“Veterans’ Support Organization” — a scam?

DAV (legit vets' org) letter about the VSO (scam vets' org). Click to expand.

BLUF: Almost certainly.

What occasioned this post is the attached letter from the DAV. Unfortunately it came to us as a .jpg so the links in it are not clickable. So we googled up the organization and found a bunch of criticism out there:

  • NewsChannel 5, Nashville TN finds that most of the money goes to paid staff, many of whom aren’t even veterans. They dress non-veterans in uniforms to solicit money!
  • NewsChannel 5’s Consumer Investgator Jennifer Kraus follows up with a story that reports the state is investigating the suspect organization, and that “the VSO keeps most of what you give to pay for its own expenses and that what VSO fundraisers will say to get donations isn’t always true.”
  • They claim to be raising money for shelters that don’t exist and aren’t planned, and for legitimate charities like the Fisher House Foundation (Fisher House won’t even take their tainted money!) (Link is to the 2nd NewsChannel 5 story again).
  • A Florida TV Station, 10 News, corroborated the findings of Ms Kraus’s reports. In fact, they found the VSO was even worse… dedicating a mere 6.6 percent of the millions it collects to helping veterans, concealing its fundraising expenses as “somehow related to its programs,” and reporting a fundraising expense of $0 despite relying on paid fundraisers — street solicitors, often fake veterans, who get 30% off the top. (The article also includes five helpful tips for evaluating charities at the end).
  • Some of the fundraisers are volunteers. Here’s 10 News’s story of one who quit after suffering pangs of conscience. She also revealed — and the individual confirmed — that the Tampa, Florida branch head of VSO was a convicted violent repeat felon. “We have a lot of convicted felons,” he told the station, and VSO HQ confirmed that. VSO spokesman Justin Wells implied that it was just because so many veterans were felons and ex-cons. “[V]eterans are a very small part of the adult population, so why are veterans 2-3 times more likely to serve time in our prison system?” he demanded. But in fact, veterans are less likely than their cohort who never served to do time.
  • Their Director of Treatment, Jack Bittleman, is a career felon with a criminal record in 4 states, according to a letter sent to major veterans groups by Steve Udovich, a legitimate member of all.
  • VSO boss, the extremely well-compensated Richard Van Houten, was unable to produce a DD-214 of his own and may not be a veteran at all, according to the Udovich letter.

We’re very critical of the media here, and so critical of TV that we don’t have one. But the media, particularly TV consumer reporters at local stations nationwide, including Noah Pransky and Jennifer Kraus, whose stories are linked above, have been instrumental in exposing this rip-off charity. Tip o’the beret to them both.

Not everyone recognizes VSO as a scam. Ken Smith of the fake-veterans online paper Veterans Today wrote this apologia which followed the VSO party line, but Smith is a problematic figure. He has made his fortune on tha backs of veterans, and is himself one of the most egregious cases of Stolen Valor, whose exaggerations of his pedestrian record resonated with gullible donors — but were exposed in the book Stolen Valor that gave its name to the phenomenon, and even recognized in the Boston Globe: “Ken Smith, founder of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Boston, was found to have boasted of battles he never fought and donned awards he never won.” BG Burkett. co-author of Stolen Valor, expanded elsewhere:

One of the stories in the book is actually a Boston story. They have a New England Mission for the Homeless here, it was run by a guy named Ken Smith. I saw this guy in Heraldo and he was had some Vietnam veterans with him and they were going through the litany of their Vietnam service and everything and Smith had talked about his glorious combat in Vietnam and the Easter Offensive and all that stuff. I get his military record and he was in Vietnam at that time but he was a security guard, didn’t even have a Combat Infantry Badge and never came under fire, basically concocted his whole record. I then checked further and he had multiple felony convictions for embezzlement and fraud and all this. Now the Kennedys got this man 20 million dollars to start this facility, got him the building and of course money starting disappearing in the balance, they did not match up and I frankly don’t know what happened to the guy but he is in my book. You all hear the same kind of thing about the homeless, it goes on like the suicide rates.

