Convicted felons, drug users...even a registered sex offender…those are some of the people our I-Team found raising money for the Veterans in Need Foundation at Florida rest areas.
And many aren't even veterans.
The non-profit organization has a long history of complaints, but the state continues to issue them permits, allowing them to raise millions of dollars.
“If you can, $20 will house a vet for a week,” said Nicholas Koleff, as he manned a table in front of a rest stop in Hernando County.
“Can you help us out?” he asked passersby.
Visitors to Florida's rest stops and welcome centers give hundreds-of-thousands of dollars a year to the Veterans in Need Foundation, a non-profit charity based in Pompano Beach, FL.
Not all of the people soliciting spent time in the military.
Koleff admitted he’s not a veteran, but refers to himself as a 12 year volunteer for Veterans in Need.
“I just come out here and raise money,” said David Tussie, whose identification card indicates he is a non-veteran solicitor and a supervisor.
Donald Vincent, who we found nodding off in his chair outside a rest area along I-75, wouldn’t give us his full name, but we learned who he was from the permit issued.
Vincent is a registered sex offender from Broward County, where the charity is based.
Nick Koleff, also from Broward County, served time for attempted sexual battery, false imprisonment and multiple DUIs. .
“They do a background check on us to make sure we're legit,” Koleff told us.
Tommy Moreland of Tampa, who we found soliciting at a Manatee County rest area, is a legitimate veteran.
“I might be the only one. We prefer veterans because most people don't want to donate unless they know it's a veteran,” Moreland said.
But he's also a convicted felon.
Moreland told us he has raised more than $500 dollars in a day in a bucket and averages around $350.
Moreland says the more people donate, the more his supervisor pays him.
“He gives me cash,” Moreland says of his supervisor, who he said counts the money in the bucket at the end of his shift and gives him between 25 and 50 percent of the money inside.
He says the rest is sent to the charity’s headquarters to cover administrative costs.
“We've got $20,000, $30,000, $50,000 coming in on a weekend,” said Jeff Fraley, who used to work as a supervisor for Veterans in Need.
Fraley says he recruited homeless people, put them up in apartments and drove them to sites to collect donations.
Fraley said he was paid $1,000 a week, given a free apartment and given a free rental car in exchange for overseeing operations, which involved booking fundraising events at stores all over Florida and rest areas.
“It was never about let's help the veterans. It was about let's use the veterans to make me rich,” Fraley said.
Fraley says he paid solicitors 30 percent of donations, but he says they had to pay for their own food and rent.
He says when he worked for the charity in Broward County several years ago, he said some employees had substance abuse problems that grew worse because they had easy access to cash from donations.
“We're enabling these guys to be drug addicts and alcoholics,” Fraley said.
Florida Department of Transportation complaints allege solicitors drank on the job, cursed at an employee and slept in a locked restroom.
Other allegations involve aggressive behavior, intimidating conduct and smoking.
The charity was located in commercial complex in Pompano Beach.
They moved out after city inspectors discovered men were living in bed-bug infested offices without access to bathing facilities.
Now Veterans in Need Foundation has no actual physical address.
Their mail goes to a PO box at a UPS Store.
In the charity’s most recent IRS filing, it reported collecting $448,000 in donations in the latest year available and almost $2.2 Million over five years.
Veterans in Need Founder and CEO Joe Haddy, who is not a veteran, refused our requests for an on-camera interview about how the charity operates and where the money goes.
He told us he would have veterans his charity assisted contact us, but nobody did.
His website shows pictures of several veterans with $100 checks they reportedly received from the organization.
“What he did with the money, I have no clue. I have no clue,” said Edward Sanchez, who rents rooms to two Tampa area veteran and drops them off at rest stops to solicit.
He says most of the people he helps are chronically homeless, often have substance abuse problems and sometimes are mentally ill.
“The ones off the street they're very difficult. Maybe they might last a week, they might last two. They might last one day,” said Sanchez.
Sanchez believes the charity could be fixed, if it were better regulated by the state.
“We have to be told not to be aggressive, we have to be told stop the drinking, they have to be told things,” Sanchez said.
Jeff Fraley filed an official complaint with the state when he quit, but he doesn’t believe the state ever took action.
FDOT suspended the foundation’s fundraising permits for six months in early 2016 for repeatedly violating the rules, but now they're back in business.
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at email@example.com.