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Food for Poor head resigns amid scandal


Allegations of sexual and financial misconduct are swirling around Food for the Poor, prompting the resignation Sept. 25 of the charity’s founder and president, Ferdinand Mahfood.

Food for the Poor, the 66th-largest charitable organization on an international list compiled by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, solicits funds through religious organizations, including Catholic parishes. The organization, based in Deerfield Beach, Fla., provides relief in about 16 countries, primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean. Donations last year amounted to $182 million, including about $51 million in cash from U.S. donors. The organization collected another $500,000 in federal money.

Food for the Poor advertises regularly in numerous Catholic press outlets, including NCR, and recruits priests to speak in parishes.

Mahfood, who founded Food for the Poor in 1982, resigned as president and chief executive officer just six weeks after he was placed on administrative leave as allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. At the time of his resignation, his salary was more than $180,000 a year.

Rod Taylor, former development director, told law enforcement officials in mid-September that Mahfood had been involved with two female employees and had paid them through a fund in Jamaica. Mahfood is a native of Jamaica.

Allegations related to Mahfood, known to co-workers as “Ferdy,” are described in a Sept. 15 “incident report” on file at the Broward sheriff’s office.

Sexual relations with two women were also alleged in an internal memo written by Catholic Bishop Paul Boyle of Mandeville, Jamaica, a board member, according to the Sun-Sentinel, a newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

At the time of Mahfood’s resignation, Boyle issued a news release stating that Mahfood’s brother, Robin, had been appointed president and chief executive officer. Robin Mahfood is longtime secretary and vice president of Food for the Poor.

The appointment displeased some of the organization’s employees and former employees who want a wider housecleaning. Taylor said he was among executives and former executives who had called for a fresh start, with a top officer from outside the organization.

“The organization does a lot of good, and I would truly love to see it survive,” Taylor said. “But it obviously needs to be cleaned out.” He said he had spoken to authorities about the problems because he believes his responsibility as director of development is “to the donors,” he said.

Newspapers, primarily an Oct. 4 article in the Sun-Sentinel, gave the following account of events:

Reports of sexual impropriety first surfaced in April 1999, when one of the female employees filed an internal complaint alleging sexual harassment. An internal investigation turned up no evidence, but an audit in August 2000 turned up evidence of the fund in Jamaica and gifts to the women. The women, along with three persons related to one of them, were fired, and Mahfood was suspended Aug. 14.

All employees were required to sign a gag order by Sept. 22 prohibiting “defamatory” statements, written or oral, and warning that a breach would provoke immediate dismissal. Several employees, including Taylor, resigned or were fired after refusing to sign. Robin Mahfood said the order was intended to protect donors.

When Ferdinand Mahfood resigned Sept. 25 he said in a statement that he had long suffered from bipolar disorder, a mental illness also known as “manic depression,” which causes extreme mood swings.

“Unfortunately, I have not recently successfully managed my illness, and some of my behaviors have been unacceptable,” Mahfood wrote. “For those behaviors, I apologize and ask for your forgiveness.” He did not elaborate.

Later, he told a reporter for the Sun-Sentinel, “We all suffer from human weakness. I have been in love with the human race for the last 18 years. You should focus on that … and not on my friendship with any particular women that I am alleged to have had a friendship with.”

Mahfood is receiving treatment for his mental disorder as an inpatient at a medical facility in Connecticut.

Taylor, the former development director, is suing the organization for more than $15,000. His suit claims that he was wrongfully terminated for speaking with authorities, first the sheriff’s office, and then, as directed by officials there, with the FBI.

Taylor told NCR he had been “shocked” to learn of improprieties.

“Ferdy was always such a passionate advocate for the poor,” he said. “It was absolutely heartbreaking to think that he would be involved in stealing money from the cause we were all so passionately involved with.”

According to The Florida Catholic, which published a report of Mahfood’s resignation on Sept. 28, Food for the Poor has 200 employees at its headquarters.

Robin Mahfood said the charity, at the direction of its board, would add a chief financial officer, a new chief operating officer and a project and program officer. The realignment, Mahfood said, had been prompted by a management audit by an outside firm.

Robin Mahfood also said any misappropriated money from the Jamaican fund had been replaced. According to reports, the source of the fund was the sale of folding chairs in Jamaica that had been donated in the United States.

Taylor said some of the charity’s officers and former officers had concerns about Robin Mahfood in the top office because he runs a for-profit company, Essex Imports, out of the same building as Food for the Poor. Robin Mahfood said he intends to eventually turn that business over to two of his sons.

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2000