DIXON – The Rock River Valley VietNow Chapter plans to continue its charitable efforts, but changes could be in store following the recent order dissolving its parent organization.
The VietNow National Headquarters in Rockford was shut down in a recent settlement with Attorney General Lisa Madigan after it was learned that the lion's share of its donations was being pocketed by the telemarketing companies soliciting for it.
That ruling has no bearing on the 20 or so local chapters, including Dixon, Freeport and Rockford, which are not accused of any wrongdoing.
Rock River Valley VietNow has about 100 members and raises funds for a variety of events and programs, including annual holiday baskets containing a week's worth of food that's given out to about 35 veterans, three to four scholarships for students throughout the Sauk Valley, boxes of goodies delivered to troops overseas, and the annual POW/MIA Christmas tree lighting and vigil.
The only money it sent to the national chapter was a portion of the members' yearly dues. Of the $15 dues, $6 was submitted to the parent group. All other money raised and projects undertaken remained local.
Changes could be coming depending on what the membership decides in response to the AG's decision, but he hopes that it won't go as far as disbanding the local chapter, said its President Doug Near, of Dixon.
"It's unfortunate that it happened, but it has," Near said.
VietNow was founded more than 3 decades ago as a nonprofit organization geared toward veterans helping veterans, but records show that out of about $15 million raised in a decade, more than 80 percent raised by the national group went to telemarketing companies and professional fundraisers.
The settlement agreement requires VietNow and 14 named officers and board members – about half of whom no longer were involved in the organization – to dissolve and hand over any records to a receiver who's in charge of accounting for remaining assets and splitting them up between two veteran charities, Fisher House Foundation and Operation Homefront.
VietNow's present and past controlling officers had extra requirements in the settlement forbidding them from handling money in other charitable organizations. Among the list are President Joseph Lewis, Treasurer Steven Rucki, former President Rich Sanders and former Treasurer Terry Buscher.
Sanders is a longtime Dixon resident, a Vietnam War veteran and a veterans advocate who was awarded a congressional commendation last year for his service and dedication.
"As far as veterans are concerned, I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, and my heart has been torn out through this whole process," Sanders said Wednesday.
He was VietNow's national president for about 20 years before retiring in 2013.
The group went the route of raising funds through telemarketing years ago, and although "there's no excuse for the percentages," none of the leaders pocketed the money, he said.
"What we had in our hands went to veterans, as minuscule as it was," Sanders said.
He resigned as treasurer of the Rock River Valley VietNow last month, but, according to the settlement, still can be involved and do volunteer work.
In his role as one of the organizers of Lee County Honor Flight, he no longer can handle donations. The agreement doesn't apply to his positions on the Dixon Veterans Memorial Park Committee or the Gold Star Mothers Monument Foundation.
"I’ve got to abide by what’s imposed on me, and I will," Sanders said.
Madigan's complaint against VietNow cites 16,422 violations against the Solicitations Act – including telemarketers asking for donations from Michigan residents using a VietNow-approved script claiming the dollars raised would stay in the state to help homeless veterans and those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They did not.
Two dozen other states have complaints with VietNow based on different factors including improperly filing tax forms and other paperwork violations.
During its tenure, VietNow supported several veterans projects and programs, including the Homeless Sandwich Run in Chicago providing food for the needy, the Sons and Daughters in Touch organization that sends the children of killed veterans to Vietnam, the National POW/MIA Monument at Riverside National Cemetery in California, and the Gold Star Mothers Memorial in New York.
"It’s an organization that did a lot in 3 decades for veterans despite the final outcome," Sanders said.
"I hope that the local chapters will go on and keep the model of veterans helping veterans."