Convicted embezzler and fraud artist! Well, that makes us trust Smith’s defense of VSO all the more! A look at the latest stories on Veterans Today indicates that Smith also seems to have an obsession about Israel and Jews — and not a healthy one. No, I won’t reward this crook with another link.

There are many good veterans’ organizations. Personally we recommend The Special Operations Warrior Foundation, the Green Beret Foundation, and Divers for Heroes.  The first supports the families of operators and SOF support personnel killed in combat, on clandestine operations, or in training mishaps. (It has been putting SOF kids through college for their lost fathers since the aftermath of Desert One, for almost 30 years). The second is new, but specifically supports legitimate needs in the Special Forces community — it’s SF helping SF. The third gives wounded and crippled warriors a chance to experience weightlessness and freedom by scuba diving, and it’s run by a couple that are personal friends.

4 thoughts on ““Veterans’ Support Organization” — a scam?

  1. Outraged Donor

    Brian Mooney at The Boston Globe ran a story on Smith that goes into great detail about his criminal history and phony war stories (“Vets’ shelter loses some luster Style, credibility of homeless center’s director draw criticism.”) Obtain a copy and you will be shocked. You should post a copy here as a warning to all. Strangely, the purple heart charity later hired this guy. Guess they never checked his record.

    There are sociopaths out there make a living scamming vets. Eventually, they always get caught but they wait until they find the next bunch of rubes who are stupid enough to be taken in by their con games.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Thanks for the tip to the Mooney article, we’ll track it down. As far as a con man going on to another mark… well, the “con” is for “confidence.” I really don’t want to be a wannabe buster (as I’ve said before) because you could make that your life’s work as Chuck Schantag did… and it’s like trying to empty the Pacific with a teaspoon, the phonies just keep coming. And I’m just learning that veterans’ charities are frequently as rotten. Sometimes, as with Ken Smith, you get a twofer — a guy who exaggerates his service AND scams veterans (and well-meaning politicians who want to support vets’ causes). In return for the Mooney article, check out Burkett & Whitley’s Stolen Valor. A lot on Smith in there too. They walk among us….

      1. Outraged Donor

        Mooney really blew the whistle on this guy and all the damage he did at the homeless shelter he ran.

        It’s also ironic that the very blog where he is a featured columnist, has a story one of his more “costly” fraud schemes: http://www.veteranstoday.com/2008/08/23/military-order-of-the-purple-heart-national-convention-speech/

        The purple heart wound up promoting him to be its chief technology architect, or something-or-other. Go figure. Now the word on the web is he mysteriously “left his assignment” there last year. Gee, wonder what happened?

        Make no mistake, he’s on the prowl again looking for his next sucker.

        1. Outraged Donor

          The Veterans Today connection gets worse. After you wrote about the articles he wrote, I took a peak and saw an article where he was hawking some outfit called veterans911.com: http://www.veteranstoday.com/2011/11/25/veteran-hotline-seeking-volunteers/
          He talks about how great it was he found this and called to volunteer. But it sounded a little suspicious. It took about five minutes to find out its total BS. He’s got a press release all over the web that says he’s the founder, not some random volunteer: http://www.prlog.org/11725799-new-ptsd-tbi-hotline-seeking-voluneers-nationwide.html
          Go to the veterans911 site. It says it was developed by Ocean State Software. Guess what? Smith is CEO of that company. Look at the phone number for the veterans hotline on the press release and then look at the one for software company. They’re the same. Also note the hotline website is soliciting donations. Scary. Very scary. It wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out he’s using VT to make a name for himself and ginny up support for his “hotline” to get donations. And if that tangled web isn’t legit, that’s an open and shut wire fraud case. Nuff said.
          Where’s 60 Minutes when you need them?

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