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BBB raises red flags on veterans' charity

12:43 PM, Aug 14, 2012   |    comments
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St. Louis (KSDK) -- The Better Business Bureau shares a warning about a giving to a veterans' charity with ties to a local sweepstakes firm.

The BBB says Veterans Relief Network uses a for-profit fundraising consultant, Precision Performance Marketing (PPM) of Kirkwood, Missouri.  PPP is known for using sweeptstakes mailings to raise millions of dollars in the names of several national causes ranging from childhood cancer to autism.  But records show a majority of the contributions actually went to pay the costs of the fundraising rather than to help those in need.

According to the BBB, Veterans Relief Network was registered in Indiana in March 2011. The charity lists addresses in Dyer, IN, and Kansas City, MO. In June 2011, Veterans Relief Network entered into a three-year contract with PPM, which calls for the Kirkwood firm to assist the charity's solicitation efforts by helping prepare educational  material and public support appeals, including production of mailings, research and printing. Similar contracts with other charities have resulted in sweepstakes mailings to hundreds of thousands of prospective donors a year, offering chances to win cash prizes and asking for donations.

Those sweepstakes mailings appear to have produced little money to help those in need. For example, IRS 990 reports for 2010 show:

  • Fundraising mailings on behalf of Disabled Police Officers Counseling Center of Niceville, Fla., raised about $250,000 in donations, with about $17,000 going to the charity (about 7 cents of each dollar).
  • Mailings on behalf of Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation of Schererville, Ind., raised about $505,000 in donations, with about $55,000 going to the charity (about 11 cents of each dollar).
  • Mailings on behalf of National Cancer Assistance Foundation of Sarasota, Fla., took in about $817,000 in donations. About $24,000 (3 cents of each dollar) went to the charity.

A BBB investigation shows several other connections between PPM, Veterans Relief Network and other charities that have hired PPM to do fundraising work. The BBB found:

  • Veterans Relief Network, Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, National Cancer Assistance Foundation and PPM all have been represented by the same Kansas City law firm, Copilevitz & Canter. The veterans' charity uses Copilevitz & Canter's office as its mailing address.
  • While none of the three charities has offices in the St. Louis area, all have used the same Sunset Hills accounting firm, Swink, Fiehler & Company. Earl Swink, president of the accounting firm said that he is not sure how his company got those charities' accounts, but said it no longer does work for the autism and veterans charities.
  • Veterans Relief Network and Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation were once housed in the same Schererville, Ind., building on West Lincoln Highway.
  • Helen Ignas, listed as president and executive director of Veterans Relief Network in June 2011, was identified as a director of Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation in an IRS 990 filing in August 2011. In her April 2011 application for a federal tax exemption for Veterans Relief Network, Ignas reports an address on Muirfield Court in Schererville - the same residential address used by the autism charity's executive director, Michael Slutsky.
  • Indiana corporation records for National Cancer Assistance Foundation show Paul DeBonis of Sarasota, Fla., as incorporator of that charity and autism charity president Slutsky as its registered officer and agent.

Michael Confalone of Ballwin is president of Precision Performance Marketing, which reports a Kirkwood address of 12166 Old Big Bend Road.  Confalone owns 50 percent of the company.  David Lovell of Kirkwood, founder and former head of the Reach Our Children charity, owns 40 percent of the company. Joe Raible of Ballwin, head of St. Louis Business Forms in Fenton, owns 10 percent. Confalone and Raible are former neighbors on Mark Wesley Lane in Ballwin.

In 2006, Precision Performance Marketing was at the center of a controversy that led to Lovell's resignation from his Reach Our Children charity. Board members of Reach Our Children said at that time that Lovell never told them that his wife was co-owner of Precision Performance Marketing, which had been paid $3 million by the charity from 2003 to 2005 to help with the charity's fundraising mailings.  Lovell later took his wife's job as vice president of PPM.
The website for Veterans Relief Network says the organization was founded to assist U.S. military veterans and their families with "ever increasing costs be it medical or simply daily living expenses."  The charity has said it intends to solicit in all 50 states.

The BBB offers the following tips to potential donors:

  • Read any sweepstakes offers carefully. Do not be misled by mailings indicating you have already won or are a contest finalist. Federal law mandates that persons who do not make donations have the same chance of winning as those who do.
  • Learn all you can about a charity before contributing. Ask for printed documentation on how much of your contribution will be used for program services and how much will go for fundraising and management expenses.
  • Whenever possible, donate directly to a charity and not through a fundraising telemarketer or a direct mail solicitation. That helps insure that most of your contribution goes directly to the charity.
  • Check with the BBB for a BBB Charity Review. For a charity to receive BBB accreditation, it must meet 20 Standards of Accountability covering everything from governance to fundraising.

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