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Making things right

Fort Lauderdale American Legion Post 220

Making things right

Two Broward County state lawmakers launch a mission to help vets get much needed help following Allied Veterans scandal

Fort Lauderdale American Legion Post 220

By Michelle Demarco

     FORT LAUDERDALE, FL – Senate and House Democratic Leaders Chris Smith and Perry Thurston were angry.

News reports had been rolling in about a little known group based in North Florida called “Allied Veterans of the World,” that allegedly had been running a sophisticated money laundering scheme by using veterans groups throughout Florida as a charity front for illegal internet café gambling activities. Not only had the group failed to deliver the promised donations to the veterans groups – only about 2 percent of the more than $290 million in illicit profits had made its way to the organizations – but some of that money had made its way into campaign accounts for Florida Democrats.

“I was outraged,” Smith said. “Here we have our men and women who have risked their lives to defend our country being used to make millions of dollars for a group with no conscience and no sense of duty to our military veterans. Adding insult to injury, some of that tainted money was given to Democrats’ campaigns. Had I known of the deception, I would have immediately rejected them and their ill-gotten cash.”

Fellow Broward County Democrat and House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston echoed Smith’s sentiments. “These veterans were used. They were used as a disguise to game the system, and they were used a-gain when they got but a pittance from the fortune the organization pulled in.”

By the time news broke this month about the widespread arrests of members of the alleged scheme, the campaigns were long over and the money had been spent. And they faced a quandary: “what to do for the vets who had been victimized?”

The solution was a no-brainer, Smith said. “Get what money we got back to where it should have gone in the first place.”

Together with Thurston, Smith set about directing the Democratic Party of Florida to begin identifying just how much money Allied Veterans had given to the Democrats – a little over $250,000 by final count.

Then they set about making things right.

At the South Broward VFW Post 8195 in West Park, having a state Senator and state Representative show up to give money might have been a little unexpected, but a welcome surprise. “It’s a great thing!” said Marvin Price, a retired Air Force veteran whose VFW Post was among the ones in South Florida targeted by Smith and Thurston on Monday to try and make something good come out of something that had gone so terribly wrong.

“It’s not something we were expecting, but it’s such a great way to help veterans and those returning from serving our country. We’re just thrilled to death!”

Like other veterans groups throughout Florida, Price was dismayed that groups like his had been used to raise money that went into private hands instead of the intended charities. “People are so giving,” he said. “They don’t question; they just give.”

What had once begun as a legitimate fundraiser for veterans organization, had morphed into dozens of internet gaming centers by the time 57 people associated with Allied Veterans were arrested and charged with money laundering and racketeering. Four of Allied’s top officials reaped more than $90 million from the operation, which relied on contributions from affiliates formed by the organization according to law enforcement. Money supposedly earmarked for veterans’ charities flowed for everything from pricey real estate to high end luxury cars.

VFW Post 8195 was one of two VFW Posts receiving checks from the lawmakers on Monday. Others on the list included two Fort Lauderdale, American Legion Post 220, and the Jewish War Veterans. The Jacksonville Children of Fallen Patriots is also on the distribution list for a check in the days to come, along with several other North Florida veterans groups.

“We may not be able to rectify the damage this group has done, but we can help defray some of the loss,” said Rep. Thurston.

For Curtis Hodge, the financial officer for Robert Bethel American Legion Post 220 in Fort Lauderdale, the check means some much needed help in their goals to help veterans and the community.

“It’s definitely going to make a difference,” said Hodge, a former Army Combat Sergeant who served in Vietnam and describes his fellow warriors as “the vets that were forgotten.”

Hodge’s American Legion Post is in a never-ending struggle to raise money for their long list of those in need – everything from helping vets with temporary housing and food assistance, to scholarships.

Hodge said before news of the scandal broke, he had neither heard of nor ever had any contact or assistance from Allied Veterans.  Their raising millions of dollars ostensibly on behalf of vets, but giving a pal-try two percent to such charities was “a definite injustice,” he said.

For “the forgotten vets” and the warriors who followed, the check from the Broward County lawmakers will go a long way in helping vets the way Allied was supposed to, but didn’t.

“All these years we’ve been here, it’s been difficult because we haven’t had any significant funding from anyone,” said Hodge. The check delivered Monday “was unbelievable.”

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