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Walmart suspends veterans charity as advocates seek stricter rules

9:49 AM, Aug 16, 2012   |    comments
Walmart spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said the company has taken a closer look at the organizations requesting to solicit on its properties and decided to suspend Veterans Support Organization until it investigates further.
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Brevard County, Florida (FL Today) -- Solicitors claiming to collect money in the name of veterans in front of Brevard County stores may soon have guidelines to follow if local advocates have their way.

Walmart already has decided to suspend one group from asking for money at its stores.

Walmart spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said the company has taken a closer look at the organizations requesting to solicit on its properties and decided to suspend Veterans Support Organization until it investigates further.

"The group is no longer welcome to fund-raise or solicit outside our stores until we know more," she said.

Bill Vagianos, the president of the Brevard Veterans Memorial Center and vice chairman of the Brevard Veterans Council - a coalition of more than 70 veterans organizations - said that the topic of creating guidelines for groups claiming to collect money for veterans at stores and on the street has now been propelled forward in the wake of a FLORIDA TODAY investigation published Sunday.

DATABASE: Check out charities raising money in name of veterans

"I recommend that we have a uniform criteria," Vagianos said. "It's been a topic of discussion for years. We're just now taking up the initiative."

Also in the wake of FLORIDA TODAY's findings, that many groups collecting money for veterans do not meet standard charity guidelines for how much actually goes to veterans programs, at least one major retail chain has suspended allowing one of the largest organizations collecting in our area to set up outside its stores.

Looking to help the stores and donors understand how the collections are distributed, Vagianos said a committee will be formed to come up with guidelines that would be shared first with veterans organizations.

The guidelines then would be offered to local and regional managers of stores such as Walmart, Publix and Winn-Dixie, where solicitors set up patriotic displays and collect money in drop buckets. The veterans organizations would be asked to follow the guidelines, but it would be up to the stores whether they adopt them.

"We would come up with some kind of criteria..." Vagianos said. "It would be more of a questionnaire."

Vagianos said stores and malls should have a vetting process for all charitable drives that would at least require the groups to produce organizational documents, mission statements, records on funds distribution and individual identification of solicitors.

One group that has come under fire in multiple states is Veterans Support Organization, based in Stuart. It collects at multiple sites in Brevard and across Florida, and reported collecting $5.7 million in donations in 2010, despite giving only about $1 million that year in grants to veterans causes and operation of a residential facility for homeless veterans near Miami. VSO solicitors were paid $1.7 million, and another $1.4 million went to cover other costs of the "work program."

Criticism centers primarily on what many consider to be too small a percentage of money collected going to veterans causes.

VSO counters that it hires homeless and jobless veterans and other needy people to do the collection, which helps them to eventually transition into permanent jobs. Its officials said hiring veterans and others to solicit is the organization's major expense.

Other groups such as Veterans In Need Foundation and Disabled Veterans Foundation, both based in South Florida, also have been criticized for not giving more of the money they collect to veterans.

Whaling said the other groups also will will be looked at.

Publix said in a written statement: "...we strive to be supportive of our local communities, which includes following current guidelines for sidewalk solicitation and taking appropriate action when necessary."

Publix checks for valid charity status and verifies insurance status with the organizations. A spokesman said that if a concern is raised by store management or a complaint is filed, the company would take a look at the organization.

Winn-Dixie did not respond to a request for comment.

"To me, you should be from Brevard County if you're going to collect in Brevard," said Maurice Meisner, a past president of the Brevard Veterans Center and a member of the Korean War Veterans Association. "The money should be spent here."

Vagianos said the criteria should apply to all organizations, including those such as American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Jewish War Veterans and others.

Al "Gunner" Dudley, commander of American Legion Department of Florida, said the topic of unfamiliar organizations soliciting in communities around the state has been elevated in the public eye since the FLORIDA TODAY investigation published.

"It upsets me," he said. "There is no accountability at all. The government should be concerned."

Dudley said that while he believes there should be some strict regulation for soliciting funds for veterans causes, his organization has not yet formally come up with criteria.

"We're just now getting feedback," he said.

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