Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean has taken to the spotlight in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated his homeland.
What has also come to light is the questionable handling of his charity, to which tens of thousands of people have donated money in recent days.
Jean has been enlisted to co-host a star-studded “Hope for Haiti” telethon with actor George Clooney and CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Jan. 22. The program will be simulcast on ABC, NBC, HBO, CNN and MTV among others. One of the five charities benefitting from the event is Jean’s Yele Haiti Foundation. Already, the charity has brought in nearly $2 million via text message donations.
But as the money pours in, increasing questions surround Yele Haiti and just who its donations will benefit: the Haitan people or the Haitan-American star who runs it.
Wyclef Jean entered the American music scene as a member of The Fugees, whose second album hit multi-platinum. He went on to a solo career and has collaborated with many of the biggest names in music, establishing himself as an entrepreneur and businessman.
In a statement released Saturday on YouTube by the New York Daily News, Wyclef announced, “I’m one of the few that decided I’m gonna start my own NGO,” referencing Yele Haiti’s status as a non-governmental organization. This classification carries big benefits; namely, it is a nonprofit charitable organization with tax-exempt 501(c)(3) classification.
Now critics are questioning the foundation’s failure to file 2005, 2006, or 2007 tax returns until last year.
The Smoking Gun released documents over the weekend showing Yele Haiti did not file any tax return until 2009. Posted documents reveal Yele Haiti spent $250,000 on television production for a Wyclef-owned company called Telemax. Another $100,000 in Yele Haiti funds went directly to Wyclef after he sang at a benefit concert in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Another $60,000 paid rent for Platinum Sound, a Manhattan recording studio owned by Wyclef. The charitable NGO spent $400,000 on commercial ventures, in which Wyclef himself owns a controlling interest.
Wyclef’s YouTube statement continued: “I just feel that if I started my own NGO I could impact certain projects better.” The rapper, speaking in third-person, concluded, “not only do I denounce all this statement that Wyclef profit from his own foundation… I’m disgusted by that.”
Public scrutiny clearly got the best of Wyclef, however. In an emotional press conference on Monday, Wyclef admitted, “Have we made mistakes before? Yes.”
There is evidence the artist could use the money. One Wyclef-owned business was recently in serious financial difficulty after he used the company to purchase a waterfront mansion in Miami Beach. In late 2008, the home was seized in a foreclosure by the bank and later auctioned. According to the Palm Beach Post, Wyclef took out a $2 million mortgage on the property but fell behind in payments. There were over $100,000 in construction and architectural liens on the property. The Wyclef Jean corporation listed on the deed ended up owing the bank $2.4 million.
“Accusations have been made about me and about Yele,” Wyclef said at his Monday press conference. “I’m not at all sad by this because my Daddy told me the day would always come where you would always be challenged when you were doing good work.” While he spoke these words, a cell phone went off and Wyclef quipped “must be Al Sharpton calling.”
Will the scrutiny and consequential admission of guilt prevent Wyclef from dipping into this new chunk of cash intended for the devastated people of Haiti? Let’s hope this public embarrassment keeps him in check, and away from cutting checks for himself.
Jason Killian Meath is a political media strategist and author of the book Hollywood on the Potomac (Arcadia 2009). He recently directed and co-wrote the documentary film “The Surge: The Untold Story” and has created, written, directed and produced television programs appearing on The Discovery Channel, USA Networks, and ABC Family.