By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
In 1999 and 2000, ACRC began purchasing residential property from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, while Tesfai made some acquisitions of her own. Eventually their interests merged. Tesfai says it was her intent for ACRC to develop additional shelters for homeless refugees, domestic violence victims and wayward youth. Yet she sold two of ACRC’s purchases on quick turnaround for a profit to the agency of $60,000. ACRC rented another property, a single-family home in South Gate with two separate units in the back, to tenants who had no apparent connection to the refugee services program. In July, Tesfai says she began paying taxes on the South Gate property, which was transfered to her at that time, according to county records. Meanwhile, ACRC’s balance sheet of August 31 lists the property as an asset.
Tesfai’s individual purchase of a lot on Normandie Avenue later served as the basis for ACRC’s application for a state housing grant to provide emergency shelter. At the three residences on the lot, however, court records show Tesfai as a landlord who evicted her tenants when they complained of rat infestation.
She says it was for nonpayment of rent. “We were the first tenants who lived there after she bought the building,” says Tenil Ware, a nurse who was forced to vacate her apartment. (Property records show Tesfai pays the taxes under one of her many names, Nigiistiazeb Tesfai — from a private residence across the street from her Beverly Hills condominium.) “Our apartment was zoned as one unit, but she converted it to two units,” Ware says. “The same with the apartment behind us. My daughter and I went without heat for a whole year.”
In January 2003, ACRC obtained a license for a group home for abandoned children, to be located at a shotgun-style row of apartments in Long Beach, which ACRC owned. Although ACRC provided a cost estimate of running a group home for state officials, according to the Department of Social Services, which licensed the home, no children ever lived there. Likewise, the Department of Children and Family Services never approved child care at the property.
The property sat vacant for months; the bank foreclosed on it in late 2003, Tesfai says. However, county records show that ACRC continues to pay taxes on it, but from an address registered to Tesfai’s boyfriend Kurt Rivas, a former board member. (Rivas owns and manages a number of tenement properties from a condominium in South Los Angeles, which is ACRC’s address for the purchase of the Long Beach property as well.)
Despite falling short on these ventures, the state in 2003 awarded ACRC a $500,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development that enabled it to purchase a large house near the Los Angeles Coliseum. Tesfai says the property will serve as another domestic violence shelter and has hired a developer to manage the property. Under Proposition 46, the grant results in a 10-year forgiveable loan, but ACRC has until next summer to open the shelter. Last month, it appeared in need of repair, with a “No Trespassing” sign.
Tesfai’s handling of business, employment and even neighborhood matters is less convoluted but has resulted in debt and bad blood. An out-of-state judgment of $9,123 was entered in Los Angeles Superior Court by an office-supply finance company in 2000 that still has recovered less than half, according to the company’s attorney. Tesfai has two judgments against her for a total of $7,000 in back pay and a complaint pending at the State Labor Commission by a former employee who claims she owes him $15,000. After going to Tesfai’s board with allegations of misappropriation, the employee, an East African who has been granted asylum but whose family was deported, received a letter from Tesfai’s lawyer threatening him with a defamation lawsuit. The consultant awaits a ruling from the Labor Commission.
(Other allegations of intimidation by Tesfai include a 2001 court declaration in support of a temporary restraining order obtained by a neighbor against Tesfai’s son in a parking-lot dispute. In the declaration the neighbor states: “I saw Nikki and Eddie [Tesfai] walking toward the apartment building but behind us. Nikki called us ‘those bitches’ and ‘you beaners.’ Eddie walked up to me and started yelling that he would ‘kick my ass.’ He pointed his finger in my face as his mother watched and encouraged him to hit me.” Tesfai claims the woman called her son a “nigger.”)
Collecting from Tesfai is not easy, according to a former employee, a refugee from Sierra Leone who is still pursuing interest and attorney’s fees on a judgment for back pay that she fought to recover. “God got me out of Sierra Leone not once but twice,” the former employee says. “I’ve seen colleagues killed. My claim against Nikki is not about money, it’s about principle. She calls herself a humanitarian. Why is it so difficult to figure out what she is doing?”
Yet when Tesfai wants someone to get paid, they get paid. McFall recently settled with Tesfai for $7,000 in back fees, less than half of what she was owed, she says, rather than going to court. When she went to Tesfai’s bank to cash the check, McFall asked the teller if there were funds to cover it and was told not to worry — there was plenty in the account.