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
Photos by Anthony Allen
As hundreds of thousands of refugees fled famine and oppression in East Africa, Nikki Tesfai arrived in Los Angeles on a righteous mission: to help those who had been tortured and abused, and who, like her, escaped to the United States.
From the beginning Tesfai’s story of suffering distinguished her as much as her mission. It was a testament to an indomitable human spirit: raised by Jews in fear of persecution in Ethiopia; forced into wedlock and abused at 13; a soldier in the Eritrean struggle for independence; imprisoned and tortured by Eritrean rebels for voicing feminist views; abused yet again in a refugee camp in Sudan.
Tesfai arrived in Los Angeles in 1984, a single mother with two children. A survivor, she had managed to learn five languages and earn two master’s degrees along the way. With the help of a loan from USA for Africa, the organizers of the “We Are the World” campaign, she established the African Community Resource Center, known as ACRC, the first resettlement agency for African refugees in Los Angeles. With seemingly boundless energy, she added a third master’s degree, and later a doctorate in humanities, before founding the first battered women’s shelter for Africans in Los Angeles, and helping propel the Women’s Commission for Refugees, Women and Children in New York.
Just two years ago Tesfai appeared destined for sainthood, capturing the eye of Oprah Winfrey, who named her “Phenomenal Woman of the Month” in January 2002. “It’s difficult for me to remember that this elegant and serene woman was once a prisoner of war and a desperate refugee herself,” wrote Irene Borger, a freelance writer who profiled Tesfai for O, the Oprah Magazine that same month. Borger was moved. “Nikki has this extraordinary ability to make friends with everyone she meets,” she recalls fondly. “It’s as if she’s a Holocaust survivor who is just so grateful to be alive.”
Yet something has happened of late. Tesfai has been looking less like Mother Teresa and more like the nonprofit sector’s worst enemy. Government audits, termination of contracts and staff attrition have gnawed at her, as happens with small nonprofits. But questions about her background have eroded confidence in Tesfai.
Since 1984, Tesfai claims that ACRC has served 52,000 refugees from 52 countries. But she is known to exaggerate. From 1990 to 2000, ACRC’s main source of referrals, the Ethiopian Community Development Council, resettled only 6,600 refugees in the entire country. The goal of resettlement is to provide refugees with transitional housing, food, clothing and health care, with an eye toward job training, education and assimilation. It requires a nose for grant opportunities and an ability to manage human and financial resources. ACRC has taken in about $4 million in mostly public funds since 1997. Yet in the last year, with few active contracts and less than a half-dozen employees who often go without pay, ACRC’s expenses have exceeded its revenue, which is just under $1 million. Whereas once Tesfai hosted workshops and community development programs, now she sees an average of 10 clients a day, most of whom come for food handouts. Her board of directors has shrunk from 15 to four. To keep the lights on, and to stave off creditors, Tesfai has said she is willing to forgo her annual salary of $85,000.
Outside of her struggling little agency on Los Angeles’ gritty South Vermont Avenue, however, Tesfai is a South-Central landlord who drives a Mercedes-Benz and lives on a shady street in Beverly Hills. Her ambitions go beyond Los Angeles. While known as a seat-of-the-pants local advocate, Tesfai turns up in Beijing or Burundi — where she is an honorary counselor to the state — or at a German castle, dining with nobility, as well as at community meetings. Yet despite her worldly aspirations, ACRC is usually broke or owes money. Some employees quit after a short time and leave feeling used and disappointed. Audits reveal gaps in service to refugees and patterns of mismanagement.
Holding her résumé up to the light and finding holes, some doubt her incredible story of suffering. They suspect she is far less a saint and more concerned with her own means and acceptance in elite circles than she is with running an effective program in Los Angeles. Several former board members and advisers have distanced themselves. “People are so angry,” says one who claims she is not alone in wondering whether they know the real Nikki Tesfai. “It’s amazing when you think about Nikki getting up in a roomful of women at the refugee conference and making us cry with her story.”
Such revelations come as a shock to Tesfai’s friends and patrons, who know her as a selfless community leader. “Everything refugees need, she provides,” Dorothy Huebel, former president of the National Council for Jewish Women and an ACRC board member, says. “If Nikki were not a woman, an immigrant and an African, people would not have withdrawn their support,” state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, a dependable advocate for the African community, says. “She ought to be getting a peace prize. She is being persecuted.”
