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Seeking Refuge

OF ALL THE ENCOUNTERS IN HIS LIFE, Troy Williams’ stint as an accountant for the African Community Resource Center (ACRC) figured to be the most damaging.

Williams, also known as Bilal Nadir, was scheduled for trial this week in Los Angeles Superior Court to face criminal charges that threatened to land him in jail and derail a professional career he has developed in spite of a troubled youth.

His accuser: Nikki Tesfai, an enigmatic refugee-service provider who charged that Williams stole from her, amid persistent signs of her own financial mismanagement and questionable business practices. The subject of an L.A. Weekly exposé in 2004, Tesfai has been heralded by Oprah Winfrey, the L.A. Times and The Jewish Journal as a survivor of torture and a savior to hundreds of thousands of refugees from around the world.

Public records, former employees and consultants familiar with Tesfai paint a vastly different picture — one that required prosecutors to think twice before relying on her as their star witness against Williams. The case of People v. Troy Williams has played out as the county recovers from an era of fraud, waste and failed oversight that has resulted in criminal convictions in the refugee-services community and a restructuring of the county’s refugee-services network.

Tesfai arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1980s at a time when civil war in Ethiopia and other African nations was responsible for death and displacement. She had a powerful story: raised by Jews in fear of persecution in Ethiopia; forced into wedlock and abused as a teenager; a soldier in the Eritrean struggle for independence; tortured in a refugee camp; an escape to the U.S. and a life dedicated to serving refugees.

Humanitarians and local politicians befriended her. County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, former president of the National Council of Jewish Women Dorothy Huebel and O magazine editor Judith Stone supported her work. According to Tesfai, she has provided housing, jobs and health assistance to more than 50,000 refugees from more than 50 countries since 1984. She is an honorary counselor to Burundi, and travels frequently to Africa to engage in relief efforts.

Documents point to a less inspiring Tesfai. After taking in more than $4 million in public funds since 1997, Tesfai has lost her city and county funding and been sued numerous times by former consultants for failure to pay them. She’s left a trail of damning audits showing that she misappropriated and commingled funds, failed to reconcile bank account statements, billed for disallowed costs, and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants that she can’t account for. In 2003, she was disqualified from a $496,000 domestic-violence grant through the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Planning. That same year, the city’s Community Development Department determined that she misappropriated $200,000, which it was attempting to recover from her.

Tesfai has used aliases, made bogus educational claims and engaged in strange property transactions, records show. She has consorted with dubious international characters. Her résumé lists graduate degrees the Weekly could not confirm. She purchased property with HUD money intended for a homeless shelter and sold it for a profit; applied for a state housing grant from a residence that she rented out in slum conditions, according to court records; and applied for a group-home license at a house rented out by her boyfriend.

ONE THURSDAY IN MAY, WILLIAMS sat quietly outside the courtroom of Judge C.H. Rehm and waited for his attorney, Keith Bowman. He was there to schedule his trial. Clutching a leather portfolio and dressed in a blue suit, it was hard to picture him as an inmate in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. But in 1987, Williams, now 37, a graduate student at USC and employed by the accounting firm Simpson & Simpson, was found guilty of attempted armed robbery, according to documents filed in L.A. Superior Court. He was sentenced to 10 years and received a first-time offender’s pardon, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections. Now a practicing Muslim who is close to earning a master’s degree in business administration and a certified public accountant’s license, he appeared to have turned his life around.

Williams worked for ACRC from 2002 to July 7, 2003 — a time of financial upheaval for Tesfai. Documents show he was fired for failing to file tax reports on time. He claims he and Tesfai had a falling-out based on her inability to pay vendors or her own employees, including him. Months after Tesfai fired Williams, she accused him of cashing unauthorized checks totaling $10,500, which constitutes grand theft. Williams talked to authorities about Tesfai as well. After a preliminary hearing on February 18, 2005, she accused him of threatening to hurt her.

A conviction for grand theft and witness intimidation could have ruined Williams. “People who know me know that kind of money is nothing to me,” said Williams in a soft Southern accent. He needs a new car and his apartment is half-furnished, he said. Two family members died in Hurricane Katrina and others have been displaced, he added. Problem is, a bank manager testified at a preliminary hearing that Williams deposited ACRC checks into his account. Tesfai testified that he had no authority to do so. It was his word against hers.

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.

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