Police Open Probe Into VetCare

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2017

Hanover — The Hanover Police Department says it has opened a criminal investigation into the veterans aid group Project VetCare stemming from a report that some of the organization’s directors took money for personal expenses.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office on Thursday announced that the Hanover-based nonprofit would close and that officials involved in the misuse of the organization’s funds had agreed to repay some of the money.

Officials at area veterans groups on Friday expressed concern that news about Project VetCare’s improprieties could hurt their own efforts.

The state’s Charitable Trusts Unit, which oversees New Hampshire charities, investigated the organization and discovered “diversion of large sums of money for the benefit of the charity’s executive director, her family, an employee and some members of the board of directors,” the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office said in a statement on Thursday.

State officials have passed their findings to Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo, who said on Friday that Hanover police had begun a probe.

“All I can say is we have an active investigation into the allegation of misappropriation of funds and fraudulent activity,” Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis said in a phone message on Friday. Given that the inquiry is ongoing, he said, “we do not have charges to recommend at this point.”

The attorney general said some of Project VetCare’s leaders had diverted money to pay for a range of personal purposes, including a cruise vacation, a heating system for the executive director’s home, and loans and stipends for directors and their relatives.

Robert Chambers, co-founder of Project VetCare, was among those named in the report. The investigation found that he used the organization’s fund to pay for a Toyota van and that his daughter had received a stipend payment.

Chambers denied being among those who enriched themselves at the charity’s expense and lamented the loss of the organization’s services to the community in a telephone interview on Friday.

Both expenses benefited the charity, according to Chambers: the vehicle ferried veterans to events and new homes, and his daughter had been paid for legitimate marketing work, he said.

“I was not paid anything by Project VetCare, ever,” he said. “There was not any income to me other than legitimate reimbursement of expenses.”

Chambers said he had agreed to pay back $11,500 without admitting fault. He said the Toyota payment had been approved by the board of directors, but his daughter’s stipend had not — “an error on my part,” he said.

Chambers said there had been “a lot of abuse” at Project VetCare, “but it wasn’t on my part.” He pointed instead to former executive director and board member Danielle Goodwin, who state officials said had paid for a home heating system and a Royal Caribbean cruise vacation with the group’s money.

State officials also have said she paid stipends to herself and her children, and used the organization’s money to make a loan to her son.

Goodwin, who owes Project VetCare $90,000 expected from the sale of her Hanover house, could not be reached for comment on Friday.

The attorney general’s Aug. 24 report faults Chambers and other directors for their spring 2016 decision to vote against investigating Goodwin’s use of funds. That vote came after state authorities had made their concerns known to the nonprofit directors; the three board members who supported an investigation resigned the next day.

Chambers defended the vote by saying he had hoped to keep Project VetCare running.

“If those directors had not resigned we probably could have kept the organization open,” he said.

Project VetCare’s assets, including two homes it bought to provide residences to veterans, are to be liquidated in receivership.

That money, along with restitution paid by those who improperly used funds, will be distributed among veterans groups.

Veterans and leaders of aid groups on Friday said they hoped the scandal would not diminish support for veterans services in the area.

“I hope that people do continue to make contributions locally,” former Dartmouth College President James Wright, a prominent advocate for veterans’ causes, said in an interview.

“There may well have been a problem with Project VetCare, but the problems that veterans in the Upper Valley and elsewhere are dealing with remain — they’re not going away. If anything, the veterans who depend on Project VetCare are going to be in a more difficult situation now, so I hope that people will continue to be generous.”

One of the largest supporters of Project VetCare was the Byrne Foundation, which gave $880,000 in 2014 and 2015, according to filings with the IRS.

Patt Taylor, interim president of Friends of Veterans, said the Byrne Foundation donated to his organization, too, and offered to “open our books or whatever we (have) to do” to “differentiate organizations like ours” from Project VetCare.

Friends of Veterans is based in White River Junction and focuses on helping veterans deal with homelessness, but recently has been expanding to provide service dogs to combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m concerned about that from a fundraising standpoint and a grant standpoint,” Taylor said of the possible association in donors’ minds with VetCare. “I don’t think it’s going to hurt us in terms of veterans applying to us if they need help.”

Both Taylor and Wright recalled the impact of a 2016 executive spending scandal at the Wounded Warrior Project, a national veterans charity, on the reputation of that portion of the charitable sector.

“It was very embarrassing,” said Wright, who serves on the boards of Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans of America and the Semper Fi Fund. “My fear then was that it could affect all of us because Wounded Warriors had become kind of a trademark of veterans organizations.”

Chambers, who co-founded Project VetCare in 2012, said on Friday that his charitable career may be at an end.

Chambers had received accolades from former President Barack Obama for co-founding Bonnie CLAC, a nonprofit that helped working people and those with bad credit find dependable cars.

He got the idea for the organization, now under new management as More Than Wheels, by watching customers leave the auto dealership where he worked with cars that cost too much and wouldn’t last long.

“Organizationally, I don’t know whether I want to do any other founding,” he said on Friday, “although I still think about it.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.