and hops around like a bird from here to there. He is always talking — blah, blah, blah. I had hope for the project until recently. I lost touch with both of them.” (Tesfai recalls the abandoned project as targeting indigenous women and children but not AIDS victims.)
Forrow, who also is an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, takes a dim view of such ventures when unqualified people engage in them. “Frankly, the idea of an AIDS clinic in Burundi makes me nervous,” he says. “It’s very hard to start one that is going to do more good than harm, even if you have impeccable motives.” And when the Albert Schweitzer Society is involved? “You can call yourself whatever you want until you start to do something real visible or real bad, and even then legitimate people don’t have the time or the authority to do much about it.”
Tesfai says she has not seen Bogaerts in years. He could not be reached for comment. But one person who has met him is John Bryant, founder of Operation HOPE, a national nonprofit banking organization in Los Angeles. In 1998, Bryant says, Tesfai and Bogaerts arranged to have him knighted in recognition of his community service, which began following the riots in South-Central in 1992. The ceremony was in Germany at the House of Lippe. Bryant remembers it well. Tesfai does not remember it at all. They stayed at a castle, Bryant says. “The offer struck me as odd,” he says. “I wanted to make sure there was no quid pro quo. I trusted Nikki 150 percent, but Bogaerts was a mystery to me. I didn’t entirely trust him. I couldn’t figure why a former reigning kingdom in Germany wanted to knight an African-American guy. I mean, if I could open doors for [Tesfai and Bogaerts], cool. I think they were interested in seeing if I wanted to bring Operation HOPE to Africa.”
Bryant sees Tesfai as coming from means, what with her elegance and European connections. He also sees her as idealistic and vulnerable. He worries that she stretches herself too thin on the international scene, perhaps hoping it would pay off for ACRC. “My philosophy is you do that stuff after your work is done on the home front,” Bryant says. “And if you’re being used, know where the line is. Nikki is a good person who got into this work for the right reasons. If there’s a problem, it’s with her head, not her heart. There’s a lot of people in the business I would call a poverty pimp, but not Nikki. If anything, she’s more like: right message, wrong method.”
Tesfai perseveres with her international initiatives, however. Project Burundi 2003 was a plan to distribute medical supplies to Eritrea and Burundi, where Tesfai is an honorary counselor. Richard Walden, executive director of Operation USA, which donated the supplies, says he got a call one day last summer after Tesfai sought his help. “A former ACRC employee warned me about verifying the distribution of supplies,” says Walden, formerly with the State Department. “I made [Tesfai] jump through a lot of hoops. She didn’t appear to have a legitimate distribution mode at the other end. Eventually she gave us letters of assurance from the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. They were at least some assurance the shipments weren’t going to the black market.”