NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A veterans charity already under scrutiny for how it raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in Tennessee handed out only a fraction of the money in the form of gift cards and threatened to fire workers if they didn't meet fundraising quotas, former employees say.
The Stuart, Fla.-based Veterans Support Organization has been criticized by other groups for how it uses donations raised outside retail stores and supermarkets. It had been fined by Tennessee for making false claims about the benefits it offered, and Connecticut lawmakers called for a federal investigation before the group's Tennessee branch closed last month.
However, former employees interviewed by The Associated Press shed new details on how the charity operated. For instance, it claimed to help veterans and non-veterans by providing them jobs, but disciplined people who didn't meet fundraising quotas. It also claimed to provide housing and help for poor or homeless veterans, though the former workers say that amounted to little more than a rented home in Tennessee where the workers were charged $400 a month for bunk beds and plastic dressers.
It's not the first such charity to be scrutinized as thousands of veterans leave the military after serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Ohio, for instance, a man has been charged with running a $100 million scam through a bogus charity collecting donations for Navy veterans. Other charities around the country have been scrutinized for spending large portions of the donations they receive on operating expenses.
VSO reported raising nearly $8.5 million nationwide during the last fiscal year, but leaders emptied its office in Madison and laid off about 20 workers the day before Thanksgiving. Charity officials declined to answer questions about the workers' claims, but provided a short statement.
The Tennessee chapter was raising tens of thousands of dollars a month at its peak, former chapter manager Kurt Jones told the AP, who was among those laid off. However, he said, its only donations were about $400 worth of Walmart gift cards given every other month to Veterans Affairs facilities in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Jones estimated the chapter raised almost $1.5 million in his two years as manager, but very little benefited veterans in those states.
"I can promise you that I have probably given away $25,000 out of the money that was raised in that office," he said.