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
But that’s where Tesfai’s background made her a problematic witness for Deputy District Attorney Gregory Jennings. After the judge set a trial date last month, the Weekly asked Jennings whether Tesfai was under investigation by the District Attorney’s Office. Williams’ attorney claims he has spoken with a prosecutor in the D.A.’s Public Integrity Division about Tesfai’s bookkeeping and property-management history. Jennings shook his head as he made for the elevator. “I’m not going to be talking about any of that. It has nothing to do with this case.” A week later, however, on May 18, the D.A. dismissed the grand-theft charge and Williams pleaded guilty to witness intimidation. As a part of his plea, he agreed to pay restitution and received probation. A four-year jail term was suspended.
Tesfai has associated with colorful characters over the years. Records obtained by the Weekly show Tesfai engaged in failed efforts to gain access to the nongovernmental-organization section of the United Nations along with an international gadabout named Arthur Bogaerts. Tesfai and Bogaerts were using an Albert Schweitzer Society moniker that experts say is not legitimate. According to a former consultant, Bogaerts also parlayed connections with German royalty into a knighting ceremony for the husband of Supervisor Burke, L.A. Marathon founder Bill Burke.
A sheepskin on Tesfai’s wall comes from Southern Eastern University, a London-based school incorporated in Arkansas that officials do not acknowledge. The school was founded by Count Daniel de Grimaldi, a purported member of the Monaco royal family whose real name, according to news reports, is Daniel Swann, a crook sentenced to prison in 1999 in England for stealing disability payments. Grimaldi allegedly used Bogaerts’ name and identity to justify phony disability payments.
Since 2004, county officials have stopped funding Tesfai, according to Louisa Ollague, a staffer with Supervisor Gloria Molina. The county’s Department of Community and Senior Services no longer oversees refugee programs. Tesfai has been forced to vacate her headquarters on Vermont Avenue, which Yvonne Burke had secured for her. She continues to receive federal funding to serve torture victims. Former employees say she also uses the money to serve human-trafficking victims through a domestic-violence shelter called Refugee Safe Haven. She is scheduled to receive the African Humanitarian Award at the African Achievement Awards Dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel on June 20. “She is an icon, a pioneer to be applauded,” says Charles Anyiam, editor of the African Times.
Visited at her cramped headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard recently, Tesfai was irritated by questions about her past and her current status. “Everything you wrote about me is a lie,” she said. “You hurt me and this organization. I really don’t want to talk to you.” When asked about a house she bought on Martin Luther King Boulevard, ostensibly for development as a group home, Tesfai replied, “It burned. Are you happy?”
Casey McFall, a consultant who works for refugee-services providers, says the county system was ripe for mismanagement, and that Troy Williams just may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. McFall told the Weekly that after she worked for Tesfai in 2003, she went to county officials and then to the D.A. She described forged bills for excess rent, bills for clients who never received services and bills for employees who did not do the work that was claimed. McFall says she turned over documents to the D.A. “I’m amazed Nikki is still walking around, much less receiving federal funds,” said McFall, who later testified at the trial of Angelita Gonzales, a refugee-services provider convicted of theft of public funds in 2004. In another case, a group of Armenian-refugee-services providers were convicted in a scheme that involved tapping into the county welfare database and issuing checks to family and friends.