Some in the media never inquired beyond Tesfai’s inner circle. Freelance writer Sharon Boorstin profiled Tesfai for the Los Angeles Times in 2002 and wrote a personalized version for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles the same year, in addition to a story for Jewish Woman International. “Suddenly, instead of being journalist and subject, we are two Jews sharing our fears about anti-Semitism and the fate of the world,” Boorstin wrote in The Jewish Journal. “Nikki is the real thing,” Boorstin says when contacted. “If anyone has anything bad to say about her, it’s news to me.” Judith Stone, editor of O, adds, “Allegations of mismanagement among nonprofits don’t surprise me, but questions of Nikki’s character? I find it hard to believe.”
Somewhere in between Tesfai’s fans and detractors are those who see an enigmatic woman with a story — but not necessarily the one who has been published in newspapers and magazines, later to be mythologized in song. “Nikki comes to work at 6 a.m. and doesn’t come out of her office until 10 p.m.,” a former employee says. “But nobody knows what she does. Is she a lousy businesswoman or a befuddled refugee? Or is she an international woman of mystery? I’m just dying to know the truth.”
With such questions hovering and ACRC’s future in jeopardy, Tesfai agreed to an interview at her office one Saturday in March, along with her lawyer, semiretired real estate attorney Martin Perel, an ACRC board member. She limited her discussion to ACRC’s financial problems, however, explaining that they stem from diminished federal funding for refugee services, aggravated by stiff immigration policies. “If they would allow more African refugees into the country, we would have more money as a program to serve the community,” she says.
Despite her pleas of hardship, questions regarding both Tesfai’s life and her management of ACRC have persisted in the refugee community. “There are a lot of myths about me,” she says by telephone one day in April. “I am a very private person.” After resisting requests for further comment, Tesfai last Saturday took questions, again with Perel by her side. But her willingness to speak is hindered by lack of memory and reticence to discuss what she regards as traumatic moments from her past. Charming and attractive, she is defensive at times and remains grimly determined to face the turmoil in the agency she founded 20 years ago.
“The last eight months have been so hard,” she says of the debt and controversy that hang like a dark cloud. “I could just close this place and go. But this is in my heart, helping people.” Tesfai is calm in her conviction that she has done nothing and no one wrong. “Maybe people want me to stop, but I’m not going to,” she says. “I will do this until the day I die.”
So just who is Nikki Tesfai, or Nigisti Tesfai, or Nigiistiazeb Tesfai — and why all the memory loss? Answers seem to be a matter of perception, with the details as elusive as Tesfai herself.
According to various and at times conflicting accounts, she was born in Eritrea in 1953 and raised in Ethiopia by Jews who attended the Coptic Christian Church but privately celebrated Yom Kippur. She attended the University of Frebourg, a Catholic school in Switzerland, and graduated from Union University, a Baptist college in Tennessee, in 1976, with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. In the late 1970s she returned to Africa to fight for Eritrean independence, but Eritrean freedom fighters imprisoned and tortured her for speaking out about women’s rights. Then there is her legendary escape from prison to a refugee camp in Sudan, where she suffered further abuse. Another escape, and she eventually made it to the United States with a fellow Eritrean, whom she married, and the couple’s two sons. After several years in Houston, during which Tesfai claims her husband became abusive, she left him and came to Los Angeles, in 1984.
“When I write a book about my life, it will be called Escape,” Tesfai told O in 2002. “In my life there have been so many escapes.” On this Saturday, however, Tesfai wears a blank expression as her biography is read to her. “Let me bury my past,” she says. “I am just a poor refugee person.”
Such larger-than-life stories have a powerful effect on people. For recording artist Danielle Lo Presti, who was reading O while using the Stairmaster at the gym one day in 2002, it was an epiphany. “I needed an inspiration for my next album that was absolutely undeniably representative of the power of human perseverance,” Lo Presti says by telephone recently. In May 2002, Lo Presti released “22 Mountains” as the title track to her second album and dedicated it to Tesfai — her journey becoming a metaphor for undying courage. When she plays the song live, Lo Presti introduces it by telling audiences that, “Due to accepted practices in her native African village, and her family’s desperate need for money, Tesfai was arranged into marriage without her consent at the age of 14.”
Previous published accounts show Tesfai coming from a middle-class family. Her close friend Dorothy Huebel refers to Tesfai’s many brothers and sisters, most of whom live in Texas or California, as “cosmopolitan.” In Lo Presti’s recorded version, Tesfai once scaled 22 mountains without shoes or supplies on her way to a refugee camp. Published versions show her crossing a desert as well.
