Brad Pitt and the Bizarre Charity Mess That’s Left Katrina Victims Stranded Again
Owners of faulty homes built by the star’s Make It Right Foundation in New Orleans were relieved when charity Global Green promised $20.5 million for repairs. The only problem: It never had the money.
For the impacted homeowners of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, the August 2022 announcement that they were one step closer to being made whole — with relief coming in the form of a $20.5 million settlement — was long past due.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall 17 years earlier, devastating their neighborhood. But that was just the opening chapter of their misfortune. Their homes had been rebuilt, only to give way to rot, mold and structural defects. Their 2018 class-action lawsuit seeking damages against their original benefactors, the Make It Right Foundation and its leading man, Brad Pitt, languished in Orleans Parish court for years as their properties decayed.
“This has been one long nightmare,” says Albert Matthews, noting that his 91-year-old mother, Marion Bryan, paid the initial deposit on her new house in 2008. He says the residence became so badly compromised that Make It Right built a second one, which also had serious problems. So too, he claims, did a third, constructed by the organization in 2014. Unlike many residents, who were forced to live in substandard conditions, Bryan has stayed with her son. “It’s been very stressful for all of us,” he says. “My mother, she’s never seen the end of the tunnel from Katrina.”
In the summer of 2022, Global Green USA — another charity with Hollywood connections and a track record of helping rebuild in the region — had announced it would step up to pay and administer the $20.5 million, imminently disbursing the funds. “Hopefully this agreement will allow everyone to look ahead to other opportunities to continue to strengthen this proud community in the future,” Pitt told TMZ, as media outlets spread the welcome news.
But The Hollywood Reporter has learned that the deal has since imploded amid recrimination. History has repeated in the Lower Ninth Ward — and yet another well-intentioned and highly publicized plan for these residents has resulted in failure.
According to previously unreported case files, soon after the pact was announced, Global Green attempted to renege, revealing that despite signing on to the court-approved agreement that stipulated all funding would be provided within 10 days, it never had the money to cover its commitment. Furthermore, the nonprofit, which wasn’t required to show the court it was financially sound, asserted it could not effectively fundraise because Pitt’s ex-wife Angelina Jolie had, in unrelated court proceedings, then recently accused the actor of abusing her and their children.
“I’ve never seen a situation like this, where there was a settlement that fell through because it was an insolvent party that proposed it,” marvels Louisiana State University law professor William R. Corbett, an expert in civil procedure.
Pitt’s team rejects any notion that the actor or his reputation are at all to blame for what’s transpired, contending that Global Green is solely responsible for making a promise it didn’t keep. “Brad had supported Global Green many years ago, so when they approached his team stating ‘$20.5M in funding’ had been secured by their ‘generous donors,’ there was interest in considering their proposal,” a Pitt spokesperson at Hiltzik Strategies responded to THR in a written statement. “Global Green represented themselves as having already obtained these funds and planned to use them toward resolving all claims in the ongoing lawsuit for the benefit of the homeowners.” The representative added, “It was incredibly surprising for the plaintiffs, the defendants and their counsel to learn that the funds Global Green claimed multiple times were secured had not in fact been committed or raised. It was equally disappointing to discover payment was not made, though the settlement agreement was specifically negotiated to ensure that litigation would continue without prejudice to any parties if the settlement were to fail.”
For his part, Global Green CEO Bill Bridge, who agreed to reply to THR‘s inquiries by email, portrayed his nonprofit as a pure-of-heart entity having been brought into “the snake pit” by a high-stakes, even higher-pressure settlement process that’s left it with mounting legal fees, under a contempt order and scrambling to obtain a court-ordered surety bond to cover the $20.5 million. (A surety is a guarantee of one party’s debt by another.) “Global Green was willing to make every effort to raise the funds, but when it wasn’t fast enough or to the level those parties required, Global Green became the scapegoat for what essentially has been the failure of the parties to resolve the matter,” he explained.
The plaintiffs’ attorney didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did counsel for Make It Right.
THR‘s further scrutiny of Global Green for this coverage points to additional overlooked red flags at the nonprofit, long a centerpiece of the entertainment industry’s philanthropic interest in environmentalism. These include declining financial contributions in recent years and questions concerning its governance protocols.
