By Guy Adams | The Independent (UK) | http://bit.ly/be7BSo
photo: MARTIN GODWIN - Yolande Beckles in 2006 during the filming of her BBC TV series
Sunday, 14 February 2010 -- A disgraced education "guru" and reality TV star, who vanished from Britain after becoming embroiled in a string of financial scandals, has resurfaced in Hollywood, where she is being sued by a former landlady and faces a police investigation into allegations of theft.
Yolande Beckles, who shot to fame as the larger-than-life star of a BBC documentary called Don't Mess With Miss Beckles, telling disaffected teenagers how they could turn their lives around by working hard and "kicking butt", is also now at the centre of an inquiry into rumoured financial mismanagement at a Los Angeles school.
The news comes four years after Ms Beckles first fell from grace, when reporters investigating her TV show discovered that she'd previously been sacked from a charity in dubious circumstances and was behind several failed educational companies that had collapsed, leaving creditors saddled with huge debts.
It also follows a front-page scandal that occurred when she took thousands of pounds from disadvantaged children to pay for an overseas trip that never happened, before being taken to court by a London private school over her daughter's unpaid fees.
In 2008, Ms Beckles suddenly disappeared from the UK, leaving behind unpaid bills and county court judgments. Now she has re-emerged in Los Angeles. And to the dismay of former victims – one of whom runs a website called "Beckleswatch", chronicling her "nefarious" activities – she appears to be up to old tricks.
She has recently founded a new firm, Think Global Kids, which operates on exactly the same basis as her previous ones: it seeks grants and financial donations from public authorities and generous philanthropists to help reform the school system and help underprivileged youngsters.
Where this money will actually end up is less clear, however. In a video posted on its slick website, Ms Beckles talks vaguely about running special classes for inner-city kids, and boasts that "one British woman is fighting for the future of America's children".
Behind the scenes, the firm has already become embroiled in controversy, though. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which runs the city's schools, is investigating its dealings with Rosewood Elementary, where Ms Beckles sends her son Euan.
The IoS understands that parents at the school have alerted the authorities after becoming worried by the school's management and its relationship with Think Global Kids.
They are also apparently concerned that Ms Beckles had persuaded the school's headteacher, Linda Kaye-Crowder, to make her director of its parent centre, a job that carries some fundraising duties. "Letting someone with her track record raise money for a school is like putting a wolf in charge of a hen house," said one.
Ms Kaye-Crowder did not return several calls regarding Ms Beckles and Think Global Kids. A spokesman for the LAUSD, Ellen T Morgan, said: "The district is currently looking at various concerns surrounding Rosewood, and until we gather all the facts surrounding this matter any comment would be premature."
On the personal front, meanwhile, Ms Beckles also has serious clouds on her horizon. She is about to be sued by her former landlady, Olivia Goodson-Shields, who rented a room to her for the first three months of last year, and claims to be owed almost $20,000 in unpaid rent and bills.
Ms Goodson-Shields contacted LA police after watching a video on the Think Global Kids website, in which Ms Beckles appears to be wearing a distinctive necklace similar to one that had mysteriously disappeared from her home.
"To say that woman has ruined my life is an understatement," she said yesterday. "Because of her, I've lost my home and my car. Everything about her is fishy, and when I saw the necklace I wasn't in the least bit surprised. I'm amazed that she is still in the country, let alone in business."
After Ms Beckles left her house, Ms Goodson-Shields said she discovered that she had run up thousands of dollars in unpaid phone bills. Cheques written to cover her rent bounced. Debt collection notices began arriving from two major banks and a string of store-card companies with whom Ms Beckles had set up accounts.
"She's a con woman who can be very charismatic, but time and time again ends up running away without paying her bills," Ms Goodson-Shields said.
The controversy is true to form for Ms Beckles, whose BBC show became embroiled in scandal when newspapers discovered tha in 1999 she had been sacked by the Windsor Fellowship, a charity based in Hackney. Ms Beckles was accused of financial mismanagement, using a work credit card to pay for a dress and goods from Sainsbury's, funnelling £5,000 to her mother, and giving herself an unauthorised loan of £5,000. She appealed against the sacking, but lost at an employment tribunal.
Reporters also found that in 2003, her educational firm Global Graduates had collapsed, owing £125,000 and leaving students who had paid hundreds of pounds to go on its courses in limbo. She has also been involved in three companies that were struck off the Companies House register, and 19 county court judgments had been made against her businesses, totalling £68,708.
Born in London to Trinidadian parents in 1962, Ms Beckles left school at 18 and enjoyed a career in management before moving into the education sector. Most of her failed companies tapped into myriad grants available to organisations that help to educate underprivileged and ethnic minority children.
That money wasn't always spent in the way it should have been, however. In 2007, she featured on the front page of London's Evening Standard after she took £12,000 from the families of under-privileged children from Hackney to fund an educational trip to the Caribbean, and promptly disappeared to South Korea, where she was attending a convention of the Moonies.
A few months later, Ms Beckles was taken to court by Bickley Park School in Bromley, southeast London, for not paying her daughter's fees. Shortly after that, she vanished completely.
This week the IoS tracked her down to a small rented apartment on North Poinsettia Place in Hollywood. Asked about Think Global Kids, her financial affairs, her relationship with Rosewood Elementary and the allegations raised by Ms Goodson-Shields, she responded: "Go away. Do not call me. Put your questions in writing, in an email, and I will respond to them."
A list of questions was emailed to her. At the time of going to press, she had not replied.