Leon H. Sullivan Foundation: the implosion of a legacy

by Chad Bouchard

The Washington Post

A soldier in olive fatigues pulled Hope Masters into a corrugated metal trailer, locked the door and dropped the key on the floor. He reeked of chewing tobacco and beer.

“?Como se llama?” he asked Masters, who barely understands Spanish.

He moved closer, backing her into a corner of the checkpoint guard station at the edge of Sipopo, outside the capital of Equatorial Guinea. There were no chairs, only a grubby woolen blanket on a shipping pallet and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. There was no doorknob on the inside.

“?Como se llama?”

Masters shifted her weight from one boot to the other, trying to ease the pain in her blistered feet. At 5-foot-11 (180 cm), she towered over the guard. He was in his mid-20s, almost half her age, and his teeth were rotting. But he was the one with a gun.

In English, Masters tried to explain how her driver was late to pick her up from a grocery store in Malabo, so she decided to walk back 8 km to the lavish conference compound where she was a guest of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Her phone was dead. She had forgotten her identification back at the villa.

“?Como se llama?”

The soldier shook his head at her and clicked his tongue. With the barrel of his Kalashnikov, he pulled down the collar of her shirt. He turned and left, bolting the door behind him.

Masters paced the length of the trailer — and prayed. “I said, ‘OK, God, I get it. I pushed my luck. EG is a not a good place.’ It was an awakening,” she recalled in a recent interview.

She thought of her dead father, Leon H. Sullivan. It was Sullivan, a charismatic Baptist minister who had devoted his life to social justice in Africa, whose legacy she carried as president of the foundation that bore his name.

It was his memory that had brought her to Equatorial Guinea.

Sullivan had wanted to heal what he saw as a divide between Africans and African- Americans. The larger-than-life figure from a poor West Virginia family came to represent the blending of business and human rights interests in Africa. His “Sullivan Principles” are still considered a gold standard for corporate ethics overseas.

After Sullivan died in 2001, Masters’ organization became the torchbearer for that vision. Ex-presidents and Beltway royalty joined. Bill Clinton was honorary co-chairman. Andrew Young became chairman of the board.

Masters was in Equatorial Guinea to host the foundation’s 2012 summit, a multimillion-dollar event just weeks away featuring celebrity guests and corporate sponsors. Already there was controversy: The government of Equatorial Guinea is among the longest uninterrupted dictatorships on the continent known for rampant corruption, impunity and abuses of power. And now this abusive guard, as if to prove her critics’ point.

After two hours, she persuaded the guard to let her open her bag and show him a newspaper photo of her with Equatorial Guinea’s president. The guard released her, and the disputed summit went on. By the time it ended, Hope Masters had suffered the worst professional crisis of her life, and an esteemed nonprofit fell to ashes. But the foundation’s struggles took root long before last summer’s controversy.

When Leon Sullivan called for boycotts in Philadelphia, or demanded unity among delegates at African summits, his speeches were pitched high, in the mold of civil rights sermons of the 1960s.

In the late 1950s, he pried open doors for African-American workers. He organized boycotts against companies that wouldn’t hire black workers. He launched the Opportunities Industrialization Centers to train workers and get them jobs. The OIC expanded to Africa. Then, in the 1980s, he founded the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help to tackle big development barriers such as illiteracy and preventable diseases.

In 1991, Sullivan held the first summit in Cote d’Ivoire, an event he planned from a hospital bed because he contracted a life-threatening infection that left three fingers paralyzed. The meeting drew African governments and U.S. business leaders together, and led to dual citizenship for African-Americans in Cote d’Ivoire. He also campaigned for debt relief from the United States and France, resulting in billions in forgiven debt for sub-Saharan Africa.

Hope Masters, the youngest of his three children, remembers tagging along as a recent law school graduate during that first summit, in awe of her father’s resolve.

After becoming the first African-American board member of General Motors, Sullivan turned his attention to South Africa. While others called for a boycott over apartheid, Sullivan urged companies in South Africa to retain and hire black workers. As he had in Philadelphia, he focused on the creation of a black middle class through job training and education.

When her father died from leukemia in 2001, Hope Masters (then Hope Sullivan), along with Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador and former mayor of Atlanta, launched the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation to raise money and support the nonprofit organizations Sullivan had founded. With no training in management, Hope took up the mantle reluctantly, at the request of family advisers.

Buoyed by Sullivan’s reputation and Young’s civil rights prestige, the new foundation pulled in high-profile support, with Clinton and other heavyweights beefing up the board, including lawyer Johnnie Cochran, Time Warner’s then-chief executive Richard Parsons, Chevron’s then-chief executive David J. O’Reilly, former Federal Reserve Board member Andrew Brimmer, former Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater and former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman.

In 2005, Hope Sullivan married one of the board members, international banker Carlton Masters, who with Young had founded GoodWorks International, a lobbying firm that represents U.S. business and congressional interests for African clients such as Angola, Benin and Tanzania. Equatorial Guinea has never been one of the firm’s clients. Masters resigned from the Sullivan Foundation board to avoid conflicts of interest with family.

