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
Several former employees claim their names appeared on ACRC’s employee roster after they left the agency. Tesfai’s housekeeper appears on one employee roster, as does one of her sons, whom former employees say rarely is seen. Dr. Brad Bagasao, an ACRC grant writer from 1998 to 2000, says his name and Social Security number remained on the payroll and that he received a tax bill from the Internal Revenue Service for wages he never earned.
Bagasao is trying to organize former clients and employees to pursue legal action against Tesfai, he says one day in March at the International House of Pancakes near ACRC’s offices. But fear of authority and Tesfai’s influence abounds, says Bagasao, a U.S.-born citizen. Bagasao says he has hesitated to pursue a claim of identity theft. “It’s hard to work in the nonprofit sector and even harder to report fraud,” he says. “Who do you go to? The D.A. won’t talk to you unless they know who you are, county supervisors regard you as a loony or a gadfly, and CSS is out of its depth.”
One former employee who adds another side to the Tesfai story is Bilal Nadir, ACRC’s former accountant. On a mid-February morning, Nadir, who also goes by Troy Williams, pulls into the parking lot of the public library in Baldwin Hills in a beat-up Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. “Nikki’s a pimp,” Nadir says with little prompting, a toothpick dangling from his mouth. “She uses people up. She gets what she can until people get tired of being used.”
According to Nadir, he and Tesfai parted ways last summer after he challenged her business practices. Tesfai has claimed to insurance adjusters that Nadir stole from ACRC. On February 11, the District Attorney’s Office charged Nadir with grand theft of $10,500 from ACRC. But Nadir also went to the authorities, he says. And although word has spread in the refugee community (and among ACRC board members) that Nadir has been convicted and sent to jail, when contacted he showed little or no concern. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” he says. “Nikki’s problems didn’t start with me and they didn’t end with me.”
Outside ACRC’s offices one Wednesday in April, refugees lingered in front and smoked; inside, the last recipients of the weekly food bank collected grain and canned goods. A trio of elderly Ethiopian refugee women sat at a nearby conference table. They described the role ACRC has played in their lives. Mani Assafa, 73, receives benefits assistance regarding her Section 8 housing claim, she says; Asege Ratta is a client and a volunteer with diabetes who needs help getting to the hospital and to the benefits office to pick up her food stamps and cash aid; Hami Teferi, 65, comes to ACRC for companionship, she says. “This is their home,” Tesfai’s brother, Isaac, says.
A month later, during an unannounced visit, the office is nearly vacant. Isaac Tesfai is fixing a broken fax machine, and Nikki Tesfai is ensconced in her spacious office in the back of the suite. No clients are present. Five employees are listed on a bulletin board, including one who already has quit.
ACRC’s reputation depends on whom you talk to, says Azed Tadesa, assistant director of African Studies at UCLA and a former employee. “Some government officials and funding agencies have perceived that Nikki reaches out to the African community,” Tadesa says. “Others say they did not get what they were promised. But if a county supervisor gives you an A-plus and a poor immigrant is doing the complaining, the metric for decision making in the mainstream is to take the word of the supervisor.”
Meron Ahadu, founder of the Ethiopian American Advocacy Group, says ACRC is the only game in town for Africans in need of help, but it is holding the community back. “It is a vicious circle,” says Ahadu. “No one can get through to the funding sources because ACRC is already there. But service is not being provided. No one works there for more than a year because there is nothing going on. Is ACRC reaching out? The answer is no.”
Yet just as detractors have sized Tesfai up as a self-interested schemer, supporters hold tight to the image of the long-suffering humanitarian. Meanwhile, local officials seem hesitant to question Tesfai’s claims of having served more than 50,000 refugees over the years. Then there is the biggest question of all: What has 20 years’ worth of government funding done for the African refugee community in Los Angeles?
All of which adds to the mystique of Nikki Tesfai.
“I know Nikki as bright, dedicated, impassioned and humble,” says Judy Stone, the editor of O. “Until proven otherwise, I’m believing in the person I’ve known Nikki to be.”
Some African immigrants and refugees see a different person — one who county officials also may be trying to figure out.
“She is a woman who saw her chance and took it,” says an East African woman who has worked with Tesfai. “Who would not trust an abused, African Jewish woman who wants to help refugees?
“In the United States you’re going to be somebody if you make a name for yourself, whether what you say is true or not.”