Investigation - Veterans' Charity - Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

Investigation - Veterans' Charity

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The Texas Attorney General's Office is now investigating after FOX 4 exposed a local charity raking in millions of dollars.

The Veterans Support Organization claims to help vets, but FOX 4 questioned where all that money is going.

You would think a charity helping veterans would be eager to talk about what they were doing, but when we started investigating the VSO, the charity bolted.

The charity certainly looks official with the fundraising vans, jackets, signs and slick brochures.

The workers even have a credit card machine.

They ask for your help so they can help veterans by providing a work and housing program, and  North Texas has delivered big time.

"One day last week, I made over $700 just in donations alone, in one bucket in one day," said a VSO representative collecting outside a gas station in Grand Prairie. "People will do anything for our veterans."

He is right about that.

Records show the Veteran's Support Organization brought in a whopping $7 million nationally in fiscal 2012.

The charity is based out of Florida, but we tracked workers to a local office in Richland Hills.  So where is all that money going?

"Are you tied to the Veterans Administration?" FOX 4 reporter Becky Oliver asked one of the VSO workers collecting money.

"Yes," said the worker.

But that is not true.

FOX 4 confirmed there is no affiliation with the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs. 

The charity has only made a handful of local donations, totaling about $6,000 in the past three years.And the rest of it? FOX 4 took a close up look at the group's IRS 990.

It shows the VSO pays the group's president, Richard VanHouten, a nice salary. It is listed as $259,965, while $175,000  goes to office expenses, $501,000 to professional fees, $141,000 to travel, $2.4 million to work program labor and just $46,000 to grants.

"It should be money that is going to the vets," said James Smith, the past chair of the Texas Society of CPAs.

FOX 4 asked Smith to review the charity's accounting.

"The purpose of the 990 is to provide financial details to documents that they are doing what they say they are going to do," said Smith.

"But you are reading this as a professional and saying you cannot figure a lot of this out?" Oliver asked.

"I don't understand how this whole thing works because of the lack of detail and the way the numbers are grouped.

So what does FOX 4 know about the VSO?

Charity Watch, a nonprofit watchdog service, gives the VSO an "F" rating.  It says the program does not help unemployed vets obtain useful skills to help them obtain gainful employment; it simply turns vets into street solicitors.

Additionally, the VA's National Advisory Committee has suspended the VSO because of ongoing state investigations.

FOX 4 tracked the VSO across the country and found South Carolina kicked out the charity, Connecticut suspended the VSO after members of Congress complained to the Federal Trade Commission, Tennessee hit the nonprofit with a $2,000 fine, Florida slapped the company with a fine for hiring felons and misleading the public and North Carolina is now investigating.

"I cannot believe the number of people who were scammed and I helped scam," said a former employee, who said the charity was bringing in about $25,000 a week just in the DFW area, and yet, the housing program they promoted was a disaster.

"At any given time, there were no lights, no water, no gas. It was basically unlivable," said the worker. "They had one in Arlington and Austin."

FOX 4 went to the Arlington house and later tracked down the out-of-state owner. He said he was renting to the VSO but they pulled out and left him with unpaid bills.

Not one person FOX talked to out pushing the buckets was even a veteran, even though this charity claims it is a work program that helps put vets back to work.

FOX 4 also found many could not answer basic questions about the organization and housing program.

We only spotted the president, Richard VanHouten one time back in December. FOX 4 never saw him in Texas again.

We called the Florida office several times and left messages. No one returned our calls.

We also called the Texas Attorney General's Office. Texas law requires a charity helping vets to post a bond and turn over financial information to the Secretary of State.

We checked. There is nothing on file.

So FOX headed to the Richland Hills office looking for a local manager. No one from the VSO was there, but FOX 4 did find the owner of the building, Don Bybee.

"Everything is gone," said Bybee.

Bybee says he thinks the group packed up and moved over the weekend. 

"All their files, computer and all that stuff is missing," Bybee said.

All that is left is a lot of junk and a $3,000 debt.

"They were always behind in their rent," Bybee said.

The VSO in Austin also shut down recently, but the charity's website says the Houston office is still operating.

For more information about donating to charities helping veterans, log on to these websites:

http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=13135

http://dallas.bbb.org/article/veterans-charities-more-accountable-44413

Department of Veterans Affairs

http://www.va.gov/vso/

GuideStar

http://www.guidestar.org/

Have a story idea or a tip that needs investigating?

Contact Becky Oliver:

214-720-3375

iteam@kdfwfox4.com

Facebook:  http://on.fb.me/1od6VC4

Twitter:  http://bit.ly/1fVfCuN

 

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