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Indicted veterans group founder will enter diversion program

In an undated file photo, Venus Azevedo-Laboda, of Erie, poses with a picture of her brother, U.S. Navy Combat Corpsman Phillip A. Azevedo, who took his own life in March 2012, in Erie, after tours in Afghanistan. Azevedo-Laboda went on to found Boots on Ground, a veterans organization from which she was later accused of embezzling.

ERIE TIMES-NEWS

By MADELEINE O'NEILL | | Published: February 24, 2020

ERIE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — The founder of a now-defunct Erie veterans organization has reached an agreement to end her federal criminal case through a pretrial diversion program that will allow her to avoid continued prosecution on charges that she embezzled more than $7,000 in donations.

The agreement would mean that the case against Venus Azevedo-Laboda, 46, who started Boots on Ground in 2014, would be put on hold for two years.

If Azevedo-Laboda successfully completes the two-year diversionary program, the indictment against her will be dismissed, according to an agreement filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Erie.

Azevedo-Laboda has agreed to pay $7,010 in restitution during the two-year program, according to the agreement. The victims who will receive restitution include more than a dozen groups and individuals who donated to Boots on Ground, court filings show.

U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter must approve the agreement before it can take effect.

The two-year program would be similar to probation. Azevedo-Laboda will be under supervision and will be required to comply with certain conditions for the full two-year period to complete it successfully.

The program does not require Azevedo-Laboda to enter a plea. She can avoid prison time if she meets the program's requirements.

Azevedo-Laboda has said previously that she started Boots on Ground after the death of her brother, U.S. Navy Corpsman Phillip Azevedo, who was suffering from PTSD. She told the Erie Times-News in 2015 that she formed the group to educate others on how to help veterans in crisis.

She was indicted in January 2019 on charges that she deposited donations to Boots on Ground into her personal bank account and used a debit card linked to the organization's bank account to pay personal bills.

The indictment charged that the fraud took place between January 2014 and November 2018, and that Azevedo-Laboda received a total of $7,837 in funds intended for the group.

She faced seven counts of wire fraud related to specific occasions when the funds were used to pay bills, including to First Energy, National Fuel Gas, Erie Water Works and Time Warner between October 2014 and September 2015.

She has been free on $10,000 unsecured bond since her first court appearance in January 2019.

She is represented by Assistant Federal Public Defender Maria Goellner.

A lawyer for Boots on Ground announced the group would dissolve in February 2019.

moneill@timesnews.com

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