Filled with idealism and some trepidation, Mona Ayoub bought a plane ticket this summer to fly from her homeland in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon to Colorado and bundled up her $2,000 in savings at the behest of Andrew Baron, the chief executive of the Boulder-based charity Humanwire.
Baron told her he needed her to help him stabilize his nonprofit, which was managing refugee campaigns for displaced Syrians living in three continents, Ayoub told The Denver Post in a recent interview. Baron promised her temporary housing in his family home and help getting a work visa. He told her she would work as his accountant, and then she would get to crisscross the United States helping him unleash what he described as the unlimited potential of Humanwire, Ayoub said.
Now, she is practically homeless, living in a room provided by strangers. She said Baron, 47, turned against her after she became convinced he was fleecing his charity. A Longmont family, one of many disenchanted donors to Humanwire, agreed to take her in. And Ayoub now counts herself as one in a long string of former Humanwire workers, donors, volunteers and refugees who say they've been left devastated by an elaborate scam perpetrated by Baron, whom they describe as a con man.
"It is like I'm in a Hollywood movie," said Ayoub, 26. "It's like a really bad experience for me. I didn't ever expect that he is like this. I never expected that he is this type of people. He surprised me. I was shocked. I felt like I was betrayed because I trusted him a lot. I called him a brother to me, but no, he was thinking a different way."
"I feel like I am a refugee now in the United States."
She once was a key ally of Baron's in Lebanon, documenting the plight of Syrian refugees who had fled to Lebanon and photographing refugee families. The tragic stories and photos of refugees were posted on Humanwire's website to solicit money from donors, who gave nearly $1 million in two years. Ayoub said she saw troubling signs when she was in Lebanon. Delays in aid to refugees started occurring. Humanwire stopped paying her salary and the salaries of other staffers in Lebanon. She says she agreed, at Baron's insistence, to fly from Lebanon to Boulder to help him prepare the nonprofit's tax filing and to help find out what had gone awry. She says she wanted to believe the best. Weeks after her arrival in Boulder, she defended Baron, agreeing to accompany him when he met with a reporter wanting to know why promised aid for refugees had been delayed.
Ayoub said that not long after that interview, she found evidence as she went through the bank records of accounts connected to Humanwire that Baron had been pilfering from the charity he created two years ago. She is now a key witness for Boulder prosecutors, who last month charged Baron with felony counts of charity fraud and the theft of $130,000 that donors gave Humanwire to provide housing and food for refugees the Syrian war had displaced to Lebanon, Greece and Turkey.
Ayoub said she secretly recorded a conversation she had with Baron and then turned the recording over to Boulder police as evidence.
"He was trying to put me in a very bad situation over here," Ayoub said in a recent interview. "He was trying to destroy me over here because I discovered all these things. He was threatening me."
Last week, Boulder District Court Judge Marizela Cano ordered Baron, as part of his pretrial conditions, to refrain from soliciting or accepting donations for Humanwire. Baron's lawyers, Gary Zolow and Lara Baker, said their client is adhering to those conditions.
"Mr. Baron has facilitated the raising of considerable funds for the benefit of the displaced populations in Lebanon, Turkey and Greece," the lawyers said in a prepared statement. "That effort was a humanitarian plan to alleviate a multitude of housing, medical and related problems for those affected by war.
"It has run afoul of lack of business expertise, but no lack of good faith. Mr. Baron trusts the criminal justice system will get to the bottom line of measuring good faith charitable endeavors by accomplishments rather than flawed bookkeeping."
But a Boulder police report states that despite Baron promising that 100 percent of Humanwire donations would go to intended refugee families, he took at least $130,000 of the donations for his own personal expenses.
Baron diverted money from two accounts that received donations and pledges for Humanwire and put that money into a personal account, authorities allege. He then used that personal account to pay for restaurants, airline tickets, gas, groceries, out-of-state and out-of-country travel, children's activities, retail purchases and utility payments, police said.
The criminal charges against Baron followed an investigative report in The Denver Post on the practices of Humanwire. While Baron was diverting the money from his charity, delays in promised aid to refugees began to occur, The Post investigation found. Amid those withdrawals, more than 100 refugees who had been promised aid from Humanwire faced evictions and other deprivations, according to interviews The Post conducted with former Humanwire volunteers, workers and donors.
A former volunteer, Anna Segur, who was helping Humanwire's campaign in Greece, first brought concerns about the nonprofit's activities to The Post and the Boulder County District Attorney's office, which prompted an investigation. Eventually, Ayoub also began assisting authorities. Baron has defended the withdrawals as justified because he was due a salary, but no salary diversions were ever approved by the nonprofit's board of directors. Donors have said they were misled.
Ayoub says that once she got to Boulder, she pleaded for Baron to pay the $19,000 he owed her for her work and expenses for nearly two years in Lebanon. He had been persuasive before her move to Boulder, traveling to Lebanon to meet her. After her arrival, though, he continually rebuffed her, she said, telling her the charity had run out of money. As she delved into the financial records, a disturbing picture emerged.
"I told him, you took $130,000 for yourself," Ayoub said of one confrontation. "He started crying and said, ‘How will I get all that back?' and I told him, ‘Why don't you get a job and pay it back?' He said, ‘I cannot leave Humanwire. It will crash and burn.' He said, ‘I don't want to do this.'"
She met Baron a final time and confronted him over his broken promises to her and all the refugees and donors and other workers. He told her he would pay her what he owed, she said, but pressured her to sign a document promising that she would not help the police unless they compelled her to do so. Secretly, Ayoub was recording the conversation.
The next day she resigned from Humanwire and then days later turned the recording over to Boulder Police Detective Traci Cravitz. She posted on her Instagram account what she had discovered about the nonprofit. Baron began sending her threatening e-mails, threatening to sue and telling her that he would accuse her of theft if she did not delete her post, she said. In one email, Baron accused her of being "motivated by profit, vengeance and deceit," and of stealing. Baron claimed Ayoub did not receive her salary in Lebanon because she was a business investor "banking on a return on their investment." Baron still has not paid Ayoub any of the money.
"I hope that everything will be fine, and that he will get the punishment he deserves," Ayoub said. "He needs to pay the money back or sit in jail. There are damages on everybody, first on the refugees, second on the hosts, then on the employees, and also the people in between. Everyone is getting damaged in one way or another."