Matt Petersen, who led Global Green from 1994 to 2013, was a board member until 2017, and oversaw its New Orleans initiatives after Katrina, including work done in tandem with Pitt, is disappointed to hear of what’s occurred in the Make It Right matter. “I simply can’t understand why Global Green would make a hollow commitment to pay the settlement so Make It Right homeowners could repair their homes when Global Green didn’t have the resources to begin with,” says Petersen, who’s now president of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator. “That is just reprehensible to leave those homeowners holding the bag and betrays the legacy of Global Green.”
Make It Right, whose initial funding included bequests from the likes of the late film financier Steve Bing ($5 million) as well as American Idol ($10 million), began as the feel-good story of the post-Katrina era. Halo-headlined articles (“Brad Pitt’s Gifts,” “Brad the Builder in New Orleans”) described how the star — who along with his then-wife Jolie had adopted the city as his hometown, purchasing a French Quarter mansion — was leading an ambitious effort to erect a planned 150 environmentally sensitive, design-conscious houses in the stormwater-devastated Lower Ninth Ward, a largely working-class African American neighborhood that was a focus of Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke.
“I just saw what needed to be done,” Pitt told Architectural Digest in 2009, two years after Make It Right began, “and I said, ‘Why not?’ ” Pitt, who broke ground on the project alongside former President Bill Clinton, enlisted a roster of Pritzker Prize-winning architects, including Frank Gehry, Shigeru Ban and Thom Mayne.
In time, though, Make It Right’s beneficence encountered stark reality, both for the new homeowners — these weren’t gifts; the residents had taken out mortgages — as well as for Pitt. “We went into it incredibly naive,” he explained to New Orleans paper The Times-Picayune in 2015. “Just thinking we can build homes — how hard is that? — and not understanding forgivable loan structures and family financial counseling and getting the rights to lots and HUD grants and so on and so forth. So it’s been a big learning curve.”
By 2018, a class-action lawsuit against Make It Right and its heads alleged that many of the houses (109 had been built) were shoddily constructed with substandard materials, prompting rot, mold and structural damage, along with other issues ranging from faulty ventilation and electrical malfunctions to plumbing issues. Pitt asked the judge to absolve him from personal liability — to no avail.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Ron Austin, observed at the time that the nonprofit leaders’ aura of good intentions may have shielded them from more expeditious scrutiny. “I think they were able to get away with it because of who they were, because the residents were very grateful with Make It Right stepping in and showing interest in their community,” he said.
Outside of court, Make It Right essentially no longer exists. Its headquarters have been abandoned, phone numbers disconnected, website gone. The Orleans Parish Sheriff in recent years has reportedly seized multiple Make It Right-owned properties because of unpaid city fees.
Global Green USA — an affiliate of Green Cross International, the charity founded by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1993 whose worldwide mission framework includes aiding people affected by environmental catastrophes — also actively participated in the area’s hurricane recovery alongside Make It Right. This included developing a small number of its own eco-friendly homes in another part of the Lower Ninth Ward (which have not faced complaints about the quality of their construction), as well as helping to shape the green-energy policy of Louisiana’s public school system, working primarily with the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans.
Global Green itself has long cultivated Hollywood, leaning into the intersection of celebrity and sustainability. For years, it threw pre-Oscar fundraising bashes that were must-stops for the likes of Adrian Grenier, Ed Begley Jr. and Moby. The organization also assembled an A-list honorary board, which at various times included Leonardo DiCaprio, Norman Lear, Yoko Ono, Ted Turner and Robert Redford.
Recent years, though, have seen an apparent steady decline in the organization’s support and programming efforts. Gifts, grants and contributions dropped by more than 36 percent between 2017 and 2021, the latest available year of its IRS documentation. The nonprofit, which had previously outlined its accomplishments in detail, has by its own admission narrowed its services “significantly” during the same period. (It pointed to the pandemic’s government shutdowns and global travel restrictions as contributing to the drawdown. Bridge now adds that “there were changes in board leadership, funding, personnel, and a dramatic decrease in government funding during the Trump administration, which required the organization to narrow its work.”)
