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Court closes veterans group that fraudulently collected $425K, supposedly for paid phone cards

By PAUL WALSH | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: December 27, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS (Tribune News Service) — A nonprofit that sought and collected donations supposedly for paid phone cards for veterans and their families was ordered by a Minnesota court Thursday to shut down after the state attorney general’s office found the charity fraudulently collected hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Along with closing operations, Colorado-based TREA (The Retired Enlisted Association) Memorial Foundation must come up with more than $400,000 that will be distributed to legitimate veterans-support groups in the state, according to the Minnesota attorney general’s office, which prevailed in Ramsey County District Court.

The foundation “did not purchase a single phone card to veterans or their families for years — all while it collected hundreds of thousands in contributions from Minnesotans,” read a statement from the office of Attorney General Lori Swanson.

TREA, based in Centennial, Colo., “has agreed to this settlement,” said Swanson’s spokesman, Ben Wogsland. TREA has 60 days to pay out the money to veterans-related charities, which have yet to be identified, and 90 days to close shop, Wogsland said.

While TREA solicits money around the country and has many chapters in every U.S. time zone, Minnesota is the first state to win such a court order against TREA, Wogsland said.

Between 2012 and 2017, the foundation raised at least $14 million nationwide and more than $345,000 of that total from Minnesotans through professional fundraiser Jeremy Squire and Associates, according to Swanson’s office. Most of the money, Wogsland said, went to pay the fundraiser.

About half of the mailed solicitations sent in Minnesota using the name “The Armed Forces Aid Campaign” that promised the donations would help provide a phone card to allow a soldier or veteran call home.

One mailing pledged the foundation would “use your gift to put a live, activated VA Hospital Phone Card in the hands of one of America’s Heroes.”

No cards were handed out after 2014, and TREA’s total spending on phone cards from that year through 2017 represented less than 0.9 percent of the nearly $9 million it collected in donations.

“Minnesota is home to more than 330,000 veterans and is one of the most generous states in the country,” Swanson said. Charities that take advantage of the desire to give back to service members, veterans, and their families using deception have no place in Minnesota.”

TREA Memorial Foundation Chairman Thomas Liebaert, of Superior, Wis., signed off on the settlement. He was not immediately available to comment about the court order. A message also was left with another TREA signatory, national president Philip Hilinski, of Akron, Ohio.

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