By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In promoting her efforts, Tesfai has claimed Project Burundi delivered $1 million in supplies, but well-placed sources here and in Africa say the amount was much less. The U.N. in Eritrea places the value of what they received at $75,000. The U.N. representative in Burundi did not respond to e-mail requests for comment, and when contacted, Antoine Tamobwa, the ambassador of Burundi in Washington, D.C., says he has not received confirmation regarding the supplies. A former ACRC board member who was involved with the project says the two shipments were valued at $200,000 total. “Clearly, [Tesfai] uses these shipments to enhance her status as a player in Africa,” Walden says. “It’s not to get appreciated,” Tesfai replies.
In Los Angeles, grassroots providers frown upon what they see as exaggeration and self-promotion. Amanda Wash, a former Peace Corps nurse in Africa in the 1970s, referred Tesfai to Operation USA. But this may have been the last time, says Wash, who offers humanitarian aid out of her South Los Angeles office. “I’ve known Nikki for 15 years and have provided her with supplies numerous times,” Wash says. Lack of feedback or gratitude by Tesfai following the Burundi transaction rubbed Wash wrong. “I’ve done my best to help her, but I’m not going to do it anymore,” she says. “We have a saying in this business: ‘Sometimes you have to help the greedy to get to the needy.’”
The local bill of particulars against Tesfai and ACRC is dire. City and county audits show her failing at acceptable accounting standards. In March 2003, an audit concluded that, in addition to failing to reconcile statements from nine bank accounts at three banks, ACRC billed for $17,306 in disallowed costs and expenses. Contracts totaling more than $350,000 were discontinued. The Department of Community and Senior Services (CSS) claims that ACRC owes $40,000. (During an unannounced investigation in November, CSS could confirm less than half the elderly clients ACRC says it served from 2002 to 2003. Four clients said they received no services.)
In July, the city of Los Angeles’ Community Development Department found that ACRC billed for $2,482 in undocumented expenses related to its domestic-violence shelter in 2002, and overreported $17,599 in salaries and fringe benefits. ACRC also billed for $2,787 in retirement premiums without having a retirement plan, auditors found. (The contract for the shelter runs from 2000 to 2005 and is worth $1.15 million. For 2003, ACRC billed $6,300 in disallowed telephone, automobile and utilities costs, including $430 in rent payments by Tesfai’s brother Isaac Tesfai, an ACRC administrator. ACRC also billed for $50,000 in salaries and benefits without approval in 2003 but persuaded city officials to go back and approve the billings.)
In November, after learning of a judgment against Tesfai by a former consultant and a complaint against ACRC by a subcontractor regarding delinquent payments, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Planning disqualified ACRC from receiving a $496,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to do community outreach to victims of domestic violence. City officials found ACRC had misappropriated $200,000, which it is attempting to recover, according to a notice of termination from the city.
Such patterns are not new. In January 2000, the California Department of Health Services found that ACRC did not provide services required under a $700,000 grant for community education on the dangers of smoking. The department discontinued the grant and claimed ACRC owed the state $31,756. (From 1998 to 2000, ACRC also received more than $350,000 from the Los Angeles County Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Program. County officials denied further funding in 2001 for “not meeting the score” on an annual audit, according to Linda Aragon, acting director of Tobacco Control.)
Realization that ACRC is no model of efficiency comes as county officials are targeting refugee services as a sinkhole of federal dollars. Yet monitoring failures also has officials pointing fingers at one another. A dawning era of nonprofit scrutiny appears mired in cronyism and bureaucracy. At a county Board of Supervisors’ meeting on January 6, former CSS employee Lilana Chavez-Alcasio described witnessing county officials repeatedly acquiesce to fraud involving other nonprofits. One time, when she found an agency that had billed for services despite having no clients, a supervisor instructed her to “talk to the agency and tell them to come up with the clients,” Chavez-Alcasio said at the meeting. “I want to recommend that CSS go under investigation,” she said.
It took an October 2003 report by accounting firm Simpson & Simpson to wake up the county when it uncovered $3 million in undocumented costs by local service providers. Now officials are transferring monitoring authority for certain education programs to the Department of Public and Social Services, which received $10 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement in 2003 to pass along to local providers through CSS, which has an annual budget of $200 million. On February 4, former CSS director Robert Ryans retired after 35 years of public service, less than a month after being lambasted by County Supervisor Gloria Molina at the January 6 meeting. “I want my money back,” Molina declared.
According to a chief aide to one county supervisor, however, the County Counsel’s Office is slow to recover funds from recalcitrant service providers. And the Counsel’s Office defers to the District Attorney’s Office, the aide says. But the D.A.’s Office neither confirms nor denies its investigations, which in any event can take a long time depending on priorities or caseloads.