At its peak, just two years after its launch, the foundation reaped $5.2 million in donations, mainly from Chevron, one of the biggest investors in Africa oil production, as well as General Motors and Coca-Cola.

The organization’s summits carried on Leon Sullivan’s vision, bringing African leaders together with potential investors and African-Americans who wanted to contribute to African development. The summits were well regarded among African leaders, and took advantage of Young’s and Carlton Masters’ extensive connections on the continent.

The foundation scored top-shelf guests for its exclusive Beltway events. Panels and award ceremonies featured African leaders such as former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo — who hosted Hope Sullivan and Carlton Masters’ wedding — Ghana’s former President John Kufuor and South African President Jacob Zuma. Former President George W. Bush and former U.S. Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice also attended. In 2009, the foundation held a ceremony at the Kennedy Center that honored actress and Africa rights activist Mia Farrow, among others. Tux- and gown-resplendent guests sipped cocktails on the terrace. The next year’s awards party at the Mandarin Oriental brought Stevie Wonder, with entertainment by The Temptations.

Hope Masters said round-table sessions with African presidents were meant to help the leaders share perspectives with policymakers in the developed world. The foundation also spent money on ground-level aid projects, such as a relief program with Opportunities Industrialization Centers to help women displaced in Louisiana because of Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, the Sullivan Foundation donated $22,000 to Medshare International, which distributes surplus medical supplies to areas in need. These direct-aid projects represented a small portion of the foundation’s overall spending, however.

By the time the foundation selected Equatorial Guinea for its 2012 summit, it had garnered a dubious reputation for its lavish parties, an image that clashed with the realities of impoverished African nations. Human rights groups were already skeptical of the foundation’s goals, and other Africa-focused groups in town, competitors in the small world of D.C.’s African nonprofits, were quietly critical.

Less known was that between 2003 and 2011, donations had dropped off and the foundation had spent down its entire nest egg, according to public tax filings. By 2012, coffers were drained. While spending big on public events, the organization was struggling to stay solvent.

In June 2012, Hope and Carlton Masters threw a party in their Chevy Chase, Maryland, home using their own money, with President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and former President Kufuor of Ghana attending. Guests were treated to valet parking and Jamaican food, nibbled poolside.

Recently, Masters asked why her organization would be singled out for hosting such events, when scores of other Washington organizations hold galas to raise money and project an elite image for donors. “We were among the first of Africanist groups to have fundraisers with that level of elegance in our home. I think it makes people uncomfortable when it’s black people” displaying wealth conspicuously, Masters said.

Still, she said she should have anticipated taking heat for throwing an extravagant event while hosting Obiang, who is known for flaunting wealth. “It was my fault for not being sensitive to those optics.”

GoodWorks and her husband saved the foundation from insolvency several times. A look at 10 years of tax records shows $185,000 in loans from Masters and $175,000 from GoodWorks. The total amount was just a fraction of the foundation’s yearly budgets, but some loans were granted without review of the board, a practice that, while not illegal, raises eyebrows among charity watchers.

“It gives more power and influence to the interested party because they could always threaten to pull the loan,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch.

Masters insists that an “iron wall” has always existed between the two entities’ business dealings. She said the loans were paid off and they didn’t influence her decisions.

Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, sees a conflict. “You cannot get a better illustration of conflicts of interests than that the Leon Sullivan Foundation operates out of the office of a group of lobbyists that have lined their pockets with the ill-gotten gains of a dictatorship like Angola,” he said.

Masters said she moved into the GoodWorks office in 2011 because she could no longer afford to pay rent at the Sullivan Foundation’s former office one block west on K Street. She maintains that the two entities were not intertwined financially but acknowledges that the foundation took advantage of high-level African government contacts that Carlton Masters and Andrew Young gained as part of their work with the firm.

GoodWorks’ lobbying disclosures reveal that a number of the firm’s clients, including Nigeria and Tanzania, hosted summits for the Sullivan Foundation, using the occasion to polish images tarnished by allegations of pervasive corruption. Chevron and Coca-Cola are clients of GoodWorks and have given millions to the Sullivan Foundation.

In May, Carlton Masters was appointed representative to the African Union for Jamaica, and has scaled back his role with GoodWorks. Young has retired from the company and from the Sullivan Foundation, and now focuses on his own foundation in Atlanta. Several attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Both men have ties to the embattled Southern Africa Enterprise Development Fund, which, The New York Times recently reported, has lost 60 percent of its value since 2009 amid poor management and shady dealings. Young led the fund for many years but left it in 2012. Carlton Masters is the current chairman, and the fund is in arbitration proceedings with a management firm that says it was stiffed for $1.4 million. The fund countered with a charge that the firm’s executives inappropriately overpaid themselves.

Well before the Chevy Chase party, the Sullivan Foundation had come under fire for honoring Obiang as a “champion of Africa.”

