Poor Ferdy

Ferdinand Mahfood embezzled thousands of dollars from his own charity to support his mistresses. So why is he hanging around?

The scandal simmered within the charity's walls for nearly a year before it boiled over. In late July or early August 2000, Mary became so distraught at the revelation of her relationship with Ferdy that she attempted suicide by cutting her wrists and had to be put in a psychiatric hospital, delaying her planned dismissal by a week while she recovered, according to an internal memo. Ultimately FFP managers fired both women. Three relatives of one of the women were also dismissed a week later for having accepted money from FFP.

Ferdy's fate was less cut-and-dried. On August 14, 2000, the board of directors suspended him. To outsiders his "administrative leave" was unexplained and indefinite. In an August 22, 2000, memorandum, however, Cavnar recounted being told that Ferdy would be suspended for six months, during which time he would receive psychiatric treatment. At the end of that time, the board would reevaluate the suspension and decide whether or not to restore him to FFP's presidency, albeit with new management systems in place to prevent further problems.

As he stated in the memo, Cavnar believed that mere suspension was not enough to set things right in the public eye. "I believe that the misconduct on Ferdy's part gravely threatens the survival of FFP," Cavnar wrote. "I believe that it will eventually become public knowledge. I believe that we likely face very costly legal settlements and even criminal prosecution. The only way I can see FFP surviving this scandal will necessitate terminating Ferdy's role at FFP permanently."

In 1999 Food for the Poor distributed more than $1.6 million in aid to people in developing countries
Miami Herald
In 1999 Food for the Poor distributed more than $1.6 million in aid to people in developing countries

Cavnar also pointed out that FFP employees, when questioned directly about rumors of Ferdy's affairs, had denied them. Hearing that memo read six months later, Cavnar, who now works for another nonprofit organization, lets out a world-weary sigh. He himself had quelled rumors of Ferdy's misdeeds -- rumors that turned out to be true. "I was wrong," he says softly.

Despite Cavnar's vehement objection, Ferdy remained suspended from the board while his younger brother Robin was appointed by the board as president/CEO. At the same time, Robin stepped down from the head of his own company, Essex Imports, an import-export business. In changing jobs, Robin didn't have to go far; Essex handles FFP's shipping business, operates out of the same building, and shares a loading dock with FFP at a Deerfield Beach corporate park.

In the wake of the crisis, FFP attorney and new board member David Price drew up a confidentiality agreement that employees were required to sign by September 22, 2000. The agreement forbids employees from engaging in "the making or publishing of written or oral statements or remarks that are defamatory." It also states that any breach is grounds for "immediate dismissal," as is failure to sign the agreement.

To some employees it looked like a strong-arm tactic to hush them up. Several refused to sign the initial agreement; it was subsequently revised. One who was not satisfied with even the final draft of the agreement was Rodney Taylor, director of development. His wrongful-termination lawsuit, filed October 3, 2000, in Broward County Circuit Court, is the source of a number of internal FFP memos quoted in this article that detail the circumstances surrounding the scandal.

Taylor's case was dismissed February 24. Calls to Stuart Rosenfeldt, Taylor's attorney, were not returned, and Taylor could not be reached for comment. But in court documents Taylor casts himself as a whistle blower fired for taking his information regarding Ferdy's financial wrongdoing to the Broward Sheriff's Office on September 15 -- after Robin Mahfood refused to do so. BSO can find no record of the complaint, but the allegations did make their way to the feds. A spokeswoman for the FBI's Miami field office confirmed the existence of an ongoing investigation into the matter but declined to comment for this story.

In an FFP internal memo dated September 15, 2000 -- which appears in his case file -- Taylor explains his reasons for going to law enforcement:

"In a memo to the board last week I expressed my concern that the process would be corrupted by personal and family interests on your part. This concern was confirmed by two actions on your part:

"1) You arranged and participated in a meeting with Ferdinand Mahfood, at his house, with another key executive of Food for the Poor. This confirms my suspicion that Ferdy is still running this organization through you and that his "suspension' is a farce.

"2) In a series of meetings you have misled employees about the true nature of Ferdy's action. This is not true disclosure.

"In the end you have left me little choice."

The key executive to whom Taylor refers is Russ W. Russell, North American Ministries Director, who attended the secret September 13 lunch at Ferdy's home. Days later Russell wrote an impassioned letter to Robin Mahfood criticizing this secrecy, defending his colleagues, and refusing to join in what he characterized as a smear campaign against them. This letter also appears as evidence in the Taylor case file.

"I cannot allow myself to be placed in a position of undermining the integrity and forthrightness in regard to what they believe should be the outcome of the allegations made against Ferdy," Russell wrote. "I fully believe in the integrity and feel that the attacks on their personhood are unchristian and immoral."

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