Controversy over veterans-aid solicitors
Commissioners, DVF talk about Collier County Veterans ...
The veterans — or guys just dressed up like soldiers in camouflage — gaining notoriety for collecting donations from highway medians made their anticipated visit to this past week’s Collier County Commission meeting.
They made good on a $1,000 check-passing that they had scheduled two weeks earlier, with the no-show embarrassing the highly respected leader of the Collier County Veterans Council and raising new questions about the solicitors’ authenticity and credibility. A presenter said he was called away on a family emergency.
Advance word had it that commissioners and Veterans Council President Jim Elson would dig into the background of the Disabled Veterans Foundation of the Fort Lauderdale area and be ready with hard questions.
The questions turned out to be softballs, but the message got through: The county is cautious about these guys, and if they ask for another solicitation permit it will not come automatically.
Three military veterans — commissioners Fred Coyle, Frank Halas and Jim Coletta — wanted to know where the foundation’s money goes, whether members and solicitors are veterans and — this was a surprise — whether the foundation would be interested in adding a group home for down-and-out veterans here in Collier County, since it already has 10 of them with 70 beds in Broward.
Foundation representatives told commissioners that about 82 percent of money raised goes to veterans services.
The only news that I heard came from an interview later, when the founder said he actually owns the houses and the foundation pays him $30 per night per veteran as part of the services. He said he also contracts with Broward County to accommodate civilian homeless in the same houses at the same rate, which he stressed is lower than the $34 charged by shelters run by Veterans Affairs.
The military status of solicitors is still a fair question. After one of the foundation spokesmen complained of image problems due to profiteering by another east-coast organization employing non-veterans, and proclaiming all Disabled Veterans Foundation members are veterans, the leader, under questioning by Coyle, acknowledged that he is not. When I asked Jean-Luc Veraguas later why he was wearing a polo shirt with an embroidered American Legion logo, he said he is an honorary member of a Fort Lauderdale post.
A high-ranking member of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, Chief Jim Bloom, had told me the week before that he has official knowledge of non-veterans among the solicitors. He said he stopped to question solicitors in camouflage fatigues in November and learned three of the five were not veterans. Bloom asked for names and did background checks. One of them, Bloom says, was wanted for battery on a law-enforcement officer in Broward and taken into custody.
Asked about that after the commission meeting, a foundation spokesman said that was then and this is now, and now he runs a tight ship.
Halas got a similar answer when asked whether it was the foundation out there collecting late last year when one solicitor would actually knock on car windows at red lights. Yes, and that guy is gone, commissioners were assured.
Coletta wondered aloud about the foundation opening a veterans shelter here, noting there are good real estate deals available.
Although the foundation men were caught off-guard and expressed some level of interest, the message from Colleta & Co. to these guys was clear: Don’t even think about coming back here unless you intend to make a real contribution here.
That is mild compared to the message coming from Bonita Springs, where City Council members are moving toward an outright ban — for safety reasons.
The commission encounter left the statesmanlike Jim Elson with little to say except “thank you” for everyone’s generosity and time. Later, he told me commissioners covered it and saying anything else would have been piling on.
At the courthouse, the foundation guys told me their next stop was to be the city of Naples to check on the status of their permit application there. A spokesman there confirmed they came to see the chief, Tom Weschler, without an appointment, and he was not there. The spokesman said he knew of no plans to reschedule and there was no news to report on the permit.
No news, that is, until Thursday, when the spokesman said the city planning department had found a ban on soliciting from the public right of way.
In the meantime, we’ll see how it plays out in Bonita, where a foundation official was headed Thursday to hand yet another $1,000 check to a veterans organization.
Jeff Lytle is editorial page editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is email@example.com. Call him at 263-4773.