Under Obiang’s 34-year rule, political opposition has been quashed, oil revenue secreted away and press freedom constrained to a vanishing point. Rich oil reserves were discovered in the 1990s, making the country one of the wealthiest nations in Africa at a per capita GDP of about $30,000, but the money has yet to trickle down to the 736,000 people, with 76.8 percent of them living under the poverty line, according to World Bank figures.

In October 2011, the foundation announced plans to hand an award to Obiang, who then held the presidency of the African Union. When activists pointed out that the announcement could be interpreted to mean that Obiang, and not the African Union, was receiving the award personally, the organization dismissed the confusion as the result of a “HORRIFYING mistake.”

Two months after the ceremony, confusion continued as the Equatorial Guinean Embassy’s Flickr page said, “Obiang receives Sullivan Honor,” and a Washington Post blogger reported that “Dictator Obiang collects an award once given to Clinton, Bush.”

The human rights group EG Justice sent a letter criticizing Obiang’s inclusion in releases about the award and the Sullivan Foundation’s failure to denounce human rights violations under his regime.

Months later, word spread of the organization’s plans to hold its annual summit in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea. Human rights groups again denounced the foundation. Masters did not respond.

From a crowded office in the Empire State Building in New York, Halvorssen and his staff spent weeks preparing a verbal assault. In a letter addressed to Masters and Young, Halvorssen called for the foundation to cancel the summit. The foundation had “not once made reference to [Obiang's] appalling and well-documented record of corruption and human rights abuse,” the letter said.

Again, there was no response. A day later, Halvorssen’s team started contacting speakers and guests directly, demanding that they cancel plans to attend.

Masters finally lashed back with tweets accusing critics of “yellow journalism,” lies and racism. A radio interview with Gloria Minott on WPFW turned into a shouting match.

“In retrospect, I shouldn’t have said anything,” Masters said.

Masters said her staff on the ground in Malabo had encouraged her not to read the letter, saying it would only upset her in the middle of tense summit preparations. Her public relations head, Aly Z. Ramji, had “a policy of no interviews,” Masters said. Ramji did not respond to requests for comment.

Why did she never mention human rights abuses?

“I think I should have,” Masters said. “I really don’t think I was trying to hide it or anything. I didn’t want it to be a whole political thing.”

Within days, the guest list fell to 1,000 from 4,000. VIPs abandoned ship. All of the summit’s sponsors, including longtime supporter Coca-Cola, withdrew.

Clinton’s name as honorary co-chairman disappeared from the website without explanation. Masters said Clinton requested that, but on 2011 tax returns, he remained an honorary co-chairman. A press officer for Clinton said he could not comment because of the “high volume of requests.”

The conference budget was $6.7 million, and nearly half, $3 million, was to be paid by the host government, an arrangement similar to that of previous summits. But as bookings evaporated, Masters said, the government reneged on several promises, including payment on about $500,000 in hotel costs and tens of thousands of dollars for items such as printing and signage. Masters said two of her staffers, en route to fly home, were pulled off the plane and detained by bus company employees for three hours because of a disagreement over a bill for transportation.

In an interview in April at her husband’s K Street office, as Masters recalled her ordeal at the checkpoint, she said she silently asked her father for forgiveness. She hoped he would understand how she had gotten in over her head. In his activism, he had made his intentions clear and stood against injustice. In Sipopo, her messages fell short of his example.

She said she avoided criticizing Obiang publicly because he had signed resolutions on youth, environment and “human consumption” at the summit, declaring that “ensuring and protecting human rights are imperative to the future of Africa and her people.” Masters said she saw that as a sign of change.

George Ayittey, a native of Ghana and member of the Human Rights Foundation’s international council, said Masters’ approach to activism is rooted in American history. “For African-Americans, the solution for advancing civil rights has come from working within government. But for many black Africans, we see our government as the problem,” Ayittey said.

Masters recognized that the gulf in perspective between her and African-born rights advocates such as Ayittey drives deep differences over whether to work with African leaders despite rights violations. “He’s right,” she said. “I can never understand what he went through growing up. I try, but I can’t.”

To pay off the organization’s remaining debts, including ones to Carlton Masters, Hope has a new plan. She’s talking about starting a for-profit marketing consultancy called Full Circle. Her first project will be to handle a social media campaign for a charity program sponsored by the WNBA women’s basketball team the Los Angeles Sparks. She was slated to join an aid trip to an orphanage in Haiti with Mission Results this month. She said it’s part of her attempt to “hit the reset button,” for her reputation and for the focus of her work.

Masters is unsure about the fate of the Sullivan Foundation or future African summits.

In March, the Sullivan Foundation’s website featured a defiant quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, amid pictures of African children smiling at the camera: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”

Then a countdown clock marking the minutes to the foundation’s rebirth wound down to zero and stuck there. Now there is a new page. The Sullivan Foundation’s rights to its domain name, the page announces, appear to have lapsed.

  • Jeffrey

    This kind of says it all right here.

    “It was my fault for not being sensitive to those optics.”

    What kind of person talks like this?