Three people familiar with Global Green’s operations at this time tell THR that the organization had trouble maintaining its existing donor base and difficulty securing new individual and institutional patrons. They also say that in two instances, private philanthropic foundations, Kresge and JPB, discontinued their relationships with the nonprofit when they discovered that restricted grants had been used for general operating expenses. The JPB Foundation didn’t return a request for comment. The Kresge Foundation said in a statement that its multiyear grant, awarded in 2017, “was terminated after the first year due to concerns about Global Green’s financial viability and governance practices at that time. Kresge awarded a new grant to The Greater New Orleans Foundation, which subsequently supported green-infrastructure education efforts formerly housed at Global Green.”
In 2020 and 2021, the most recent two years of Global Green’s IRS statements, the organization reported that its financials weren’t independently audited. (Its Louisiana-based tax preparer didn’t return a request for comment.) CharityWatch, a nonprofit monitor, considers this a red flag since an outside party hasn’t scrutinized whether its published numbers are accurate and internal controls are effective.
“The lack of an independent audit is not a minor detail,” explains CharityWatch executive director Laurie Styron. “Charities often omit a lot of unflattering information about themselves in their tax filings that can only be discovered by analyzing their audits,” she says. “For example, audits are required to include information about any legal issues a charity is having if they are likely to result in a material financial liability. If an audit doesn’t exist, then a lot of accountability and public disclosure is lost.”
In August 2022, after a four-year legal battle, the judge in the class-action suit approved a settlement. The surprise was that Global Green had quietly swooped in to fund the $20.5 million bill. According to court papers, the nonprofit committed to resolving residents’ claims through its Community & Climate Action Center, based in Holy Cross, another hurricane-impacted neighborhood immediately adjoining the Lower Ninth Ward. “Global Green will promptly pay the funds,” Bridge wrote in April to Make It Right’s Board.
Pitt — who along with Make It Right and its insurers would be relieved by the settlement — told TMZ, “I am incredibly grateful for Global Green’s willingness to step up and provide this important support for the Lower Ninth families. We collaborated in the early days post-Katrina and we are very fortunate to have Global Green’s generous continuing commitment to help address the challenges around these homes and others in need.”
Yet the agreement quickly foundered when the judge’s appointed special masters (responsible for identifying potential claimants and discharging the terms of the settlement) observed that none of the promised funds had been transferred within the required 10-day deadline. Soon, Global Green’s attorney circulated a letter, taking issue with the special masters’ fees as well as the timeliness decree. “Given the long-term nature of this project, the reasonable approach would be for funds to be managed in tranches based on a schedule-as-needed,” the letter said, adding that “all concerned must account for reality.”
As it turned out, Global Green didn’t have the money; instead, it revealed it was in the process of attempting to raise it. Furthermore, it cast doubt on that possibility due to what it claimed was the PR fallout from Jolie’s allegations against Pitt of abusive behavior during their marriage, which first became public in August 2022 and which Pitt denies. “Global Green USA’s ability to continue to raise funds from individual donors, the corporate community, and foundations has recently encountered significant limitations given current unfavorable press towards Brad Pitt,” the nonprofit’s lawyer wrote, without explicitly referencing Jolie’s claims. “That unfavorable press is causing some corporate donors and individual supporters to be reluctant to participate.”
Pitt attended a private Global Green dinner held in Beverly Hills with members of its board as well as its donors in September. “It’s sad that Global Green would blame others for their own inability to raise the funds that they had already claimed were obtained,” Pitt’s spokesperson responds to THR, adding: “Global Green’s eagerness to associate with Brad and try to utilize him for their fundraising purposes remained consistent throughout last year — including, an unauthorized auction using Brad’s name announced via THR in early September, and the organization securing over $200k in donations from board members meeting Brad at a non-fundraising dinner in late September.” (Bridge says the funds are being applied to various settlement-related costs.)
In the litigation, Global Green’s counsel wrote that, given the Pitt dilemma, its board was now “working towards bringing on additional ‘brand partners’ (e.g., celebrities/influencers/sports figures) to help balance the public relations and press needed for this endeavor until Brad Pitt is beyond this current negative press.” These outreach efforts included Serena Williams. Her representatives tell THR she passed on the opportunity.
Bridge approached Pitt’s team in February 2022 with an offer to help. What transpired between that overture and the judge-approved settlement in August is in dispute.
