Tennessee Veteran sues veterans charity over loss of job Organization has been fined for false claims, failing to register

By Kristin M. Hall

Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- A veterans charity has been sued in Tennessee by a former employee who said he was fired because he refused to solicit donations after being told not to by police.

Tonzil Jones, a former Marine who said he served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was hired by The Veterans Support Organization, a Rhode Island incorporated charity, to take donations from the public while standing on the street or outside businesses in Murfreesboro in 2010.

The organization, which has chapters in multiple states, has been fined in Tennessee for false claims about their charity and for not registering with the state.

The VSO's only source of funds comes from veterans and others who ask for donations outside stores or on street corners. Solicitors who work as independent contractors get to keep about 30 percent of what they raise. The charity receives no federal or state grants or funds, but they provide some funds to veterans hospitals and other groups and operate a 115-bed home for the homeless in Florida.

Richard Van Houten, the charity's founder, said his charity will never use professional fundraisers because they often keep a large portion of what they raise.

"We have 200 plus people on our work program who raise the money," he said. "These people in front of these stores and on these streets raising the money are not professional solicitors."

Jones said that in 2010 while he and others were soliciting money in Murfreesboro, a police officer told them they couldn't solicit in the street. He was warned that he could face a fine or be sent to jail for continuing to solicit.

He said he was fired by the charity's state manager after Jones said he would not violate the local city ordinance against soliciting on city streets.

But the charity claims in court filings that Jones quit his job. Van Houten said he couldn't comment on pending litigation, but said the people in the work program learn valuable job skills.

"You can take that trade anywhere and mingle with people," he said. "Rather than give the money away to a for profit company to raise it, we are giving it to the struggling people out there that need it."

In 2010, the state's division of charitable solicitations and gaming said VSO was claiming in written material that they provided a wide range of services in Tennessee, but an investigation concluded that those services were not being offered in the state. The charity agreed to pay a $20,000 settlement.

Jones said in his court filing that the charity tells its street solicitors to say that all the money goes to help needy or homeless veterans, but he said that was not true. He said he was given scripted answers to provide when questioned about the charity.

The charity said in a response filed in court that funds raised by VSO are used for assistance to homeless, needy and disabled veterans, although some percentage of donations are used for "overhead/administrative/labor costs."

According to the charity's financial statements, the charity has grown significantly in last couple of years. They doubled the amount of money raised from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2010, going from $2.5 million to over $5.6 million.

But the amount they paid in grants to organizations and individuals actually decreased from $402,447 in 2009 to $379,038 in 2010.

"When you run a nonprofit, you don't run a nonprofit to give all your money away to another group," Van Houten said, saying his priority was giving jobs to people who needed them.

He said about 90 percent of the charity's solicitors are veterans, but acknowledged that early on that number was lower.

"We give jobs to struggling Americans, mostly veterans, and we don't get one dollar from any grants from the government," he said.

In the same time period, Van Houten's own salary doubled to over $255,000 and salaries and wages for the charity increased to $1.4 million from $426,222.

Van Houten said an outside company surveyed the salaries at the charity and approved his salary.

"They base it on other executives at the same level and it was approved," he said. "If you look at the amounts from the years, you will see that we have quadrupled what we raised."

Robert Charles Bigelow, the attorney for Tonzil Jones, said his client was one of the best solicitors for the charity and was asked by the charity to come to Tennessee to raise money. Tonzil Jones made anywhere between $500 and $900 a week working for the charity, Bigelow said.

"He is not going to just quit his job where he was making a living and had literally nowhere to go," he said.

Jones is asking for over $75,000 in lost wages and damages. A trial is scheduled for November.

Published: Tue, Jun 12, 2012

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