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relates to Sean Penn’s Disaster-Relief Charity Ended Up a Money Mess
Photo illustration: 731; Photos: Penn: Chris Pizzello/AP Photo; Textures: Alamy (4)
The Big Take

Sean Penn’s Disaster-Relief Charity Ended Up a Money Mess

CORE saved American lives during the pandemic. Employees say it has also failed to shield them from alleged sexual harassment or address financial mismanagement.

Sean Penn didn’t have to do any of this. His biggest supporters and detractors can agree on that. A little over a year ago, his party at Soho Beach House, a private club in Miami Beach, was the hottest event at Art Basel, the annual international fair. The beachfront venue was packed with around 200 of the actor-turned-activist’s friends and acquaintances, including Leonardo DiCaprio, pop star Anitta and Delphine Arnault, heir to the biggest fortune on Earth. Later in the evening, Anitta sang Girl From Rio, and a charity auction raffled off NFTs and an Andy Warhol sketch. All told, the party raised $1.6 million for Penn’s nonprofit, CORE Response, that invitations and promotional materials said was earmarked for its Covid relief efforts in Latin America. A CORE employee involved in the fundraising says Anitta hosted the event on the condition that some of the money would go to her home country of Brazil, the only place in the region where CORE had any Covid relief programs of note around that time. The backdrop for the event was a massive map showing where CORE promised to put the money to use.

Besides being a fundraiser, this was a sort of victory lap for Penn’s nonprofit. During the pandemic, CORE transformed with incredible speed from a Caribbean-focused disaster relief charity with around a dozen employees into the de facto Covid response team for Los Angeles. It raised close to $200 million; put 3,000-plus people on its payroll, more employees than the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and co-ran the testing site at Dodger Stadium, among the largest in the US. Through the pandemic’s darkest days, CORE administered millions of tests and vaccines and saved lives. When the delta variant ebbed, it wound down much of its ground-level staffing in Los Angeles and other US cities and started looking for new challenges. The Latin America fundraiser shows how it has struggled to find clear new footing and stick to it.