A rapper’s charity

A rapper's tears

Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born hip-hop celebrity, complained when he faced questions about his charity’s financial record and ability to handle what eventually amounted to $16 million in donations.

Portraying himself as persecuted like Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Jean, 40, writes with indignation about insinuations that he had used his charity, Yéle, for personal gain. He says he did not need to — “I have a watch collection worth $500,000”— and that doubters will someday understand “Yéle is Haiti’s greatest asset and ally.”

But on his book tour for “Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story,” Jean neglects to mention two key facts: a continuing New York attorney general’s investigation has already found financial improprieties at Yéle, and the charity effectively went out of business last month, leaving a trail of debts, unfinished projects and broken promises.

“If I had depended on Yéle,” said Diaoly Estimé, whose orphanage features a wall painting of Mr. Jean and his wife, “these kids would all be dead by now.”

Even as Yéle is besieged by angry creditors, an examination of the charity indicates that millions in donations for earthquake victims went to its own offices, salaries, consultants’ fees and travel, to Mr. Jean’s brother-in-law for projects never realized, to materials for temporary houses never built and to accountants dealing with its legal troubles.

On the ground in Haiti, little lasting trace of Yéle’s presence can be discerned. The walled country estate leased for its headquarters, on which the charity lavished $600,000, is deserted. Yéle’s street cleaning crews have been disbanded. The Yéle-branded tents and tarps have mostly disintegrated; one camp leader said they had not seen Yéle, which is based in New York, since Jean was disqualified as a presidential candidate because he lives in Saddle River, N.J., not Haiti.

This summer, the charity foundered.

At the end of August, Derek Q. Johnson, Yéle’s chief executive, announced his resignation to supporters.

His resignation came after Jean declined to accept a settlement proposed by the attorney general covering the charity’s pre-earthquake activities, and he hired Avi Schick, a lawyer who had been a member of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s transition team.

The settlement would have required Jean and the two other Yéle founders to pay $600,000 in restitution “to remedy the waste of the foundation’s assets.” It also would have required Yéle to pay for a forensic audit of its post-disaster expenses, as it had done for its pre-earthquake finances, and to start “winding down its affairs.”

In 2010, Yéle spent $9 million and half went to travel, to salaries and consultants’ fees and to expenses related to their offices and warehouse. In contrast, another celebrity charity, Sean Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief Organization, spent $13 million with only 10 percent going to those costs.

Though Mr. Penn’s group spent $43,000 on office-related expenses, Yéle spent $1.4 million, including $375,000 for “landscaping” and $37,000 for rent to Mr. Jean’s Manhattan recording studio. Yéle spent $470,440 on its own food and beverages.

Some of Yéle’s programming money went to projects that never came to fruition: temporary homes for which it prepaid $93,000; a medical center to have been housed in geodesic domes for which it paid $146,000; the revitalization of a plaza in the Cité Soleil slum, where supposed improvements that cost $230,000 are nowhere to be seen.

In its relief operation, Yéle operated outside the coordination system set up by other nongovernment groups; it did not want to be burdened by rules and meetings, Mr. Locke said in a 2010 interview.

Other organizations focused on providing concrete services like sanitation or health care.

Yéle chose to work more broadly than deeply. It supplied food, water and supplies to what it said were dozens of tent camps. Julie Schindall, then spokeswoman for Oxfam America, called it a “dump and run strategy.” Mr. Penn told The New York Times in 2010, “My impression is that Yéle is at the service of Wyclef Jean and his reputation.”