By Joe Crankshaw

Treasure Coast veterans say something needs to be done about abuses by organizations purporting to raise funds to aid veterans — but in many cases contributing little to help those who have served their country.

An investigation of such groups by Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers will go a long way toward correcting the situation, said Ron Knepshield, chairman of United Veterans of St. Lucie County.

“We constantly get calls from people inquiring whether one organization or another is worthy of a donation,” said Knepshield, a Vietnam veteran. “We have to tell them we don’t know because there are so many of them. Now, they can see it in print.”

The five-month Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation covered 121 organizations raising money for veterans’ causes within Florida. It found the groups reported raising a total $472 million, of which they spent $439 million. Of those total expenditures, 66 percent went to aid veterans and active duty military personnel or their families, according to data the groups reported to the IRS.

The percentage would only get a “D” rating from most of the groups that monitor charitable activity.

The charities did nothing illegal. Three U.S. Supreme Court rulings barred state and federal agencies from inquiring about nonprofits’ ratio of fundraising costs to expenditures.

Much of the veterans’ anger is directed at organizations that send people in what appear to be camouflage uniforms into the public rights of way and shopping malls collecting money. Many of the solicitors, who customarily receive 30 percent of what they collect, are not veterans, even though Florida law prohibits non-veterans from appearing in uniforms.

“It is ridiculous,” said Curtis Paulisin, a Desert Storm veteran who is secretary of the Italian-American War Veterans Post in Vero Beach. “We carry our DD214 (military form showing a veteran’s service) when we go out to solicit. Many of those guys don’t have any forms.”

Paulisin’s organization will report this year that 100 percent of all money collected has gone to help veterans’ causes.

“We don’t take out any money for anything,” he said. “If the people donate to veterans, it goes to veterans.”

Bruce Hudson, a Marine Vietnam veteran and secretary of the Martin County Veterans Service Council, said the investigation revealed facts that “are a shame because even some of our veterans’ groups do a poor job getting the money into programs.”

But solutions to the problem are hard to come by.

Knepshield said the United Veterans of St. Lucie County is working on a plan to bar the uniformed solicitors from the public roads and rights of way in St. Lucie County. Indian River veterans are studying the same problem and hope for support from the county and city governments.

In Martin County, Stuart Police Chief Ed Morley said his department has kept the solicitors off the city roads using a state statute that says such actions could be a public safety hazard and requiring a permit from the Florida Department of Transportation.

But none of the veterans said they had an answer to how to curb solicitation via the Internet, telephone banks or direct mail. The Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation found those three methods account for a majority of all money raised for veterans and also increases the costs of fundraising.

“I don’t know how to handle the Internet,” Knepshield said. “That is a tough problem. I guess the best thing is to just keep the public informed about how the money is collected and spent.”