Oregon veteran's parents must repay $47,000 in swindled aid
By EVERTON BAILEY JR. | The Oregonian (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 18, 2017
A Happy Valley, Ore. couple must repay nearly $47,000 that they illegally obtained in benefits and donations for a charity they created to honor their military veteran son who committed suicide.
Michael Brennan, 53, was sentenced Friday to two months in jail for soliciting and accepting cash donations and work on his family's Happy Valley home on behalf of Saving America's Heroes in 2013 and 2014.
Brennan and his wife, 48-year-old Maria Brennan, also were sentenced to two years of probation for illegally accepting food stamps, cash assistance meant for low-income families and Medicaid benefits from 2009 to 2014.
The parents of seven didn't report over the years that they had more than $200,000 in their bank accounts, a $500,000 home, an $81,000 motorhome and $250,000 in a safe at home, said Jeremy Morrow, a Clackamas County deputy district attorney.
They both pleaded guilty in December to first-degree theft by deception and unlawfully obtaining public assistance. Michael Brennan also pleaded guilty to unlawfully using supplemental nutritional assistance and Maria Brennan pleaded guilty to unsworn falsification.
Michael Brennan will be eligible for electronic home detention after 10 days in jail. Maria Brennan wasn't sentenced to any jail time.
Nearly $31,000 in restitution was due Friday -- to the Oregon Department of Human Services for illegal benefits they collected for the charity and to four other organizations for donations of money and labor. About $16,000 in funds seized from The Brennans by the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office will also be added to the restitution.
Samuel Kauffman, Michael Brennan's lawyer, told Judge Katherine Weber that the couple would be able to make the payment.
Morrow said one of the main reasons that prosecutors made the plea deal was that the couple agreed to repay the majority of what they took.
"They've agreed to make all the victims whole," Morrow said. "The victims in this case are all happy with the case to be over with."
The couple created the nonprofit Saving America's Heroes, also known as the Matthew M. Brennan Foundation, in 2012 on behalf of their 22-year-old son, Morrow said.
Matthew Brennan was an Oregon Army National Guard veteran who committed suicide in 2011 after returning from a deployment in Iraq and struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The organization, which the couple said was created to spread awareness of PTSD in veterans, was incorporated and registered with the state but never received tax-exempt status.
The Brennans, however, advertised it as a tax-exempt charity on Facebook, on business cards, in emails and by word of mouth, Morrow said.
The husband did "90 to 95 percent" of the solicitation, the Morrow said, so the prosecution dropped fraud charges against his wife.
Almost as soon as donated money went into the charity's bank account, it would be withdrawn, Morrow said. Some of the money was traced to the couple's personal bank accounts, he said.
The Brennans held two fundraisers at a Chipotle in Happy Valley and accepted at least $3,000 from a Tualatin-based plumbers and steamfitters union, Morrow said. They also accepted free labor, including plumbing and electrical work, from the union and other groups to build a basement apartment at their home.
The couple claimed the foundation was creating the living space for a disabled veteran, but never disclosed that it was for Maria Brennan's father, a disabled Navy veteran, and mother, Morrow said.
The father, 67-year-old James Wilkerson, lived at an Oregon Veterans' Home in The Dallas. His wife, Esther Wilkerson, killed him at the facility in October 2015. Court records show the wife stabbed her husband of 38 years while they were alone in his room on their wedding anniversary.
Esther Wilkerson, 72, was sentenced in August 2016 to 10 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter.
In the charity case, a Clackamas County detective and an Oregon Department of Justice investigator confronted the Brennans about the fraud. They initially said they never claimed tax-exempt status, but later admitted that "it didn't look good" when shown all the different ways the foundation advertised itself as tax-exempt, Morrow said.
Kaufmann acknowledged confusion over the tax-exempt status, but said Saving America's Heroes was a real organization created to help suffering veterans.
Michael Brennan knows he wasn't clear in fully explaining where all the donated money and labor was going, the defense attorney said.
"They feel very strongly about the work they've done on behalf of their late son," Kauffmann said. "And it was a legit charity."
Michael Brennan is a disabled military veteran himself and has several psychological and physical issues, Kauffman said
The Brennans didn't comment during the proceedings. Maria Brennan declined comment afterward through her attorney.
At the end of the hearing, a deputy handcuffed her husband and helped him to the jury box before he was taken to the county jail.
She looked at him and whispered, "You'll be OK. You're going to be OK."
He nodded his head, his shackled hands resting on top of his cane, as he sat.
Maria Brennan hugged a friend who accompanied her to court, buried her head in his chest and cried.
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