By Joe Crankshaw

Thanks to a new state law, camouflage-garbed solicitors collecting for groups “helping” veterans could be arrested unless they can show proof they really are veterans or active duty personnel.

Treasure Coast law enforcement agencies are willing to enforce the new state statute, which took effect in October and makes it a third-degree felony for anyone to wear all or parts of a military uniform if they didn’t serve.

The solicitors carrying plastic buckets and American flags have attracted the ire of local veterans organizations, and are part of a larger problem revealed in a five-month investigation by Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. The investigation showed many organizations are soliciting money for veterans’ causes but are keeping large portions of the money or spending large portions of it on administrative or fundraising costs.

Meanwhile, most local governments have banned roadside solicitation — though Port St. Lucie and Vero Beach do not.

The uniformed collectors identified on the Treasure Coast belong to The Veterans Support Organization of Warwick, R.I., and Fort Lauderdale, or the Disabled Veterans Foundation of Plantation. Collectively, they raised $2.8 million of the $472 million raised by 121 organizations surveyed in the investigation.

St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Garry Wilson said so far, St. Lucie County deputies have not found any solicitors who couldn’t prove they are veterans.

“We have been enforcing the new law since it came out,” Wilson said. “Our deputies have been stepping out with these solicitors whenever they see them and asking for some proof of their military status. ”

Law enforcement agencies generally welcome the new law.

“We will enforce the state law,” said Terry Nolan, legal adviser for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office. “Our department has been researching this problem for about two years now. The new law will help us.”

Nolan said charities formed under the 501c3 section of the Internal Revenue statutes are allowed to solicit money on public rights-of-way provided they have a permit from the government jurisdiction in which they seek to raise money. The impact of the requirement is that no group can legally ask for money on Martin County roads because neither the county nor the city of Stuart will issue permits.

Stuart Police Chief Edward Morley said the city will not issue a permit to solicit on the roads because it constitutes a traffic hazard. He said any group seeking such a city permit must first obtain one from the Florida Department of Transportation.

Morley’s department did an investigation of the Veterans Service Organization after receiving complaints two years ago. Last December, Sgt. Martin Jacobson, then spokesman for the department, said they found that most of the solicitors were not veterans and came from day labor firms. The solicitors told his investigators, Jacobson said, that they received 30 percent of everything they collected, were given the camouflage clothing but required to buy their hats and boots. On the basis of that study, the Stuart Department has refused to sanction roadside collections.

Sebastian City Councilwoman Andrea Coy said other governments should follow her city’s lead in banning donations along city streets.

Coy, a former U.S. Army master sergeant and a member of the Sebastian Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, said the Sebastian City Council’s decision late last year to prohibit on-street solicitation was sparked by concerns about outside groups purportedly raising money for veterans soliciting on the streets.

Coy said local veterans’ groups are better to donate to instead of the out-of-town organizations. In addition, Coy said banning on-street solicitation is a safety issue.

Indian River County already bars anyone from soliciting on a public road without a permit. There have been no permits issued, but also no complaints, according to Assistant Indian River County Attorney Bill DeBraal.

But the Indian River Veterans Council wants all local governments to bar the uniformed collectors. Marty Zickert, one of the 17 council members, says his organization is affronted by people using the uniform to beg for money. The council wants the solicitors barred from collecting anywhere in the county.

County Commissioner Joe Flescher said he has been working with the Veterans’ Council for weeks on how to allow legitimate veteran groups to solicit public donations to “help the heroes” without letting non-veterans in faux military garb “piratize” unsuspecting donors.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “As a county, we can’t pass an ordinance saying we’ll allow this group, but not that group. … It’s nearly impossible, but that’s where creativity prevails.”

He said he and some leading veterans are approaching individual businesses, where groups set up to solicit money, and educating the management about which groups are legitimate. That way, he said, the businesses can withhold permission from questionable groups.

And on the public right of way, he said, he has asked veterans to call the Sheriff’s Office when they see someone in a faux uniform seeking money from motorists.

Vero Beach Acting City Attorney Wayne Coment said charitable and religious organizations are allowed to solicit on city right-of-ways and medians in Vero Beach.

Vero Beach Deputy Chief David Currey, however, said some of these groups have moved on after being told they cannot impede traffic by soliciting in the streets.

Vero Beach Mayor Jay Kramer said if something more is done to prohibit the solicitors he would like to see the effort be a coordinated one between the counties and the various municipalities so the problem is just not pushed from one jurisdiction to another one.

In St. Lucie County, Wilson said, “We are concerned about any type of roadside solicitation because of the safety issues. These veterans groups just seem to be the most numerous right now.”

St. Lucie County Attorney Dan McIntyre said it would be difficult to enact an ordinance to eliminate such activity without having the cities and state on board. The county only has jurisdiction over unincorporated county roads.

The camouflaged-dressed solicitors have been particularly active in Port St. Lucie along U.S. 1 and Port St. Lucie Boulevard in the past two months.

Port St. Lucie City Manager Jerry Bentrott said he’s not aware of the concern and has not been directed by City Council to

look into the matter.

“It might be something that we maybe take a look at,” Bentrott said.

Nolan said solicitors like to work along major roads and intersections because the high volume of traffic ensure a good take.

“People drive up, see the collector in uniform and give money,” he said. “There isn’t time for them to engage the solicitor because someone behind you wants to move on.”

Jim Harpring, legal adviser to the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office, said he was not aware of any brush with shady vet groups, outside the Veterans Council’s own concerns.

Harpring said state law bars anyone impersonating a veteran, via the uniform, while soliciting funds. He said the challenge facing law enforcement is getting proof of a solicitor’s true status.

Eric Pfahler, Henry Stephens and Ed Bierschenk contributed to this report.