Scrutiny Of Veterans Charities Continues
Thursday, January 17, 2008
With scores of U.S. soldiers returning home from Vietnam, California businessman and Army veteran Roger Chapin founded a charity in 1971 dedicated to those troops recuperating in hospitals.
Over the next three decades, Help Hospitalized Veterans would distribute millions of therapeutic craft kits to make moccasins, wooden wind chimes and other trinkets and would win accolades from presidents and Hollywood celebrities alike.
Yet, as the nonprofit enterprise has ballooned into one of the country's largest veterans charities, reporting $71.3 million in donations during the past fiscal year, its spending practices have drawn sharp criticism from charity watchdogs.
Between 1997 and 2005, the charity paid $3.8 million in salary and benefits to Chapin and his wife and spent more than $200 million on fundraising and public education campaigns, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal tax filings. The public records also show that the charity awarded at least $19 million in contracts during that period to companies owned by Richard A. Viguerie, a prominent conservative political commentator and advertising consultant based in Virginia.
Help Hospitalized Veterans is one of several military-oriented charities whose spending practices are the subject of a congressional investigation. Chapin evaded U.S. marshals trying to serve him with a subpoena last month, said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Chapin, who has since been served, is expected to testify today before the committee.
Chapin, who has founded more than 20 nonprofit organizations over three decades, also is president and founder of the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, a smaller charity that provides emergency financial assistance to veterans and their families. That group is also under investigation by Congress, according to committee staff members, and is expected to be a subject of today's hearing.
"We're talking about an individual that has tried to duck the committee; he refused to testify voluntarily. It appears he has something to hide, and if you look at his past operations, there are very good reasons to be suspicious about his activities," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a committee member, said in an interview.
Van Hollen said the committee wants to find a way to distinguish between charities that truly serve veterans and those "committing fraud against the public."
Chapin, reached at his San Diego home last month, said watchdogs and members of Congress are misrepresenting his charities.
"You don't know me, but these guys have got this thing so wrong, it's unbelievable," the 75-year-old said. "It's a witch hunt. They're totally misrepresenting what the facts are."
No laws at the federal or state level regulate the amount of money charities spend on overhead, fundraising or charitable causes. The American Institute of Philanthropy, a leading charity watchdog, issued a report last month suggesting that Help Hospitalized Veterans and 19 other veterans charities manage their resources poorly, paying high overhead costs and direct-mail fundraising fees.
Critics have not contended that all veterans charities manage their funds poorly. Some charities, including the Fisher House Foundation and the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, consistently have received high marks from watchdogs.