I-Team: Former treasurer of veterans group faces grand theft charge

Marine Corps League claims $107,000 has vanished

TAMPA - Frank Coto's tenure as paymaster of the Marine Corps League's Tampa detachment has cost the veterans group more than $269,000, according to his successor.

Whether it will cost Coto his freedom is up to a Hillsborough County judge, and perhaps a jury.

Coto, who turns 75 later this month, was arrested in August after a year-long investigation by Tampa police. The retired marine, who runs a Tampa detective agency, is charged with one count of grand theft of more than $100,000 during the nearly four years he was paymaster, or treasurer, of the detachment.

But the detachment's commandant, Willie Little Jr., says unraveling all that Coto did to the group is proving trickier than he thought.

Not only did Coto drain the group's bank account of $107,000, according to the detachment's new paymaster, L. David Kirk.  Coto also loaned another $62,000 of detachment funds to a charity he now runs, Kirk told authorities, while managing to lose in excess of another $100,000 of detachment cash in a real estate deal involving the charity.

Little, who served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam era, says he and other members of the Marine Gunner Angus R. Goss Detachment #056 trusted a fellow Marine. They now feel betrayed, Little says.

"He has some other motive that was driving him," Little told the ABC Action News I-Team. "And the way it looks today, it was all personal.  It was for his personal gain.  Because, if it was not for his personal gain, we would have our money by now."

In March 2010, Little had been a member of the Tampa detachment less than a year when he was elected commandant.  Although relatively new to the Tampa detachment, Little says he had been deeply involved with another Marine Corps League detachment in Riverview.

As standard procedure, Little requested the Tampa detachment's financial records from Coto, its paymaster since July 2007.  Little says he wished to know where the detachment stood financially as he took over its leadership.

"For a period of several months, he put off providing, (with) one excuse after another, why he didn't have the information," Little recalled of Coto.

One of the Marine Corps League's primary missions is to raise college scholarship money for the children and grandchildren of marines.  Little says he spearheaded a scholarship fundraiser, with some of the proceeds going to the Marine Corps League's state organization.

"I requested and received permission from the members to donate $800," Little recalls.  "We had raised something like $2,000.  And the check was written, given to the state.  Unfortunately, the check bounced.  So then a red flag really went up in my head. I said, 'Ah, what the devil's going on?'"

After months of stalling, Coto finally acknowledged in December 2010 that he had placed more than $100,000 of detachment money into an annuity in his name, according to a claim that the Marine Corps League later filed with a bonding company. That same month, Coto was relieved of his duties as the detachment's paymaster.

A sworn statement by police contends Coto obtained the money through a series of bank withdrawals. When confronted by detachment members, Coto lied and fabricated documents to cover his tracks, according to the police affidavit.

Little says Coto had belonged to the Tampa detachment longer than he had. Coto used that goodwill to hold off internal inquiries, Little says. "Some of the other members that had been there a while, they believed Frank," Little says. "I had been there such a short period of time. I said: 'My position is, if he can't show me the documents, then how can I believe anything?'"

The new commandant says he was also uneasy about a project called Veterans Commons. The detachment bought a Disabled American Veterans building north of downtown Tampa for what county records show was a price of $516,800. The idea was to convert the property into a veterans service center that would include a homeless shelter and office space for military retiree groups, including the Marine Corps League.

"It was a worthwhile project," Little said. "But we didn't have anybody who could execute, or they didn't have any intent of executing."

Coto teamed up with a community activist named David H. Foster on the Veterans Commons project, according to Little. Foster, who served briefly as a Tampa appointee to Hillsborough County's city-county planning commission, had operated a community development corporation rehabbing Tampa homes with city funding. But those properties eventually slipped into foreclosure, county records show.

State records show the CDC was dissolved in 2009. A month later, Veterans Commons Community Development Corp. Inc., was incorporated as a charity from the same Tampa address as the earlier CDC. Foster was listed as president of the new CDC.

The new CDC asked the Tampa Bay congressional delegation to earmark $750,000 in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds for Veterans Commons. U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor,

Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, won an earmark of $500,000 in 2010.

Despite the federal money and the $62,000 loan from the Marine Corps League, Veterans Commons couldn't get off the ground. Little wondered why the detachment purchased the building in the first place.

"I went and put together a schedule," Little said. "I said, 'we're paying this much in rent, utilities, and we were only meeting there one day a week?' We could have rented a room for $200 a day. Instead, we're paying almost $3,500 a month."

Again, Little says he couldn't get satisfactory answers from Coto, or Foster. "The man would never look me in the eye," Little said of Foster. "He would always look at Frank Coto when he was talking."

Coto has since forced Foster out of the charity and instructed HUD officials to freeze federal disbursements for Veterans Commons until further notice, according to correspondence to and from the charity.  

Castor and Bilirakis withdrew their support for the HUD funding. "I am deeply concerned," Bilirakis wrote to HUD, "that the CDC has not met the conditions upon which the appropriation was granted."

Little says a local Disabled American Veterans chapter reluctantly took back the building that the Marine Corps League had purchased, in lieu of foreclosure. Kirk estimated the Marine Corps League lost more than $100,000 in equity as a result.

In September, the Veterans Commons CDC delivered a strongly worded letter to the Marine Corps League that advised Little and Kirk that it won't repay the $62,000 loan.

"This letter is in response to the derogatory action which you have brought upon our president and chairman Frank Coto," wrote Veterans Commons Treasurer Anthony DeCaprio, referring to Coto's arrest several weeks earlier.

DeCaprio claimed that Foster used the $62,000 for "his own personal gain." If the Marine Corps League wants its $62,000 back, DeCaprio wrote, "we suggest you collect it from David Foster."

Several Tampa telephone numbers for Foster have been disconnected and he couldn't be reached for comment.

Coto wouldn't talk about anything during an I-Team visit to his detective agency, which doubles as the base for the Veterans Commons charity. Coto also didn't respond to a request to inspect the tax returns of the non-profit, a violation of Internal Revenue Service regulations.

In November, Coto faces a hearing in his criminal case.

Meanwhile, HUD intends to make the grant funds available to Coto after he settles his differences with Foster. HUD officials say they cannot deny the Veterans Commons CDC because the charity has followed federal grant rules so far. 

Do you have information about government waste, fraud or abuse? A tip about business misconduct that needs to be investigated? Email us at iteam@abcactionnews.com .  

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