SEATTLE — A preeminent Seattle nonprofit dedicated to helping African immigrants, is embroiled in scandal, in-fighting and legal wrangling in what could be the largest alleged case of charity fraud in Washington state history.
On Dec. 16, a King County Superior Court Commissioner issued an order agreeing there was evidence of “misappropriation and theft” of funds by 44-year-old Issa Ndiaye, the founder and longtime executive director of the West African Community Council (WACC) – a Seattle-based nonprofit. After a decade of service and leadership, including donating his family home to the WACC, Ndiaye was ousted that day.
Last week, dozens of West African citizens took to the streets surrounding the WACC in Seattle’s Rainier Valley to protest the loss of Ndiaye. Some were parents who are now refusing to send their children to the WACC preschool. Others were former WACC schoolteachers who quit after his ouster.
“I have been working with him for three years now and I quit my job,” said Yaawa Touba, an early learning specialist at WACC. “We don’t want strangers around (running the nonprofit). We want Issa back.”
“He worked hard, he donated, he gave up his job. This was his house that he bought for his family, he gave it up for the West African Community to gain,” said Oum Tall. “So now they want to take it away. For what? Allegations.”
The WACC has served more than 4,000 West African immigrants over the last decade. Fueled by grants from King County and the cities of Seattle, Kent and Renton, WACC provides food and rental assistance, free immigration legal aid by staff attorneys and early educational services, including a preschool and in-home visits for children under the age of three.
“(Issa has) helped me a lot. He’s helped my family a lot with assistance and guidance. If I ever need anything like tutors (for school) he would help me,” said 18-year-old Mouhammed Sarr at the rally. “He’s a great leader. If we lose him that would be a huge loss for our community.”
In the last year, legal filings by Ndiaye and WACC board members led a King County judge to appoint an outsider – a legal custodian - known as a receiver, to take over the operation. That led to a discovery in December: financial and legal records show Executive Director Ndiaye had opened a secret WACC bank account in 2014, with hundreds of thousands of dollars passing through it every few months.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this was not being done transparently. (The account) wasn’t being reported to government agencies. And certainly, wasn’t turned over to me, which was the court’s order,” said Seattle attorney Dan Bugbee, the court-appointed receiver.
Bank records show donations poured into the off-the-books account from groups such as Boeing, Group Health, Edward Jones financial services, United Way of King County, and the Seattle Foundation. Instead of going directly toward services provided through established WACC programs, records show Ndiaye made purchases with the donated money that don’t appear to support immigrant families in need, such as airplane tickets, and a $3,000 purchase at Lexus of Bellevue.
But the vast majority of the money was transferred from the WACC bank account to a personal account of Ndiaye’s. Financial records show the transfers started in small amounts but picked up through the years to regular deposits of $50,000 and $100,000. As charitable donations came into the WACC account, nearly $2.5 million was transferred to Ndiaye’s account over an eight-year period, according to documents filed in the case involving the receivership.
“It was shocking,” said Dr. Jonathan Mvududu, the interim WACC executive director who was appointed by the receiver. “We can’t deny that he created an amazing organization. He’s an amazing and charismatic person (but) It would be sad to deprive over 4,000 community members because of the behavior of one individual. WACC is not Issa. Issa is not WACC. The community is bigger than him.”
Ndiaye's side of the story
Legal filings by Ndiaye paint a picture of a leader running a side account in an effort to help families with “sensitive immigration statuses.” In a declaration to the court on Dec. 19, Ndiaye said some members of the West African immigrant community are distrustful of the government and don’t want their information used in WACC programs supported by county and city grants.
“That is why I transferred money from the “slush fund” to my personal account so those folks would understand the help is coming directly from me and not WACC or government funding,” Ndiaye said in the declaration.
Ndiaye told KING 5 nothing he did was to enrich himself.
“I did the right thing for my community,” Ndiaye said.
“Mr. Nydiaye maintains, strongly, emphatically maintains that not a single cent is missing and that every single cent went to the community, not to himself,” said Nydiaye’s attorney Jeff Wheat. “It was a way of moving money around that wasn’t part of their main books, and would not get WACC in trouble (by helping undocumented immigrants).”
Ndiaye is an immigrant from Senegal with a long list of accomplishments. He speaks three languages, has a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Washington and serves on the King County Immigrant and Refugee Commission. He’s also forged strong government alliances to lift up West African immigrants. In 2021, then-Mayor Jenny Durkan toured the WACC alongside Ndiaye to announced full city of Seattle funding for WACC’s preschool programs.
Prior to founding WACC, Ndiaye was an auditor for the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Veteran Affairs. The position includes investigating allegations of fraud, waste and abuse.
Once money from the WACC account made it to Ndiaye’s personal bank account, financial documents show the funds were spent on a variety of investments, purchases and cash transactions. Some examples include:
- $10,957 to an architecture design firm
- $25,274 to Dania Furniture
- $35,000 toward the purchase of the Saran African Market in Kent. Secretary of State records show Ndiaye is the registered agent of the market.
- $41,000 for down payments on three residential homes in Seattle
- $50,000 to Sedra Trading Company, an Ethiopian-based pharmaceutical company
- $254,772 to a company called Weathertech, LLC
- $495,798 in checks written to Ndiaye
- $538,000 in checks written to Ndiaye’s brother
Ndiaye’s attorney, Jeff Wheat, said his client can and will explain every transaction.
“It could have been something akin to money laundering, I don’t know,” said Wheat. “(But) I don’t see a Ferrari. I don’t see a Mickey Mantle rookie card. I don’t see any of the markers or red flags that I personally would associate with misappropriation, living high off the hog. Stealing money from children and using it on yourself, that’s not what I see here,” said Wheat.
In the meantime, services at the WACC continue. Dozens of people showed up Thursday for the WACC’s weekly food bank distribution. Others in need say they are staying away while the organization is run by the receiver and interim director, who is an immigrant from Zimbabwe, not from West Africa.
“We don’t want anybody else who doesn’t know about the reality, the culture of the West African people to run this place,” said Yakhya Dious at last week’s protest. “We want the West African community to run this place.”
The temporary leadership team said they will be putting together a board that will include members from the West African community. They also said they are working hard to gain trust with the community, assure donors that all funds are being accounted for, and to keep Ndiaye’s original vision alive.
“Regardless of what it’s alleged he has done this is his legacy and it will be unfair to try to pretend otherwise. He started this, he grew it to where it was and there’s room to actually make it bigger,” said Mvududu, the interim director. “We have to keep (WACC) going. Because what will happen to those 4,000 families who are relying on it if we don’t?”
“Right now what the community needs to know is that the WACC continues. It will continue and no matter who’s leading it the WACC’s mission is the WACC’s mission,” Bugbee, the receiver, said. “The preservation of the West African Community Council is the number one priority here.”
Investigations into the alleged fraud are underway by the receiver and the Charitable Asset Protection Team of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.