Nikki Tesfai, a 53-year-old native of Ethiopia, defrauded the African Community Resource Center of more than $1 million to benefit herself, her relatives and her boyfriend, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
The Beverly Hills resident was being held in lieu of $1.5-million bail Friday and faces up to 15 years in prison.
"The money set up a lifestyle," said Jane Robison, a district attorney's spokeswoman. "She was a member at one time of the Beverly Hills Country Club. Her children attend respected private schools."
After a four-year investigation, prosecutors allege that Tesfai expropriated to herself and relatives buildings acquired to shelter immigrants and put her housemaid on the resource center's payroll. Three co-defendants also have been arrested.
Tesfai, also known as Nigisti Tesfai, was once the darling of the local African refugee movement. She arrived in Los Angeles in 1984 and formed the agency with the support of county Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke.
Since then, Tesfai has claimed to have helped 52,000 African refugees through the center's battered women, homeless aid and children's group home programs. Much of the operating money for the center came from state, local and federal contracts and grants.
Tesfai was cited as the "Phenomenal Woman of the Month" by Winfrey in the January 2002 issue of her magazine, O.
Robison said the center bought several properties to use as group homes for children but never operated them as such. In one case, she said, a Long Beach property purchased with resource center funds was transferred to Tesfai's boyfriend, Kurt Rivas, who also is charged in the case.
Prosecutors allege that Tesfai and her brother, Isaac Tesfaye, whose last name is spelled differently from his sister's, forged documents to put a South Gate apartment building owned by the agency in her name.
Tesfai and a third co-defendant, Marine Panossian, filed a false reimbursement claim with the state Department of Housing and Community Development for construction that was never completed on another agency house, originally intended as a homeless shelter, prosecutors said. The shelter never opened.
Investigators also allege that the resource center paid $18,000 over three years to Tesfai's housekeeper.
During their investigation, prosecutors said, they discovered that much of the educational background Tesfai claimed in applying for funding was overstated or false, an allegation first raised by L.A. Weekly in 2004.
Tesfai claimed a doctorate and other degrees from universities in Switzerland, Texas and Florida. None of the schools list her as a graduate, prosecutors said.
Tesfai, Rivas and Panossian are scheduled to be arraigned Monday.
Tesfaye, who was arrested Thursday in Virginia, is to be arraigned later.