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RIVERSIDE -- Attorney General Kamala D. Harris yesterday filed a civil lawsuit seeking the removal of officers and directors of Help Hospitalized Veterans, a California charity. The complaint alleges that those running the organization engaged in self-dealing, paid excessive executive compensation and engaged in fraudulent fundraising and other unlawful activities.
The lawsuit also seeks to recover more than $4.3 million in funds improperly diverted from Help Hospitalized Veterans. Those funds were meant to support several programs serving veterans and active-duty military, including providing arts and craft kits to hospitalized veterans. Instead, they were used to enrich the organization’s officers and fundraisers.
“The officers of Help Hospitalized Veterans improperly diverted money that hard-working and patriotic Americans donated to support injured vets,” said Attorney General Kamala D. Harris. “We must protect veterans, active-duty military and donors from scam artists who see them as little more than prey for their financial frauds.”
The lawsuit alleges that the directors and officers of Help Hospitalized Veterans breached their fiduciary duty by wasting its charitable assets on such things as golf memberships and a condominium (for use by officers), and authorizing excessive executive compensation to the group’s former President (Roger Chapin) and its current President (Michael Lynch).
The suit alleges Chapin received more than $2.3 million in excessive compensation during the final seven years of his tenure and excessive compensation to Lynch totaled over $900,000. Chapin is additionally charged with self-dealing as a result of substantial diversions of the charity’s funds to entities in which he had a financial interest. Those diversions include loans Help Hospitalized Veterans made to a firm called American Target Advertising, which was making substantial payments to Chapin. American Target Advertising is a for-profit business (founded by Chapin’s close friend Richard Viguerie) that directs Help Hospitalized Veterans’ vast direct-mail fundraising operation.
The lawsuit further alleges that the nonprofit used increasingly-common accounting gimmicks to inflate the amount of income purportedly spent on providing veterans’ services while artificially minimizing the amount reportedly spent on fundraising. For example, Help Hospitalized Veterans’ use of one of these gimmicks resulted in decreasing its reported fundraising costs from 65 percent of total costs to less than 30 percent. As a result, the filings to both the IRS and the Attorney General’s office were substantially false. Donors and charity watchdog groups rely on both of those reported expenditure categories in evaluating a charity’s efficiency.
Controversy around the performance of veteran’s charities like Help Hospitalized Veterans was brought to the public’s attention in 2007 by Rep. Henry A. Waxman who, as Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Hearings, held hearings into their fundraising practices and overhead.
The lawsuit seeks general and punitive damages, restitution, civil penalties and the removal of those officers and directors named in the lawsuit.
Named defendants in the lawsuit include: Help Hospitalized Veterans; its former president Roger Chapin (California); former employee Elizabeth Chapin (California); current president Michael Lynch (California); the following officers or directors of the charity: Robert Beckley, Jr. (Arizona), Thomas Arnold (Florida), Leonard Rogers (Florida), and Gorham Black (Florida); accountant Robert Frank and the company Frank & Company, PC (Virginia); and direct-mail professional fundraiser Creative Direct Response, Inc. (Maryland).
The Complaint alleges seven causes of action: (1) breach of fiduciary duty (against Help Hospitalized Veterans directors and officers); (2) aiding and abetting a breach of fiduciary duty (against Frank and Frank & Co.); (3) engaging in self-dealing transactions in violation of Corporations Code section 5233 (against Chapin); (4) excessive executive compensation in violation of Corporations Code section 5235 (against Chapin and Lynch); (5) wrongful acquisition of property/unjust enrichment (against Chapin and his wife Elizabeth); (6) misrepresentations in solicitations to donors in violation of Government Code section 12599.6 (against Help Hospitalized Veterans, its directors and officers, and Creative Direct Response); and (7) unfair business practices (against all defendants other than Elizabeth Chapin and Creative Direct Response).
More than 2 million of the nation’s 22 million veterans live in California, the highest number for any state. Protecting these veterans, and active-duty military, from financial scams has been a priority for Attorney General Harris. This focus resulted from a survey of veterans who work in the Department of Justice that was undertaken to inform Department efforts on the matter. Attorney General Harris and Holly Petraeus of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently spoke at Travis Air Force Base to warn of financial scams that target military members.