Poor Ferdy

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

FFP's troubles also invite comparison to a 1990 scandal involving Fr. Bruce Ritter, founder of Covenant House, an innovative home for New York City's street kids. After rising to prominence and adulation for his groundbreaking program, Ritter was accused of having sexual relations with residents of the home and making overtures to several others. Ritter repeatedly denied the allegations. Though he was never convicted of any crime and never lost a civil lawsuit, he was eventually forced to resign from the charity he built.

It was later revealed Covenant House was controlled almost entirely by Ritter and staffed with friends and family who carried out his wishes. Following a state probe, Covenant House was required to sever all ties with Ritter. Exiling himself to a small town in upstate New York, Ritter lived out the rest of his days in solitude. He died in 1999.

Covenant House, on the other hand, went on to repair its reputation and rebuild its donor base, though not without a struggle. Some say Ritter's permanent and complete disassociation from the charity was key to its survival.

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

These parallels were not lost on the staff of FFP, some of whom cited them when anticipating the possibility of Ferdy's return. Jim Cavnar wrote on August 22, 2000: "Consider the example of Covenant House in 1990.... Even though they immediately removed him, did an independent investigation, set up an independent oversight committee and hired a new CEO with no ties to Ritter, it took three years for their fundraising to recover to the level prior to the scandal. If they had tried to return Ritter to the organization I believe they would never have recovered."

It is not clear whether Ferdy will return to FFP, and if so, in what capacity. For its part ECFA now says Ferdy's permanent disassociation with FFP was not a condition of their inquiry.

"They committed to us that he would not return in any significant role at FFP," says Dan Busby, ECFA's vice president for donor and member services. "I think the door is left open if he were to volunteer, but that wasn't finalized beyond the big picture."

Likewise Bishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami, who was appointed to FFP's board in the wake of the scandal, says that as he understands it, Ferdy's possible return is an open question. Wenski says he knows of no stipulation made by the archdiocese on the subject.

Marina Pavlov, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Nonprofits, believes that Ferdy's return would be, if not illegal, at least problematic: "I don't know it if would be wise," she cautions. "When you're trying to raise millions of dollars a year in donations and someone did something wrong in the organization, PR-wise, I don't think it's going to be very good for your fund development. Just as a practical move, I'm not sure how smart it would be. Once you've done something like that, I think people have a watchful eye."

Indeed, Pavlov says, succession can be a tricky topic, particularly for family-run organizations like Food for the Poor. "It's a big thing that nonprofits deal with. Very often organizations that have strong leaders don't institutionalize. They have such strong leaders at the helm, but if that leader were to disappear, the organization would disappear. You don't want an organization that does that much good to fold just because of the leader."

But Pavlov says nonprofits also need to consider more than image or legality. "A lot of this stuff is legal, but the question is whether it's ethical. With nonprofits I think they're held to a higher standard [by the public] and with religious nonprofits, an even higher standard."

Or as ECFA director Nelson puts it, "When you hold yourself out as a faith-based organization, you have just raised the bar in the mind of the public."

Ferdinand Mahfood is already back in town. Having reportedly completed two to three months of residential treatment in Connecticut for his bipolar disorder, he has returned to the Lighthouse Point home he shares with his wife, Patricia, just blocks from where his brother Robin lives.

New Times' efforts to get the Mahfoods to comment for this story were ultimately fruitless. When asked if he would discuss the events surrounding his brother's resignation and the future of FFP, Robin Mahfood said, "I'll deal with it," then abruptly hung up his office phone. He did not return subsequent calls to his home or office.

Weeks later FFP public relations officer Kevin Locke called New Times and asked about the nature and tone of the article. He declined to answer questions. "I've looked at your paper, and frankly, I'm not impressed," he said. When asked to explain, Locke said the newspaper is "antagonistic to Christianity" but agreed to reconsider his decision.

He did not reply until a few days later. After learning that a New Times photographer was attempting to reach Robin Mahfood, Locke e-mailed New Times and asked that all queries be directed to him. He also asked that "[y]our purpose in writing the story (angle, interest, interest in photographs)" be submitted to him via e-mail, adding, "Feel free to submit questions to me -- also via e-mail -- so that I may supply you with information for your article."

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