Nearly six months after the 2015 World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates was to take place in Atlanta and almost a year after it was moved to Barcelona, its organizer has come forward to explain what happened to the $1.3 million in sponsorship and donation funds the event received before it was relocated.
Vinings resident Mohammad Bhuiyan, Ph.D., the organizer, said he could not speak publicly until now because he had to wait until the lawyers representing the summit and/or himself worked out the legal issues of any settlements or lawsuit filed by the organization donating funds.
Bhuiyan also serves as president and CEO of Yunus Creative Lab Inc., a southeast Cobb County-based nonprofit promoting youth and female empowerment and world peace and he and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus founded. Bhuiyan, who was selected by Yunus to organize the summit, said he was limited in what he could say publicly because of the directors’ and officers’ insurance policy that indemnifies leaders of an organization or business if legal action is brought against them.
The summit, an annual gathering of peacemakers, was expected to draw to Atlanta 26 past Nobel Peace Prize winners and 20,000 people, and was to take place in downtown Atlanta in November. But in June, the permanent secretariat of the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, the Rome, Italy-based nonprofit that originally chose Atlanta as the host city, decided to move the event to Barcelona after months of infighting between Bhuiyan and Atlanta leaders, including Mayor Kasim Reed. A request for an interview with Reed to get his side of the story was not granted at press time.
Bhuiyan said he and his wife Shamima are disappointed the summit could not be held in Atlanta but happy all of the donors have been offered settlements or refunds of the sponsorship funds and all but one of the 21 organizations and individuals making donations has accepted his offer.
“My wife and I value and live by the principles of honesty, integrity, transparency and helping others,” Bhuiyan said in a prepared statement. “We could not realize that refusing to hire Mayor Kasim Reed’s friend as the main event planner for the summit without [a] competitive bidding process would actually destroy the biggest summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. However, we are very pleased to report that we have refunded money for the summit to all foreign sponsors, all VIP registrants and all domestic sponsors (except the city) and all issues have been resolved to their full satisfaction. All gala attendees are also getting their share of money back.”
Bhuiyan was referring to Reed asking him in 2014 to hire Rick Jasculca, chairman and CEO of Jasculca Terman and Associates, a Chicago-based public affairs firm, as the summit’s event planner. In March 2015 letters to and from Reed, Bhuiyan said all companies wanting to handle the summit’s event planning had to go through a competitive bidding process, but Reed insisted Jasculca be hired instead. Bhuiyan, who is from Bangladesh, also accused Reed of racism.
Yunus Creative had reimbursed sponsors and donors on a pro rata basis, meaning each donor would be refunded some or all monies based on its share of the total sponsorship fund amount, to all but one of the main sponsors had already accepted a settlement agreement with the summit funds. according to an April 20 letter from John H. Goselin, a partner with the southeast Cobb County-based law firm of Freeman Mathis & Gary. The letter also said the gala attendees wanting refunds had to respond to the letter by April 29 to get their money back or it would be used to cover Yunus Creative’s expenses.
The two biggest donors, downtown Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and Sandy Springs-based UPS, committed $500,000 and $300,000 in sponsorship funds, respectively, Bhuiyan said. But Coca-Cola and UPS reached settlement agreements on their funds in April and February, respectively, each for an undisclosed amount, their spokeswomen said.
Yunus Creative was sued by the Fulbright Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit seeking to get its $25,000 sponsorship back, in October. In February the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice. Fulbright filed suit against Bhuiyan, individually, and Yunus Creative. The parties then held settlement discussions and reached a settlement agreement. Fulbright’s claims against Bhuiyan, individually, and Yunus Creative Labs were then dismissed (at separate times) pursuant to the agreement of the parties.
The remaining funds include a portion of the donations about 700 individuals made for a $500-a-plate dinner gala at the InterContinental Hotel in Buckhead. Yunus Creative could have used an event planner, 4 A Great Cause, to host the event, but it would have cost $357,800, which would have forced the event to lose $15,000 for the summit. Instead, Bhuyian and his wife planned the event themselves for much less, and that is why Yunus Creative offered each gala participant a refund of $101.50, according to Goselin’s letter.
In the letter Goselin said a local bank held the summit monies and an accounting firm was chosen to keep track of them.
"The structure that was originally established to ensure the proper handling of the funds has never been altered or diminished and remains in place today," he said.
Bhuiyan said Yunus Creative used some of the sponsorship funds to pay for operational costs, legal fees and penalties to the Georgia World Congress Center and hotels in downtown Atlanta for cancelling their reservations.
Bhuiyan said the only organization not to accept the refund/settlement offer was the city of Atlanta, which donated $25,000 through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which it owns. Bhuiyan said the city is holding out as a political ploy by Reed.
Though they were accused by some of holding onto the sponsorship funds, Bhuiyan said he and his wife have not received a penny. In 2014 they took a two-year leave of absence from their high-paying administrative jobs with Tuskegee University in Alabama — he as executive vice president and she as chief of staff — to devote all their time to the summit.
In a statement, he said, “My wife and I have suffered the biggest loss for not having the summit in Atlanta. We gave up our … jobs for the summit with the noble intention of doing good for world peace. We have yet to receive any money for the work we did for the summit. But we have certainly received plenty of vicious personal attacks and threats from Mayor Reed and his accomplices.”
In an interview, Bhuiyan also said, “The amount of money my wife and I gave up by quitting our jobs was close to the total collection of the summit,” adding he and his wife were not compensated for the 20,000-plus miles they drove around the state and elsewhere to promote the summit and attend meetings.
Bhuiyan also said he and Yunus Creative were open about the funds, pointing to a January 2015 letter from the nonprofit’s accountant, William C. Lankford Jr. of Moore Stephens Tiller LLC in Sandy Springs, that said “this is one of the most transparent and secure arrangements of nonprofit entity funds that I have seen.”
Bhuiyan said the effort to keep the summit in Atlanta failed when Reed complained to Ekaterina Zagladina and Enzo Cursio, the secretariat’s president and vice president, respectively, with concerns over his leadership in organizing the summit, citing letters as proof.
In an effort to keep the summit in Atlanta, Yunus wanted to send Bhuiyan to a meeting with the secretariat's office in Rome in May 2015, but Cursio refused to have him there. Yunus resigned because of that plus negative publicity in Bangladesh, his home country, and what Bhuiyan called a false article on the issue by an Atlanta media outlet.
Bhuiyan blamed Reed for the summit being moved, pointing to the fact that the mayor in March 2015 told one Atlanta media outlet if the secretariat were to move the summit to another city, he could live with that outcome.
Bhuiyan said he hopes to resolve the remaining refund/settlement issues by this summer and return to work after that.