“I’m sure we could get funding and it would allow Pitt to clean up his reputation,” Bridge earlier emailed Mary Rickard, then Global Green’s senior project manager for New Orleans, referring to the tainted legacy of Make It Right and its impact on the star. (Bridge also forwarded Rickard a recently published academic’s analysis of Make It Right’s failures.) “Or — do you think it’s too much of a wild card?” He thought Global Green could turn its building in adjacent Holy Cross into a base of operations. Bridge later circulated a “Project Narrative” document, which outlined a plan to take “a phased approach to rebuilding” in partnership with Pitt “via dedicated press push and media exclusive opportunity.”
Rickard, herself a satisfied owner of one of the sustainable neighborhood dwellings that Global Green built years earlier, tells THR she was skeptical of the complexity and ambition of Bridge’s initiative from the outset, since at the time the water and light bills weren’t paid for the Holy Cross building and its tax bill was in arrears. (Bridge ascribes these issues to, respectively, pandemic-era complications and a clerical mix-up.) “He’s not very disciplined — but he’s always got a good story,” says Rickard, who left her position that April, by her account in frustration, after several months’ tenure.
Pitt’s business associates welcomed the idea of assistance from Global Green, in part because the star had a history of working on New Orleans efforts in tandem with the nonprofit’s previous CEO. In documentation obtained by THR, Bridge also repeatedly stated that he’d lined up support from major corporate partners for philanthropic work in the Lower Ninth Ward, eventually naming Wells Fargo, BlackRock, UBS and the Walmart Foundation in writing as “funders who have committed.” When contacted, none of these institutions affirmed they’d ever pledged money; Wells Fargo noted it hadn’t donated to Global Green since 2018 and “there were no conversations in 2022.”
For his part, Bridge now contends that “at no time did we indicate there was any guarantee or financial commitment at that stage of the conversation and that further due diligence, discussions and actions requiring Mr. Pitt’s involvement would be needed.” He says his nonprofit approached the other parties “in good faith” to “raise funds (over time) in support, but in a realistic and collaborative manner.”
That April, Bridge signed a letter to representatives for Make It Right and Pitt that Global Green had “secured $20,500,000 in funding from its generous donors” and stood ready to “resolve all claims in the lawsuit.” He tells THR the reason he used such emphatic language is that he was told by Pitt’s team that his previous draft of the letter was not strong enough: “We were presented with a red-lined version of our original letter reflecting more of a ‘guarantee’ related to the funds. We agreed to the red-lined version in blind faith that all parties would support each other to get to the end game.” Bridge now acknowledges the money wasn’t yet in hand, but claims others involved in the incipient discussions knew it: “Global Green repeatedly told Mr. Pitt’s associates that it would be unable to raise those funds as quickly as was being demanded by the defendants and plaintiffs in the settlement agreement, and we were essentially told not to worry about that element, which was just a formality to get the agreement signed so that the fundraising project could move forward.”
As for the judge-approved settlement, Bridge paints himself and his organization again as having walked a plank. “On multiple occasions I was personally reassured, as was our then-board chair, ‘not to worry’ about the terms and conditions of the actual agreement we were signing with the parties involved, and to ‘just sign it’ so we could start the process of raising money,” he says. “We did so reluctantly, but again in good faith with the assurance by the parties involved that we would not have to meet the 10-day condition in the agreement, to which we had objected.”
Pitt’s team flatly denies this. His spokesperson insists, “Counsel for both the plaintiffs and defendants followed up with extensive diligence over several months. A written settlement was created, signed by Global Green and approved by all parties including the Court, which required Global Green to pay the full $20.5 million within 10 business days of the agreement’s execution or otherwise risk being held in contempt of court.”
It’s unclear even to seasoned legal observers why nobody involved in the case — not the plaintiffs’ attorney, nor the defendants’ respective counselors and advisers, nor the judge, Richard Perque — compelled Global Green to show it could uphold its end of the deal at the outset by furnishing proof of funds. (Perque, who holds a temporary position, is fresh to the bench; when the preliminary approval for the settlement was filed with the court clerk, it was his second day on the job.) “It does seem naive,” says professor David Levine, a class action expert at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco. “You wouldn’t do it for a $10,000 auto settlement.”
According to court papers, from the time that Global Green made its pledge, numerous homeowners had been holding off on continuing to fix their properties until they could be inspected under the terms of the agreement, and had also been taking time off work to have affidavits executed so they could be reimbursed for money they’d already spent on repairs over the years. (More than 100 people attended a late-August meeting at which Bridge spoke.) “If Global Green does not fund the settlement, as it is contractually bound to do, these homeowners will suffer immeasurable stress, anxiety and other emotions which will be physically harmful to them,” argued Austin, the plaintiffs’ counsel, in a November filing.
