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Beware of Help-a-Vet Mail Scams

Some Portraits from the Hall of Shame


Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sucker Lists: Memorial Day arrived Monday, followed on Tuesday by a fresh batch of help-a-vet scam letters in my friend Paul’s mailbox.

Paul (not his real name) is a Vietnam veteran, and even though he doesn’t have much to donate, by doing so, he’s gotten on every sucker list in the book.

I’ve checked some of these patriotic appeals and found that many range from outright rackets to those that collect millions but devote little to those who sacrificed so much. Yet the good-hearted Americans who write the checks have no idea that often most of the money goes to expensive fundraising outfits, and to those who draw fat $100,000-plus salaries operating scams with noble-sounding names.

Barney Brantingham

You doubt? Then check out reliable nonprofits like CharityWatch and Charity Navigator that try to ride herd on military and other scam outfits. Many organizations, of course, do good work for vets and don’t waste an obscenely high percentage of donations on fundraising. I’m glad to hear that because I’m a veteran, too.

Then there’s CharityWatch’s Hall of Shame, which describes people like Roger Chapin, who founded more than 30 charities and advocacy projects during the past 44 years, richening himself in the process.

A Congressional investigation revealed that while raising $168 million between 2004 and 2006, through his Help Hospitalized Veterans (HHV) and Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, only 25 percent went to veterans, while Chapin and his wife received $1.5 million in compensation, plus $340,000 to cover restaurant, hotel, and other “expenses.”

Another $446,000 of the huckster charity take went to buy a condo for Chapin and his wife. He promoted his promotions by enlisting the Iraq War’s General Tommy Franks, not mentioning that he paid Franks $100,000 for the endorsement. Other celebrities have also been used to beat the drum for scam artists.

When Chapin retired from Help Hospitalized Veterans in 2009, he rewarded himself with a $1.9-million payout. According to CharityWatch, he continues as president of the Coalition outfit and a new one he founded, Help Wounded Heroes. But perhaps the biggest single benefactor of the millions naïve Americans sent to Chapin was the $14 million he gave to longtime friend and famed direct-mail king Richard Viguerie for HHV campaigns.

Then there’s the guy who set up a “phantom charity” called the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. Using an identity he stole, he bilked donors out of nearly $100 million over seven years, then went on the lam in 2010 when authorities got wise. There’s little evidence that he gave much to veterans.

Calling himself “Bobby Thompson,” he claimed that the charity had been around since 1927, was run by ex-military men, and had dozens of chapters and 66,000 members. Actually, CharityWatch said, it was a one-man outfit run by a man with no apparent military record, operating from a Florida duplex. Notes of praise from veterans on its website were apparently copied from other organizations.

Still, he was raking in the dough until exposed by the St. Petersburg Times. “John Doe” told the paper, “We are a great charity,” and accused the S.P. Times of “character assassination” and “McCarthy-like witch hunts.” Despite his denials, records show that he spread campaign funds around among top Florida officials, including the governor. Most agreed to donate the money to vet organizations after “John Doe” was exposed. An associate, Blanca Contreras, pleaded guilty to charges of corruption, theft, and money laundering and is serving a five-year prison jolt. “John Doe” was arrested in Portland on April 30.

CNN recently reported that a national charity that vows to help disabled veterans and their families spent tens of millions on marketing but little went to the veterans themselves from the $55.9 million it received since it began operations in 2007. CharityWatch awarded an “F” failing grade to the Disabled Veterans National Foundation.

Of the more than 30 veterans’ charities rated by CharityWatch, based on how much they spent on fundraising compared with their actual donations, two-thirds got “D” or “F” grades.

Meanwhile, veterans need help. Many are battling post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness, and an estimated 1,000 former soldiers receiving care from the Department of Veterans Affairs attempt suicide every month, according to Huffington Post.

And meanwhile, scam letters keep pouring into Paul’s mailbox. If you’re not positive that your money is going to the right place and not being skimmed off, find a needy vet and gave him or her a hand.

Encore!: The best original play I’ve seen in years is Santa Barbara talent Rod Lathim’s moving drama Unfinished Business, performed last weekend at Center Stage Theater. Rod also directed. It’s based on his mother’s dying day and deserves more stage time whenever he can arrange it.

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