Editorial: Call for reform at veterans agency

In 1978, a small band of veterans in lower Fairfield County sounded the call for the U.S. government to come to their aid as they confronted the effects of Agent Orange, an herbicide the military used to clear vegetation on Vietnamese battlefields.

One of the veterans, Stamford resident Paul Reutershan, died that same year of cancer, which he blamed on Agent Orange. Six years later, his lawsuit against the government and the makers of Agent Orange led in a class-action that was settled for $240 million. This handful of veterans came to define the issue of Agent Orange. The group, originally named Vietnam Veterans Agent Orange Victims, eventually changed its name to the National Veterans Services Fund to reflect its expanded duties. In some ways, the mission was the same: To help veterans the government had failed to serve. When the Veterans Administration can't provide funding, the NVSF pays for wheelchairs and mortgage and utility payments.

It's a cause Americans have come to embrace. Eight years ago, though, the agency was at the epicenter of troubling stories about its use of professional fundraisers. Watchdog organizations cited NVSF as one of the least efficient charity organizations in the United States. It leaned so heavily on paid fundraisers that 97 percent of the $4.4 million it raised in 2004 went to that function.

Then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal decried the practice of using professional fundraising machines at the time, while underscoring that they were not doing anything illegal.

NVSF President Philip Kraft, meanwhile, acted as though his hands were tied, blindly accepting that "They're professionals who do the job better than we can do."

Kraft, the only paid member of the group at the time, was wrong. The American Institute of Philanthropy gave NVSF an F in its assessment of nonprofit organizations. A popular figure among veterans and in Darien, where NVSF has been based for several years, Kraft should have leveraged his good will by reaching out for help. He should have invested in staff, giving jobs to veterans. He should have sought advice from area nonprofits. He should have settled on raising less, but focused on getting more money to where it was needed.

A couple of years after we reported that less than $11,000 of the millions raised had gone to veterans, Kraft finally hired someone to help him. Five years later, bookkeeper Cynthia Tanner was arraigned this week on charges of embezzling more than $186,000 from the organization. Police say the amount could reach $830,000 by the end of the investigation.

Tanner will get her day in court. But her suspected crime remains a fraction of the money professional fundraisers are bleeding from people who believe they are helping those who served our country. Charity Navigator gave the NVSF a zero star rating for fiscal year 2011-12.

Veterans are the first victims of this lack of oversight, but donors and other charities feel the impact as well. Kraft failed to see the wisdom in doing business another way after news of his operation surfaced eight years ago. In 2011, he told the Tampa Bay Times, "To blame a charity for the price charged by our fundraisers is like blaming a driver for the price of gas." The newspaper reported that from 2002 to 2011, about $5.5 million of the $70 million raised was used for direct aid.

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Supporters of veterans rights need to rally, as they did for Reutershan's cause in 1978. State Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, a U.S. Air Force veteran who chairs the Veterans' Affairs Committee, pledged to determine how embezzlement could have happened and ensure controls are put in place.

Allegations of embezzlement may have come as a surprise, but the inefficient management of NVSF should have been addressed by the likes of Leone, Blumenthal (now a U.S. senator) and others. It was no secret that Kraft, who served in Vietnam in 1970, needed help.

Lawmakers must rally to this cause. For the sake of veterans as well as charities, they need to question the ongoing mission of the National Veterans Services Fund. If the group continues to resist a dramatic change of course, it should be shut down. If that's the unfortunate reality, it will add to the toxic legacy of Agent Orange.