Bitter rift cracks open in Calif. veterans advocate community
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Military veterans in Kern County and the army of advocates who support them have long been a close-knit community in Kern County.
But a chasm has opened that may be splitting the community in two.
At the center of the dispute is former NFL player and Iraq War veteran Jeremy Staat, and the nonprofit foundation that bears his name.
Staat, who acknowledges he may sometimes offend people in his zeal to speak what he believes is the truth, was ousted from the board of another well-known nonprofit this summer for just such an offense. Now, several critics are coming forward to express concerns about the amount of money Staat's foundation raises, and more importantly, how it is used.
Staat, in turn, accuses his critics of mismanaging their donation dollars. They are simply envious of his success in raising thousands of donated dollars in a short amount of time, he contends.
And in the middle are the veterans themselves, many facing service-related injury or illness, problems re-entering the civilian world and a national economy that can't quite seem to bounce back from the recession.
Coming to a head
In a letter dated Aug. 7, the governing board of the Wounded Heroes Fund gave Staat "official notice" of his "removal from the Wounded Heroes Fund Board of Directors."
The split between Staat, founder of the 15-month-old Jeremy Staat Foundation, and members of other veteran advocacy organizations, may have been building for months. But it all came to a head in late July when members of the WHF board were considering, via a long string of emails, a motion to give a $1,000 grant to the widow of a serviceman killed in action. The money was intended to help pay for a home improvement project.
But when Staat began asking questions and suggested the organization was not doing right by the veteran community, the tone of the emails began to change.
First, longtime board member Glenn Porter made the motion, then member Paul Bealessio seconded it and voted yes. Next member Zack Scrivner, also a member of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, voted yes.
Then Staat commented.
"Well that's good to know that fallen Marine is only worth $1,000 to the WHF. We can go out and generate more funds. Thats what a nonprofit does or is that too much work?" he wrote.
Jason Geis, a member of the WHF board and a sergeant in the U.S. Army who is about to be discharged after serving 20 years, was incensed by Staat's implication.
"First let me say that I have never nor would ever say that anyone's life is worth $1,000 — I would give each of them $1 million if I could," Geis wrote. "After 20 years saving lives and seeing lives taken in many countries — if anybody has appreciation for the value of life — it is me."
There was some discussion about raising the grant to $10,000, although the motion for the $1,000 grant was still on the table.
Then Wendy Porter, founder of WHF and no relation to Glenn Porter, said the discussion was getting more heated than was necessary. As director, Wendy Porter is not a voting member of the board.
Grants have always been given based on needs and wants, and the discussion to raise the amount to $10,000 without connecting the money to specific projects or costs was unnecessary, she argued.
"Maybe I shouldn't be offended by that comment," Porter continued, referring to Staat's email, "but I am!! My blood sweat and tears, along with the rest of you have gone into making this organization a success."
When Geis agreed with Porter's recommendation, Staat replied again.
"Awesome ... Don't be offended, if the money is setting in a bank account and not being used them it is just collecting interest. Not meant to be offensive, it's just the truth," Staat asserted.
Porter's frustration with Staat was now in full force. "If you had been attending our meetings, you would know that we are doing everything you've suggested already and a lot more," she said. "Your lack of participation and knowledge as to what Wounded Heroes is doing and where our money is being used suggests to me that WHF is not a priority to you. Maybe it is time for you to resign and focus all of your energy on your own foundation. No hard feelings meant by this, but I am offended by your comments and to me it's apparent that your agenda is strictly for the Jeremy Staat Foundation."
The tension grew even tighter. Staat told Porter, "You act as if this money is yours ..." and suggested the WHF is all about her, not about wounded veterans and their families.
"The funny thing is that just because I do not have a limb missing or any visual scars, doesn't mean I am not a wounded veteran," he wrote. "I too am a post 9/11 wounded veteran (as you claim to support) and I have never asked WHF for anything, but only that you support the cause."
Later he suggested Porter should resign and "and let a Veteran take your place."
Eventually Evan Morgan entered the discussion. Morgan, a U.S. marine who was on his second tour of duty in Iraq in 2005 when the Humvee he was riding in was struck by a roadside bomb, lost both legs in the explosion, one above the knee, one below.
"Jeremy, it might not seem like it to you, but YOU made this personal," Morgan responded in an email. "The condescending way in which you chose to phrase your opinions served as a back-handed insult towards anyone who was in disagreement. It wasn't just offensive to Wendy, but to a number of us."
Morgan agreed with Porter that Staat's foundation had become his priority, and that it was interfering with his duties as a WHF board member.
"Your suggestion that a veteran should take Wendy's place was comically banal," he continued. "I don't believe that there is veteran on our board who believes that he could do better, and I know that there isn't one who could."
It was Staat who decided late last week to release the emails to The Californian.
Before that, Porter and others had not been willing to go on the record criticizing Staat and his foundation. But once the emails were released, everything changed.
The vote to remove Staat from the board was 10-0, with two abstentions, said Wendy Porter.
"He didn't just offend me, he offended the entire board," she said of Staat, who played for the National Football League before joining the Marines in late 2005.
Last spring, Staat was joined by U.S. Army veteran Wesley Leon-Barrientos in cycling across the United States to bring heightened awareness to veteran issues and childhood obesity. Leon-Barrientos, who, like Morgan, lost both legs in a bomb attack in Iraq, used a hand cycle. Following an injury, he was unable to continue riding, but he stayed with the Wall-to-Wall team to the end.
Despite the bond created by the experience, Leon-Barrientos was one of the WHF board members who voted to remove Staat from the board.
