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 signed off on the settlement. He declined to comment, but offered to provide the Superior Telegram with a prepared statement sent out by Debbie Osborne, director of operations for TREA.
According to the statement, the TREA Memorial Foundation voluntarily entered into the agreement with the Minnesota attorney general so it could use its remaining funds to fulfill its mission of helping veterans and their families rather than paying legal fees, or fines and penalties.
"The Foundation's phone card program was a good program that got a late start and became antiquated before its time. Phone cards were purchased, waiting to be given to those who needed them; however, they just were never requested. All phone cards remaining in inventory have been donated to the VA Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, for distribution to veterans and their families," according to the statement.
A message also was left with another TREA signatory, national president Philip Hilinski, of Akron, Ohio.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune / Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. The Superior Telegram contributed to this report.