Vets’ phone card fundraiser: scam or victim of technology?

A “charity” that raised money to provide cellphone cards to veterans says it was done in by technology.

On Thursday, Minnesota attorney general Lori Swanson announced that Colorado-based TREA (The Retired Enlisted Association) Memorial Foundation had agreed to close up shop after it fraudulently collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from Minnesotans to buy the cards.

Mention “veterans”, and people on the phone can’t give their credit card numbers fast enough. That’s what makes these sorts of cases particularly distressing. People are not only being fleeced, they are being fleeced in the names of veterans.

The “charity”, run by a man from Superior, Wis., raised more than $14 million nationwide, $345,000 of that from Minnesotans. In Swanson’s settlement, it will distribute $400,000 to veteran-support groups in the state. Work the math on that.

I also asked every member of the board of the “charity” if any of them have any personal or professional relationship with the fundraising company that reportedly got most of the money raised. To that question, they did not respond.

Instead, a statement suggested the “charity” was raising money to provide something the veterans didn’t want or need.

The TREA Memorial Foundation has voluntarily entered into a settlement agreement with the Minnesota Attorney General’s office to close down the Foundation and distribute its existing funds to assist veterans and their families. Some of the information that is being reported about the settlement is not accurate. The Foundation purchased thousands of phone cards and gave them out to eligible veterans and their families when applications were received. The fact is that advancements in cell phone and internet technology caused the phone card program to become obsolete before the Foundation was able to hand out the inventory of cards. The Foundation’s phone card program was a good program that got a late start and became antiquated before its time. Phone cards were purchased, waiting to be given to those who needed them; however, they just were never requested. All phone cards remaining in inventory have been donated to the VA Hospital in Aurora, Colorado for distribution to veterans and their families.

The Foundation made the decision to enter into the settlement agreement with the Minnesota Attorney General so that it may use its remaining funds to fulfill its mission– of helping veterans and their families rather than paying legal fees or fines and penalties.

The Foundation has operated several other programs that provided financial assistance to veterans and their families. These programs have proven to be very successful and have provided millions of dollars in aid and support for thousands of veterans and veteran families. It’s a shame that all of these programs will now have to come to an end.

The Foundation has always operated with the best intentions and with the mission to help veterans and their families. The Foundation’s error was to rely too heavily on the advice and recommendations of its professional fundraising consultant who pushed to keep the phone card program in operation even after its usefulness had been realized.

Swanson said no phone cards were given out. The “charity’s” statement says the phone cards were handed out, but then says they were never requested.

In the end, the “charity” kept raising money — “for years,” Swanson said — even though, based on the “charity’s” statement, there were no takers for the cards. That seems like something that would’ve become apparent somewhere between $0 and $14 million.

“Charities that take advantage of the desire to give back to service members, veterans, and their families using deception have no place in Minnesota,” Swanson said.

In his response to specific questions, Phil Helinski, the Superior, Wis., man listed as the president of TREA wrote “no comment.”