In September, Lo Presti says, she invited Tesfai to see her perform at the Joint, a nightclub on Pico Boulevard. According to Lo Presti, Tesfai came to the show with her two sons, and while backstage listened to Lo Presti’s standard introduction to “22 Mountains.” “She said, ‘Yes, that’s it,’ and it was all the affirmation I needed to go out and perform,” Lo Presti says. “You wouldn’t believe how many e-mails I get because of this song. People lean on it.”
Tesfai says she does not remember the encounter or having heard of “22 Mountains.” Her résumé, posted on ACRC’s Web site, contains clues as to why she might resist scrutiny. For starters, it says in 1981 she earned a master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University in Houston. It also states that she earned a master’s in family counseling from Southern Coast University in Florida, in 1984; a master’s in social work from California Coast University, in 1989; and a doctorate in humanities from Southern Eastern University, also in Florida, in 1997.
However, the registrar at Texas Southern has no record under Tesfai’s names. Likewise, California Coast University, a distance-learning center, has no record of Tesfai. When contacted, neither the Florida Department of Education nor the Florida Distance Learning Consortium had heard of Southern Coast University or Southern Eastern University. There is a Southern Eastern University founded in London and incorporated in Arkansas by a Count Daniel de Grimaldi, but that’s news to Arkansas education officials, and that’s where a previously unexamined aspect of Tesfai’s life starts to come into focus.
Grimaldi represents himself as a member of Monaco’s royal family, a member of the American Bar Association and an international barrister. The ABA has no record of Grimaldi. According to news accounts from London, Grimaldi’s real name is Daniel Swann, and he is neither descended from Monaco royals nor an international barrister. Rather, he is described as an East London crook, sentenced in 1999 to three years in prison for stealing disability and income-support benefits. Swann (whose United Kingdom passport reads Swann-Grimaldi) could not be reached for comment.
Tesfai has no recollection of California Coast or Southern Coast. The name Daniel rings a bell, she says, but the name Grimaldi draws a puzzled look from her.
To her believers, the brutal realities of the lives of Tesfai’s clientele and the realpolitik of humanitarianism render biographical scrutiny of her trivial and mean-spirited. “With all the things going on in the world, to pick on someone like Nikki is very bad,” Irene Borger says.
One name that registers with Tesfai is Dr. F. Arthur Bogaerts, who appears to have elevated her international humanitarian ambitions. Bogaerts, an African Community Resource Center advisory board member, is a physician and international gadabout from Belgium and the president and CEO of the Albert Schweitzer Society USA International Inc. Over the years, he and Tesfai have collaborated on relief projects while Tesfai has aspired to gain acceptance at the nongovernmental organization, or NGO, section of the United Nations — a status Bogaerts gained a couple of decades ago. But Tesfai’s reliance on Bogaerts, and his international Albert Schweitzer organization, is less than inspiring. In retrospect, she says it was mostly just talk. (According to news reports from London, Grimaldi’s alleged reliance on Bogaerts’ name and identity as a doctor to justify phony disability payments had consequences: It landed him in jail.)
In the world of humanitarianism, the name Albert Schweitzer may be among the most revered — and the most abused. There is but one Albert Schweitzer Fellowship approved in 1940 by Schweitzer himself, according to Lachlan Forrow, fellowship president and director of ethics and palliative care at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. And there are three sanctioned sister organizations, Forrow says. But Bogaerts’ is not one of them. “Some are simply an embarrassment,” he says, pointing to the Dayton, Ohio–based Albert Schweitzer Society USA Inc., which lists Bogaerts as chief executive officer from 1998 to 2000.
As domestic and international affiliates, the two Albert Schweitzer societies are often confused with each another. But as far as Forrow is concerned, any distinctions are irrelevant. Two unseemly events stand out, he says, and possibly reflect on the company Tesfai keeps, particularly in East Africa, where she and Bogaerts have at times resembled hapless adventurers.
On October 7, 1998, Bogaerts agreed with a man named Prosper Ndabishuriye to form an association whereby the international Albert Schweitzer society could claim credit for the rebuilding of homes that were lost during the social and economic devastation in Burundi in the early 1990s. In exchange, Bogaerts would provide the building materials. After Ndabishuriye fronted the costs of the project, however, Bogaerts disappeared from sight, and his domestic affiliate was left to answer for him. Unable to pay his creditors, Ndabishuriye lost most of his personal property, was jailed repeatedly in debtors’ prison and forced to send his family to Kenya. He filed suit against Bogaerts’ domestic affiliate in 2001. On November 7, a federal judge in Ohio awarded him $477,000.
(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.”
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.
