Poor Ferdy

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

New Times e-mailed a list of questions to Locke and received this answer: "Food for the Poor, Inc. has no comments to the questions submitted."

As for Ferdy himself, New Times reached him by phone at his home. In the lilting cadence of his native Jamaica, even his refusal to be interviewed somehow sounded profound. His voice was deep and slow, like that of an orator.

It's that Ferdy thing -- charisma. "He's a very powerful spokesman for FFP, and for his faith, and for the poor," says donor and volunteer Gary Faysash, who last saw Ferdy about 18 months ago, just prior to the scandal. He says he met Ferdy about five years ago and often saw him at functions.

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

"He used to do one-day retreats where he'd talk about centering prayer. It's contemplative prayer," he explains, comparing the practice to a form of meditation. In fact several FFP donors first came to know the organization by meeting Ferdy through such programs. He drew people to him, and they were impressed with his intensity. Officially, little has been said about Ferdy's illness, though it is referenced in the letter Mahfood wrote to donors last August and in talking points given to FFP's telemarketers that were later filed as evidence in the Taylor case. Faysash says Ferdy had long been open about his struggle with mental illness, and Faysash knew about it. "Everybody did," he says, "because he talked about it. He's been working on it for years."

In fact not everybody knew. Wenski, the board's newest member, says he's known Ferdy for years, in large part because the bishop has worked with the Haitian community in Broward and Miami-Dade counties for nearly 20 years. He met Ferdy shortly after the organization's founding, visited FFP programs overseas, and even gave an invocation at a fundraiser. He knew Ferdy well, he says, but not well enough to know of his illness.

"I knew he was kind of an intense guy," Wenski offers. But that isn't unusual in relief work: "You have to have a certain intensity to work with the very poor. It's not easy."

Knowledge of Ferdy's illness was likely confined to his inner circle of friends, colleagues, and the major donors who were invited to travel with him on FFP's pilgrimages. For example Ralph and Sally DeGruttola, FFP volunteers who live in Pompano Beach, didn't learn of Ferdy's condition until the story hit the media.

"All I know is what I've read in the paper," says Ralph DeGruttola. Likewise his wife, who works in FFP's mailroom one day a week, says she didn't know about Ferdy's mental illness or problems with the organization. Even after she learned of Ferdy's resignation, Sally DeGruttola didn't ask anyone at FFP about it and says the volunteers and employees with whom she works never discussed the stories or FFP's problems.

"I read [about] it, but other than that, I didn't pay very much attention. I'm a volunteer, and that's all I go to do, and I'm not interested in [FFP's] inner workings."

Such an attitude is not uncommon among supporters of religious nonprofits, says the ECFA's Nelson. In fact, he notes, ECFA itself was founded in the late 1970s by Christian leaders looking to safeguard donors from a burgeoning number of otherwise unregulated fundraising ministries, particularly those of televangelists. (Food for the Poor joined the ECFA in 1998.)

"The public is not only very generous but also very forgiving," he says. "You go back to the celebrated PTL case. In some ways PTL was the mother of all scandals. The organization went under. And yet today Jim Bakker is receiving a pretty good reaction because he's come forward and said he's wrong."

The recent troubles of FFP have already been discussed in local newspapers, both religious and secular; in trade publications covering nonprofits; and finally in national religious magazines like the Catholic publication America.

On January 29, Ferdy's foibles hit the mainstream, when FFP was mentioned on Talk of the Nation, a National Public Radio current-affairs show. The topic was President George W. Bush's new office for faith-based community initiatives. A caller mentioned Food for the Poor as an example of the danger in relying on faith-based organizations to manage the nation's social services needs.

Ferdy's problems may have been an isolated incident, the manifestation of one man's personal demons. It's a perspective widely held among people close to the organization. However, in the national debate over faith-based organizations, FFP's problems raise red flags. While the niche market of religious nonprofit sponsors is not easily swayed from supporting organizations, the general public may be less forgiving.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has not rushed to judgment on FFP or its founder.

"The Church believes in redemption," Wenski explains. To his knowledge FFP was never in any danger of losing its listing in the Catholic directory, which would have effectively severed the organization's official ties to the Church. "I don't think there was anything that warranted it," he says. This is in large part, he notes, due to FFP's swift and thorough response to the problems identified by ECFA.

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