Bridge, in his own direct written plea to the court afterward, claimed Global Green had entered “in good faith” into the agreement — even if “in hindsight, regrettably” this led to the signing of a “very restrictive” 10-day funding provision that was “untenable.” Still, he insisted that his organization had “made it clear from the beginning of its discussions that raising this large sum of money would require adequate time to identify and secure individual and corporate donors.” He added that Global Green’s board chair, Vered Nisim — by his characterization, centrally involved in deal negotiations — had submitted her resignation. Given what he termed her function “as the principal lead in the effort” to secure the agreed funding, it was not possible for the nonprofit to raise it now — especially “in such a short period of time.” (Nisim tells THR her role in the Make It Right settlement process was minimal.)
“Global Green never saw itself as a third party that intended to inherit the entire burden and risks associated with what has been eight years of litigation between the plaintiffs and defendants, but rather to operate as a good faith vehicle using our name, brand, and history in New Orleans to help raise the funds to end the dispute in the best interests of those residents who live, or have lived, in the Make It Right Foundation homes in New Orleans,” Bridge wrote. “That has been our sole objective from the beginning, but sadly we believe we have become the scapegoat of others as a result of miscommunication, misunderstandings, and perhaps admittedly some naivete on our part with all parties involved in this unfortunate matter.” When the judge asked these other parties to propose a solution, Pitt, like his fellow defendants, backed away. “Mr. Pitt lacks sufficient information to suggest a modified funding structure and takes no position on what, if any, modification to the funding structure should be approved at this time,” his attorney responded in December.
The judge soon ordered Global Green to work to secure $10 million in two months toward the settlement, with the court then reevaluating funding for the remaining $10.5 million. The nonprofit was also ordered to report on its funding efforts every 30 days. Per IRS filings, Global Green’s biggest donors in recent years had only given a few hundred thousand dollars.
On March 29, the judge signaled he’d lost confidence in Global Green’s intervention, allowing the homeowners’ class-action litigation against Pitt and Make It Right to again move forward. He also scheduled an Oct. 2 contempt hearing against Global Green.
Austin, the class-action plaintiffs’ attorney, had sent Lower Ninth Ward homeowners a letter earlier in March updating them on the settlement’s status. He observed it was Pitt’s team that vouched for Global Green in the first place and explained that the actor himself testified under oath during a recent case status conference that “he was essentially too busy to participate in any fundraising efforts to help fund the settlement.”
Pitt’s spokesperson — asserting the actor has personally donated more than $6 million to the Make It Right cause since its inception — responds, “Brad was never under any obligation to donate his own money, attend fundraisers or solicit contributions from donors,” and adds, “Brad has dedicated significant time and resources over the past 15 years to supporting residents of the Lower Ninth as they recover from Hurricane Katrina. We are hopeful that Global Green will find a way to honor their commitment before the contempt hearing in October, and that these homeowners can receive the support they need.”
For Linda Santi, owner of a problem-plagued, Gehry-designed Make It Right house, word of this latest fiasco is par for the course: “Am I surprised that it all went south? No. Am I surprised that things got convoluted, like some confederacy-of-dunces sequel? No. Am I disappointed? Yes.”
At press time, Bridge maintains that “the settlement is funded,” insisting an unidentified benefactor with purported “deep family ties” to New Orleans recently pledged to back a surety bond for $20.5 million the court ordered of Global Green in December. “We are in the final underwriting process,” he explains. Bridge adds that his organization plans to launch a GoFundMe campaign on April 22, Earth Day, to support the overall project of repair efforts. “Global Green remains committed to bringing to the table” donors to alleviate the Make It Right homeowner problems, he says, “with or without Mr. Pitt’s involvement.”
As the litigation begins again, with no end in sight, the Make It Right homeowners wait, doing their best to maintain their properties. Says another affected resident, Byron Jackson, “I really am not optimistic. It’s pretty sad that a lot of people have to be on these mortgages and these fucked-up houses.” He pauses a beat, then adds mordantly: “The American Dream, ya know?”
This story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.