Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

Was Canadian ex-resettlement agency chief fooled by staff? Or was he manipulative, controlling and unwilling to countenance dissent?

Posted by Christopher Coen on April 3, 2012

The intent of this blog to make it seem that refugee resettlement agencies are somehow corrupt in general – most are not – but rather to look at cases that involve valid criticism. The case of the collapsed Canadian refugee/immigrant agency, SISO, in Hamilton, Ontario is a case that offers a glimpse into what can go wrong when things do go wrong.

Morteza Jafarpour, who founded and headed the agency is apparently a man of contrasts. Early in his adult life he spent three of his formative years in an infamous Iranian prison as an enemy of the fledgling Islamic republic – apparently for being an atheist and speaking out against human rights abuses. Later, he immigrated to Canada as a refugee, delivered pizzas to survive, and later from the ground up spearheaded a campaign to make Hamilton, Ontario an immigration destination – with no doubt, the associated economic vitality sought by community leaders. The agency had a spectacular rise along with an equally spectacular implosion in 2010, involving charges of $4-million embezzled from the Canadian federal government. Jafarpour claims that two staff members fooled him and the refugee agency’s board and its auditors about the alleged siphoning of funds, and he merely, unwittingly, signed off on fake invoices (is that degree of incompetence believable?). As well, people report Jafarpour’s good qualities, his charisma and being highly knowledgeable. During the midst of the agency’s collapse he adopted two children of a former agency client who was viciously murdered by her ex-husband. Yet, others describe the Mercedes-driving Jafarpour as not only charismatic, but also as “manipulative, controlling” and unwilling to countenance dissent – as a person who “charms you, then controls you and leaves you in the dark.”

Former managers claim they raised financial red flags about the organization, which senior managers ignored or resisted. What is the truth? We’ll find out more during and after the upcoming trial. In the meantime an article at the Hamilton Spectator has many new details:

Morteza Jafarpour believes fraudsters stole a “significant amount of money” from SISO while he was in charge of Hamilton’s largest immigrant settlement agency.

But the embattled 52-year-old is adamant he had nothing to do with the crime… a “sophisticated series of schemes” over several years defrauded …the [Canadian] federal government of more than $4 million. The fraud was pulled off, police say, through faked invoices, payroll and employee information.

I found out two of my staff were stealing money from SISO, extensively,” said Jafarpour…“Unfortunately, I didn’t know anything about that.”

Jafarpour said he never witnessed or suspected criminal wrongdoing at SISO while he was at the helm…

…When asked how he missed the alleged siphoning of funds, Jafarpour said he was fooled along with SISO’s board and its auditors, adding that if he unwittingly signed off on fake invoices, he’ll take responsibility for his mistakes.

He’s confident he’ll prove his innocence, however.

I am a proud refugee, a proud Canadian, and I am going to fight,”…

…The Iranian refugee’s first stint behind bars is what led him to his vocation and relocation.

Jafarpour has often told the story about when, in 1983 as a 23-year-old student activist, he was locked up and beaten inside Tehran’s infamous Evin prison. He spent almost three years there, apparently for being an atheist and speaking out against human rights abuses following the 1979 revolution that ousted the monarchy and turned his homeland into an Islamic republic ruled by clerics.

It was a formative experience for Jafarpour…

…The second time Jafarpour was in a jail cell… was in 2010…on a charge of uttering a death threat against a SISO coworker…[the charge was] ultimately withdrawn by the Crown.

Steve Varey doesn’t believe the latest charges will stick, either.

All the SISO drama, the charges, it’s set me back, made me sad,” said the retired Scotiabank vice-president. “But I’ll buy you three martinis and a pretty good steak if he’s ever convicted of anything.”

Varey first met Jafarpour more than a decade ago through the Bay Area Leadership program, a volunteer leadership training initiative. He wasn’t initially a big fan of the passionate newcomer advocate who always showed up late for meetings. “We thought very little of each other for a while,” said Varey with a laugh.

But eventually, Varey said, he bought into Jafarpour’s vision of making the city Canada’s immigration destination. “At some point I thought, ‘Wow, this guy holds the key to the future of Hamilton,’” he said. “Morteza, I thought, was the one leading that charge.”…

…Varey claims no knowledge of the financial details involved in SISO’s spectacular flame-out, which included $1.4 million in improper or invalid expenses found through federal audits even before the RCMP laid fraud charges.

Varey said all he can do is look at his personal interactions with the former SISO head.

He pointed to the Jafarpour family’s decision in 2010, in the midst of growing financial woes at SISO, to adopt two children of Muruwet Tuncer, a former agency client who was viciously murdered by her ex-husband…

…Several former SISO employees told The Spectator they feel betrayed by Jafarpour, not to mention the rest of the senior managers and the board of the bankrupt agency…

…Ahmed Mohammed said he understands why some people remain fiercely loyal to Jafarpour, even after SISO’s demise.

I cannot deny it, I thought he was a very good guy for a very long time,” said Mohammed, a manager in SISO’s resettlement assistance program until 2009. “He is knowledgeable, he is charismatic, you want to believe what he says … The guy seemed to be the perfect success story of a new Canadian.”

But Mohammed said over nine years he learned his boss was also “manipulative, controlling” and unwilling to countenance dissent.

He charms you, then controls you and leaves you in the dark,” Mohammed said. “And if you disagreed with what he was doing, you had to leave.”

Mohammed, who now works in a similar capacity for Wesley Urban Ministries, said he was laid off from SISO in 2009, shortly after he brought “financial irregularities” to the attention of senior managers and the board.

Other former managers, such as Liban Abdi, say they also raised financial red flags about the organization in 2009 that were ignored or “resisted by senior managers.”…

…[Jafarpour] feels the media has prejudged his case. He said he’s looking forward to “the full story” coming out at trial.

He doesn’t think he’ll ever see the inside of a cell again.

You may question my style of managing SISO … my ability to run an organization. These are performance issues we can argue about,” he said. “If I have done anything wrong, I will take my part for that … But I am not going to go down. At the end of this story, my head will be up.” Read more here

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