By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Then as now, FFP works with churches to determine the needs of a community, providing the goods requested either by purchasing them and shipping them to the recipients or by securing them through in-kind donations. His was a more direct approach than those of many similar organizations, and it proved more successful, too. What was once Mahfood's pet project run from his family's business became the 66th largest charity in the Philanthropy 400, an annual listing published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy that ranks the top nonprofits worldwide according to the support they receive.
His good works did not go unnoticed. In 1992 he received the Caring Award, a national award given by the Caring Institute; that same year FFP expanded its program to the United States, offering relief in nine major cities.
FFP was also lauded for its remarkably efficient use of funds. In 1999 it claimed an average administrative overhead of 9.9 percent, though this is perhaps best credited to the business acumen of Robin Mahfood, who served as vice president. The writer of a newspaper article published in February 2000 noted that, while Ferdy understood the big-picture needs of recipients, he was more likely to delegate the details.
"He tends to embellish facts and figures, and explains it by saying he's not good at keeping numbers in his head," observed reporter Marita Lowman in the February 22, 2000, issue of The Scranton Times in Pennsylvania. "He offered three different figures for the cost of land, for instance, and gave higher numbers than his managers gave for the number of people fed and housed at some Food for the Poor projects."
Mahfood's accounting inconsistencies aside, Food for the Poor appeared to be a model organization. But as the world would soon discover, its founder is no role model.
Dorothy Atkerson started working at FFP in 1994 as a donor-caller for FFP, though she had ambitions for higher positions. In the lawsuit she filed in December 1999, she alleges that FFP repeatedly passed her over for promotion and that Ferdinand Mahfood harassed her on the basis of her race (she is African-American) and religion (she is a born-again Christian).
Her complaint describes a workplace that, while supposedly interdenominational in nature, was intolerant of born-again Christians, and claims that in staff meetings Mahfood would "make fun about born-again believers and their faith and Christian beliefs."
Atkerson contends Ferdy told African-American employees that they had to work harder than anyone else in their department: "Mahfood stated that the blacks (Black Americans) had to work harder than anyone else because Mahfood only gave service to blacks in the Caribbean." Inexplicably the complaint also alleges that "[o]n several occasions Mahfood asked Atkerson if she was from Jamaica and Atkerson assured him that she was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania."
In addition Atkerson's complaint alleges that Mahfood threatened to fire other employees if they spoke to her or associated with her. She also asserts that she had come to question FFP's practices, particularly with regard to what employees would tell callers soliciting donations versus what they would tell donors. In a statement that would later seem eerily prescient, Atkerson charges that she faced retaliation for pointing out inconsistencies in FFP's practices and for her concern that donor money was not always used for its intended purpose.
"There was no system of checks and balances with regard to carrying out projects," her complaint reads.
Mahfood fired Atkerson on November 17, 1998. By that time rumors of his sexual impropriety had been festering for several months, if not longer. Still, it was not until April 1999 that a female employee filed an internal sexual harassment complaint, which included a threat to sue.
New Times could not confirm the identity of this individual or the other woman with whom Mahfood later admitted involvement; thus pseudonyms are used here. In her complaint "Jane" said she came forward because another woman, "Mary," had confided in her about a long-time affair with Ferdy. Jane said that, when Ferdy propositioned her and tried to persuade her to take a trip to Jamaica with him, she decided to report the incident because she perceived that Mary had been hurt by Ferdy and that others would be, too.
Ferdy denied the charges; after an initial internal probe, the investigation was called off for lack of evidence.
FFP employees continued to tamp down talk of Ferdy's indiscretions. But then, in August 1999, an unrelated internal audit uncovered diverted funds and gifts that corroborated the charges in Jane's harassment complaint. According to documents filed in a later lawsuit, the ensuing inquiry eventually revealed that Ferdy had in fact had sexual relationships with both Mary and Jane and had given ill-gotten cash to both women.
It was the beginning of the end. Subsequent internal memos by both director of development Rodney Taylor and executive director Jim Cavnar describe the following scheme to siphon money from FFP. Folding chairs purchased in Florida by Food for the Poor and shipped to FFP in Jamaica, ostensibly to be donated to churches there, were instead sold on the island for a profit. The proceeds were then funneled to slush funds for the two women with whom Ferdy was involved.