PALM HARBOR — Three officers of now-defunct Palm Harbor nonprofits have reached settlements with the attorneys general from 11 states, including Florida, over allegations the charities they operated misused funds raised for medical assistance to military veterans.
In a lawsuit filed Jan. 4 by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, Stacey Jill Spiegel, Allan Mark Spiegel and Neal Aaron Spiegel were accused of raising more than $2.7 million through several charitable organizations, all of which had the declared purpose of providing medical assistance, rehabilitation and therapy to members of the armed forces injured in the line of duty after Sept. 11, 2001.
The organizations were Harleys for Heroes, American Veterans Foundation, and Injured American Veterans Foundation, incorporated as Healing Heroes Network, and Hero Giveaways, a limited liability corporation.
Only a tiny fraction of the organizations’ fundraising — $14,515 — actually benefited veterans, Moody said. The rest of the money was paid to professional fundraisers or used by the Spiegels for personal expenses.
A statement released Jan. 12 by Moody’s office said the stipulated judgment approved by the Pinellas circuit court requires HHN and Hero Giveaways to permanently cease all charitable solicitations. Stacey, Allan and Neal Spiegel have also agreed to pay $95,000, which will be distributed to a veterans’ charity that provides services similar to those HHN had represented it would provide. The defendants are also banned for five years from overseeing, managing or soliciting charitable contributions for any nonprofit organization.
Moody called the actions committed by the Spiegels through the charities “outrageous.”
“The fact that anyone would exploit the service and sacrifice of our wounded military heroes to solicit money under false pretenses is deserving of the highest level of contempt,” she added. “Fortunately, as a result of this joint action with my counterparts in other states, HHN will be banned from soliciting donations in Florida and we will claw back some of the unlawfully obtained donations.”
The states of California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia and Washington joined in the action.
Stacey and Allan Spiegel incorporated Healing Heroes Network as a Florida not-for-profit corporation in November 2008. By 2017, it was registered as a charitable organization.
Hero Giveaways was incorporated as a limited liability corporation in January 2018 with Stacey Speigel listed as the only controlling member. Hero Giveaways was voluntarily dissolved in March 2019.
The Attorney General’s office offered suggestions about how to avoid charity scams:
• Research before giving. Search the charity’s name online with words such as: scam or complaint. Look up the charity’s name on the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website or research the organization using CharityWatch.org, CharityNavigator.org and Give.org;
• Avoid paying with cash, gift cards or wire transfers. Payment by these methods is difficult to track and therefore, difficult to recover. Consider donating by using a credit card, which tends to be more secure and trackable;
• Be sure to know and trust the professional fundraiser who offers to send a courier to pick up a check or cash donation;
• Research the charity name and do not be swayed by the name of the charity alone. Often, charity names are selected to have an emotional impact on specific groups of donors. For example, many veterans’ charity names often include the following words: veterans, heroes, wounded, injured and warriors. This doesn’t always mean the charity will donate to the named groups or prioritize this group above others; and
• Ask what percentage of donations support charitable services. Also, ask for the charity’s name, web address, physical location and phone number. It is a red flag if the charity or fundraiser is unwilling to answer questions.