Wyclef’s Haiti Charity May Have Been a Big Scam

When Hurricane Jeanne struck the island of Haiti in 2005, Wyclef Jean was a perfect spokesman for recovery efforts. As the leader of the Fugees and a top-selling solo artist, he was the world’s best-known Haitian face, so everyone seemed enthused when he and a partner founded the charity Yéle Haiti with the stated purpose of improving life for Haitians through education, nutrition, sports, housing, the arts and environmental projects.

Well, that once-promising project is over—and it didn’t end well.

Turns out the whole thing may have served as a personal slush fund for the singer, his family members and his employees–though he now portrays himself as a well-meaning martyr who endured a “crucifixion” at the hands of those researching his organization’s financial history.

Yéle encountered significant PR and legal problems some time ago. Despite taking in $16 million in donations after an earthquake further devastated Haiti in 2010, the organization failed to deliver many of its promised services–from building temporary residences and medical centers to renovating public spaces.

Looks like the Yéle pot overflowed thanks to the generosity of strangers and celebrities like Matt Damon and George Clooney—and all that money was too tempting to resist. According to the organization’s own accounts, nearly half of all the cash collected went to pay for accounting and legal fees, employee salaries, and travel expenses for essentials like “a private jet that transported Lindsay Lohan from New Jersey to a benefit in Chicago that raised only $66,000.”

Oh my.

As proof that he didn’t use the charity for his own personal gain, Wyclef says that he didn’t need any more money—he already had “a watch collection worth $500,000”. Note to Wyclef: This kind of statement is not an effective way to endear yourself to the public.

Of course we’re not familiar with the details surrounding the history of the organization and its finances, but we will say this: Whoever was responsible for management in general—and PR outreach/damage control operations in particular—did not do a very good job. We have a feeling the scandal will dog Wyclef for some time–he may need to get Lauryn Hill out of jail and mount a Fugees re-union tour to recoup his losses.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.