Not only was the Army combat veteran disturbed by Staat's comments in the emails, he said he also has concerns about Staat's motivation and divided loyalties.
"For a long time before this, he had been making comments privately to me," said Leon-Barrientos. "He went off on Wendy."
"Jeremy's motivation to be part of Wounded Heroes Fund is not there anymore," he said. "He used WHF as a stepping stone to start his own foundation. A combination of those things made it very easy to vote him out."
Morgan also voted to oust Staat.
Despite disagreements on the board, "no one ever attacked anyone else," Morgan said. "Everyone has remained very professional — until Jeremy."
Randall Dickow, an Air Force veteran who is not on the WHF board, has long been a strong advocate and volunteer for veterans issues.
The deeper concerns, he said, revolve around the fact the Jeremy Staat Foundation has a governing board of just three people, all related.
The foundation was granted its tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status recently, retroactive to June 2011, according to the foundation's application with the IRS. Financial decisions are governed by a board made up of Staat, his father-in-law, Joe Hamilton, and his mother, Janet Staat-Goedhart.
Dickow said the arrangement has the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if none exists. Many tens of thousands of tax-free dollars have been donated to the foundation, but a three-member board comprised of relatives cannot provide sufficient oversight, he said.
In addition, Dickow questioned the foundation's core mission of education and awareness-raising, and suggested better use could have been made of some $140,000 in donations raised during the Wall-to-Wall ride.
"Awareness of issues related to veterans is at an all-time high," Dickow said. "And anybody who doesn't know by now that childhood obesity is a national problem has to have been living under a rock."
The amount of money people are able to donate to veterans causes is finite, Dickow said. Is it a good idea, he asked, to use that money for awareness-raising when real veterans are in need of real assistance?
Bakersfield has never been shy about supporting active duty servicemembers and military veterans.
So when Staat and Leon-Barrientos teamed up last spring to ride bikes from the Wall of Valor in Bakersfield to the Vietnam War memorial wall in Washington, D.C., thousands supported them. Many gave their time or money. Others donated equipment or hotel stays along the way.
The Wall to Wall Ride helped generate some $140,000 in donations, all exempt from federal taxes due to its nonprofit status.
Staat, the founder and namesake of the foundation and one of the veterans who participated in the 3,468-mile ride, stands by it.
All the money was spent, Staat said, to pay for the bike ride itself. Actually, the foundation still owes about $10,000 as donations didn't fully cover the cost of the equipment, vehicles, fuel, food and lodging for the eight people who made the trip.
He had originally estimated the cost of the ride, with chase and lead cars, an RV, a bike mechanic, fuel, food and lodging expenses would reach close to $300,000, more than $2,500 per day. But the cost came in at about half that.
Staat and his mother said there's no question in their minds that the foundation's core mission of education and awareness-raising is worthwhile.
Staat said he rode 3,468 miles, visited 16 states and participated in 176 speaking events. They visited 25 schools, 16 veterans hospitals and 33 veterans groups — and they generated 107 news stories.
"It's all been worth the effort," he said. "The long hours, being away from home, being away from my family — it's all worth it."
If you could see the children and teachers who were moved by their presentations, the gratitude and tears on the faces of aging veterans who felt they had been forgotten, there would be no questions about whether such contact is worth the cost, Staat said.
While the foundation's federal documents and bylaws allow Staat to derive a salary from the foundation, the former machine gunner said he hasn't been paid for months, and has taken about $14,000 from the foundation. His mother and father-in-law are also allowed moderate compensation under the bylaws, but neither has taken a cent.
"I'll be honest," Staat said. "We have $146 in the bank right now."
And with rent and utilities to cover for his offices on Calloway Drive, Staat is not sure how the foundation will continue forward. And yet he's sure it will.
The size of the foundation's board will grow as the foundation grows, said Staat-Goedhart, Staat's mother. They were all taken by surprise by how many people joined the Wall-to-Wall effort, either by volunteering, by giving a donation or simply by providing moral support.
"We grew faster and larger than we knew," she said. "We're just now taking a break, recamping, revamping."
And the accounting attorney they took counsel from advised them to start with the three core board members and grow the board when necessary.
The criticism from other veterans advocates?
"Jealousy," Staat-Goedhart said. "They're jealous that Jeremy has done what he's done in such a short period of time."
A rivalry has emerged, she acknowledged. A "falling out" has occurred.
She and her son are critical of the Wounded Heroes Fund and its mission to partner with other groups and individuals to build houses for veterans such as Morgan and Leon-Barrientos.
The money should be spread more evenly to help more veterans help themselves, Staat said. And too much money is in the bank.
Staat on Monday shared another email from late July in which the WHF's Paul Bealessio responds to Staat's suggestion that the nonprofit is banking too much money.
"Currently our bank balance is around $300,000," Bealessio wrote. "At our historical ratio of fundraising to expenditure, supplemented by the disposition of (a donated) house, we could well be sitting on $500,000 a year from now.
"I am confident," Bealessio continued, "that we can defend it but cash assets at 2 ½ times annual grants plus operating expense may well raise IRS scrutiny."
But at least two more double-amputees are being considered for a new home.
Where to now?
Both sides agree that the rift would become a tragedy should it hurt the larger goal of assisting struggling veterans.
Even as the once-private battle rages, veteran suicides are alarming in their frequency. Kern County-area veterans still have challenges in navigating the government-supported health care system. And unemployment rates for vets remain higher than the general population.
Meanwhile, Staat is planning another cross-country bike ride.
He says he will enter the 2013 Race Across America, to be used as a fund raiser. Early registration rates for a team of eight are $13,795.