Alleged Internet scandal leaves Haiti charity in limbo
Last June, Matt Gunn quit his teaching job at Mt. Logan Middle School, sold his home and moved to Leogane, a province of earthquake-shattered Haiti, to develop a village with adobe-style homes, running water, a small mercantile and a school.
In less than six months, with financing from embattled Utah millionaire Jeremy Johnson, Gunn was able to build "L'Espoir de Haiti," a four-classroom school for more than two dozen orphans who, a year after the quake, still live in tents.
Gunn had hoped to turn the school into a self-sustaining agricultural center, where children would learn to raise chickens and cultivate bees and tilapia fish, feeding their families in the process. He also had planned to bring his wife and four kids to live with him overseas.
But political unrest stemming from Haiti's failed presidential and legislative elections forced Gunn to return to Utah in November. And his hopes of going back to Haiti were dashed when Johnson, the school's benefactor, was sued by the Federal Trade Commission.
"I got a text from Johnson saying his accounts had been frozen and there was no more money," said Gunn, who is now living in St. George in his stepfather's home.
Johnson did not respond to attempts to reach him for comment. He, his company I Works and 60 other entities are alleged to have taken $275 million since 2006 in a "massive Internet scam," according to a federal court document.
Despite the setback,Gunn said his focus is on completing a deal to turn the school and its assets over to a charity in Idaho.
"I'm just worried about making sure these kids are taken care of," said the 34-year-old.
Gunn's reurbanization project was supposed to start with self-help housing, in which Haitians would build their own earthbag homes.
But families in Leogane said what they wanted most was a school, said Gunn. "Keep in mind that these kids were eating one meal a day at this time, had no toilet, were fetching water, and were either orphaned or abandoned by their parents."
Gunn wouldn't discuss the school's finances, referring those questions to Johnson.
Initially, the school's construction was financed by Utah Haiti Relief, an organization formed by Johnson and the Wade Family Foundation to fund relief flights to Haiti after the quake. But the foundation, a charitable arm of the Stephen Wade Auto Group in St. George, parted ways with Johnson, said Gunn. "I don't know the details, but we changed names and most of my money, my salary, came straight from Jeremy."
Utahhaitirelief.org is still taking donations, which went toward construction of a shelter for women who lost husbands in the quake, said Eric Sorenson with the Wade Family Foundation.
Located on property just outside Port-au-Prince that was loaned to the group by the Enfante Jesus orphanage, the shelter is home to 100 women and children at any one time, said Sorenson, who hopes to soon break ground on a medical clinic. "Most of our money comes from private business owners. We're not a formal organization, just a bunch of guys who go down there and do as much good as we can and who are exhausted by the time we leave."