Yet to some extent the D.A. has woken up to fraud in the nonprofit sector. The office seized $2.5 million accumulated by one refugee-service provider and brought criminal charges last year against the program’s director, Angelita Gonzales, for submitting fraudulent invoices. A trial ended in an 11-1 hung jury on March 23; Gonzales’ retrial began Tuesday. The D.A.’s Office also has charged 16 refugee workers at another program with conspiracy and grand larceny, alleging they gained illegal access to the county welfare-payment database and issued checks to family members and friends.
Still, prosecutors stress the difference between actionable criminal offenses and inefficient or objectionable behavior. So the buck gets passed back to the funding agencies. And refugee-service providers play a numbers game where incentives to cheat outweigh the government’s capacity to monitor them, according to deputy district attorney Jennifer Snyder. “The funding system is easily exploited,” says Snyder, the prosecutor in the Gonzales case. “The county mentality is to give, give, give. But assuring that services were provided becomes more difficult. The question is how much is the public willing to tolerate so that a few people actually get some help?”
Casey McFall sits in her office on Wilshire Boulevard one day in March, surrounded by bags of donated clothing. A veteran grant-development consultant who testified for the state as an expert witness in the Gonzales case, McFall is frustrated. In 2003, ACRC was awarded a literacy contract from the Department of Education, and McFall served as a consultant on the program, she says. Her voice quivers as she describes going to CSS last July, thinking she had spotted mistakes in Tesfai’s books. After trying to correct billings for the last two years, in September McFall went to CSS with concerns about what she had found: forged bills for excess rent; bills for clients who never received services or were ineligible; bills for employees who performed no function at ACRC. By August, she had contacted the D.A. and turned over a stack of documents. (The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office neither confirms nor denies there is a criminal investigation of Tesfai and ACRC.)
CSS officials say McFall had no approval to re-do ACRC’s bills. McFall describes CSS as “a dangerous mix of incompetence and arrogance” — a perfect environment for Tesfai to exploit, she says. Political supporters such as County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose name is displayed above the door at ACRC, have only emboldened Tesfai, adds McFall. “Nikki could be a movie of the week,” she says. “But people like Yvonne Burke and Mervyn Dymally are doing the public a greater disservice by backing her.”
When contacted, CSS officials had just met with representatives from Burke’s office to discuss Tesfai’s debt, which the county appears ready to write off. According to Clinton Tatum, a Burke deputy, Tesfai complained to Burke about being charged with disallowed costs, but after several meetings with county auditors and CSS, it was determined that ACRC still owes $40,000, Tatum says. “Nikki said she couldn’t pay,” he says. “Not much more we can do.” (U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office has called county officials at the request of ACRC as well, Tatum says. Feinstein’s office says it was just looking into the matter. “We didn’t have the details,” says press deputy Howard Gantman.)
Huebel, an ACRC board member, describes Burke as someone who “clears the way, points Nikki in the right direction, and introduces her to people she should be talking to.” The Los Angeles Times reported in 2002 that Tesfai opened ACRC “with help from Burke.” McFall says Burke has helped preserve ACRC’s $500-per-month lease of its county-owned office when other agencies had their eyes on it. When visited, Burke denies that is the case. “I’ve never even been to ACRC or any of its facilities,” she says.
Perceptions of coziness between Burke and Tesfai were enhanced in the late 1990s when Burke’s husband, L.A. Marathon founder Bill Burke, reportedly was knighted by a German prince in a ceremony in Los Angeles — arranged by Dr. Arthur Bogaerts. “Nikki plays to ambassadors in Washington, D.C., philanthropists in New York, politicians in Los Angeles and royalty in Europe,” says a former employee who attended. “None of it makes any sense, and the story is always changing.” Bill Burke denies being knighted.
Tesfai’s clout — whether real or perceived — creates a dilemma for refugee workers. Employees with unresolved immigration issues in particular are terrified of challenging her. Yet some see her as pathetic. “The fear is in our heads,” says one former employee, an immigrant from East Africa. Meantime, Tesfai’s patrons get prickly when confronted with questions about her — as if their own sensibilities are under attack. “I have nothing to say until I talk with Nikki,” says one gruff former adviser when reached for comment. “It is irresponsible to expect social-services agencies who cater to minorities who lack the same language and cultural skills to adhere to the same rigid guidelines as mainstream agencies,” Huebel says.
A look at Tesfai’s aborted group-home endeavors and property transactions further elevates concerns of mismanagement and demonstrates the razor-thin line between her personal and professional life.
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.
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.”