• 9 Investigates: Veterans charity faces scrutiny in NC

    By: Mark Becker


    CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A charity that claims to help veterans that has already been banned from soliciting in South Carolina is now facing scrutiny in North Carolina as well.

    North Carolina's secretary of state has sent a subpoena asking the Veteran's Support Organization for records to determine if the people raising money for it are employees of the charity or paid solicitors—the same issue that got it in trouble with South Carolina's secretary of state.

    The organization, based in Florida, has been panhandling at Charlotte's Douglas Airport and other locations—claiming to raise money to help provide jobs and housing for veterans.

    According to financial reports posted on the group's website they raised more than $8 million in 2010, and spent more than $6.5 million of that on programs. But the majority of that, $4.5 million, went to a work program that paid solicitors—most, but not all of them, veterans—an arrangement that raised questions among charity watchdog groups.

    "Are these people paid promoters, paid solicitors that are holding that bucket out, or is this somebody that's actually benefiting from being in their program?" asked Tom Bartholomy, president of Charlotte's Better Business Bureau.

    It's a question that also got the attention of South Carolina Secretary of State Mark Hammond, and in September South Carolina became the first state to ban the Veterans Support Organization from soliciting in that state for 15 years.

    "I felt like the only way we could truly protect the donors was to rid the state of this organization and they agreed to the 15-year ban," Hammond said.

    But a woman who was raising money for the Veteran's Support Organization at Charlotte's Douglas Airport had a different perspective.

    "All I can tell you is they've given me a job and I really needed a job and that's what they've given me," said Lynn Cochrane, who referred any further questions to the group's headquarters.
    The manager of the office on Queen City Drive, off Interstate 85, said he could not comment either and referred us instead to a public relations office in Florida.

    In an email, a spokesman said in part, "VSO prefers to provide the local struggling Veteran or American a job of raising donations, rather than hiring a professional fund raising company," wrote Justin Wells, a US Army veteran.

    "If not for the income generated from VSO's work program, many of these individuals would be homeless or at risk of being homeless," Wells said.

    But the Veterans Support Organization has raised some questions among veterans groups in Charlotte.

    "They play on the sympathy of the American people, and that's what the bad thing is--using the American veterans for that," said Lloyd Patterson, commander of VFW Post 1160 on Central Avenue in Charlotte, where Joe Barkley is a member.

    "They shouldn't even be out there using the veterans' name--taking money up," Barkley said.

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