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Poor Ferdy

Ferdinand Mahfood is here in spirit. Peering down from a white wall inside the tinted glass doors of Food for the Poor, Inc. (FFP), the Deerfield Beach¯ based charity he founded, Mahfood sees everything. Blessed by soft focus, his face exudes a healthy radiance; his narrow lips purse in a smile. Under a flattering halo of portrait-studio lighting, his white shirt seems to glow.

Framed by bushy brows, Mahfood's close-set eyes look lost in blissful reverie. In reality recent months have been closer to a nightmare. FFP distributes more than $1.5 million a year in aid to less-developed nations; the subject of the portrait looks every bit the worldly and polished advocate for the poor. Yet this is the same man who last year was found to have embezzled FFP funds and funneled them to two female employees with whom he was having sexual relations.

After such shattering revelations, things could only get better for Food for the Poor, and in a way, they have. Its founder, affectionately known as "Ferdy," was put on a six-month suspension last fall; six weeks later he resigned his position, citing his long-time struggle with bipolar disorder, a severe mental illness characterized by chronic bouts of mania and depression. FFP swiftly contacted the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), an organization that oversees religious nonprofits. (FFP works in cooperation with Catholic parishes in the United States and abroad and is affiliated with the Archdiocese of Miami.)

Under ECFA's supervision, a phalanx of outside accountants and consultants, including a former U.S. attorney, descended on the Deerfield Beach agency like emergency room surgeons on a crash victim. Their treatment included a top-to-bottom audit of the organization and its procedures in the United States and abroad and a regimen of institutional changes FFP has since implemented.

ECFA director Paul Nelson says FFP handled a worst-case scenario with the best possible response. But not everyone is happy with the outcome. Two long-time board members advocated that Ferdinand Mahfood be immediately ousted and prohibited from returning rather than merely suspended. Several top executives spoke out against the board's decision to replace Ferdy with his younger brother, Robin Mahfood, who was then serving as vice president. (Nelson has also expressed discomfort with the choice.) Critics feared Robin might be a puppet for Ferdy or at the least would be seen as such.

These naysayers did not last long. Key employees who opposed the board's decision either were fired or quit. Three high-ranking officers were dismissed after refusing to sign a confidentiality agreement. One subsequently filed a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit.

Then, at the end of 2000, FFP's executive committee forced out three board members -- including the two who recommended Ferdy's permanent removal. The executive committee is composed of Mahfood family members and FFP's in-house attorney, who has taken Ferdy's place on the board.

Meanwhile another legal battle from the troubled final years of Ferdy's leadership looms in the future. In December 1999 former employee Dorothy Atkerson filed a civil suit against FFP in federal court, claiming then-president Ferdy discriminated against her, then fired her, on the basis of her race and religion. The case is scheduled to go to trial in August.

FFP supporters and employees are understandably eager to put their founder's fiasco behind them. Yet in the context of the national debate over President George W. Bush's plan to give federal money to faith-based charities, the organization's troubles take on even greater significance. Closer to home the charity faces the Atkerson lawsuit and an ongoing FBI investigation into Ferdinand Mahfood's diversion of funds to support his two paramours. And despite all of the chaos his indiscretions have wrought, Mahfood appears close to returning to FFP in some capacity. Indeed some people wonder if he ever really left.

Here, down a dim corridor at FFP's Deerfield Beach office, just out of range of his troubled brother's unflinching gaze, is one man who could put such questions to rest.

"Mr. Mahfood won't be out for hours," insists a brusque, bespectacled receptionist named Maryanne for the third and final time.

In other words Robin Mahfood isn't talking to the press.

Ferdinand Mahfood was born in 1937 in Jamaica to a Lebanese Catholic family of shipping magnates. He came upon his fervent faith in midlife and midair, aboard an airplane on a business trip in 1976. In the years to come, Ferdy would turn this fateful flight into anecdote, tossing it out at fundraising meetings. Worn smooth from use, it skipped lightly over the crowd like a stone upon water.

"I probably had the story memorized," chuckles Gary Faysash, a Broward County banker and FFP donor and volunteer. "It didn't really impact me. What impacted me was what he was doing."

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Amy Roe

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