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Out-of-town group attempting to take over veterans facility shaken by Allied scandal

Posted: July 8, 2014 - 8:15pm  |  Updated: July 8, 2014 - 9:47pm
Five Star Veterans Center in Jacksonville has been a rehab center for homeless and struggling post-9/11 vets in Jacksonville for a number of years. Since the Allied Veterans of the World scandal, involving the center's major donor, the center has struggled financially. The leadership, under Col. Len Loving and his wife Suzie Loving, have worked without pay for the last couple of years in order to keep the facility open. Now, an out-of-town group is attempting to take over the facility. On Tuesday July 8, 2014 they were photographed outside the center at the memorial wall.  Bob.Mack@jacksonville.com
Bob.Mack@jacksonville.com
Five Star Veterans Center in Jacksonville has been a rehab center for homeless and struggling post-9/11 vets in Jacksonville for a number of years. Since the Allied Veterans of the World scandal, involving the center's major donor, the center has struggled financially. The leadership, under Col. Len Loving and his wife Suzie Loving, have worked without pay for the last couple of years in order to keep the facility open. Now, an out-of-town group is attempting to take over the facility. On Tuesday July 8, 2014 they were photographed outside the center at the memorial wall.

For the veterans who entered Five Star Veterans Center homeless and walked out months later self-sufficient, the facility meant nothing less than a new lease on life.

However, Warrior City, a Texas-based nonprofit, now wants to take over the Arlington center, leading to the issue of who will run the veterans’ agency.

Though Warrior City only became official in late 2012, the group and its CEO Jerry Shaffer boast a formidable board of directors including former Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Gene Overstreet and the president of the Dallas Veterans Resource Center.

Neither the center’s current CEO nor, it appears, its board of directors support such a takeover.

“I would not want to see Five Star Veterans Center belong to a corporation outside of Florida, whether it be from Texas or California,” said Len Loving, the organization’s CEO.

“I think the Five Star Center is one of the hidden gems of Duval County, to be honest,” said board member Barrett Scruggs. “I would like it to stay within the control of Jacksonville residents because it’s about civic pride.”

In order to take over the center, Warrior City would have to convince Five Star’s board of directors to OK the management change.

Loving, a retired Marine colonel, was brought in as a consultant to help write and implement the center’s Passport to Independence program which is designed to help veterans transition from homelessness to independent living.

“After it was implemented, they asked me to stay on for six months to get it up and running,” Loving said. “Six months turned into a year and, of course, you know what happened in March of 2013.”

Loving and his wife have run Five Star’s day-to-day operations without pay since March 2013 when the center’s biggest source of financial support, Allied Veterans of the World, dissolved and its members indicted in a $300-million gambling, racketeering and money-laundering scheme.

“At that point, I wasn’t going to just run away from it,” Loving said.

Following the Allied Veterans scandal, Five Star’s board was dissolved and replaced with a transitional board.

What followed were months of uncertainty and Five Star’s near collapse. In September 2013, as the center waited on a letter absolving it from liability in the scandal from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Loving was dealing with the very real possibility of having to put the center’s residents out on the streets.

During that time, Shaffer approached Loving.

Shaffer comes from the Buffalo, N.Y., area and served two years in the Marine Corps. Though he has little experience in the non-profit world, he helped start two for-profit companies, Leatherneck.com and Veterans Direct. Leatherneck.com, which Shaffer started in 2001, is an online magazine and forum for Marines, their families and friends. Veterans Direct is a funeral supply company for military veterans.

A previous resident of Jacksonville in the early and mid-2000s, Shaffer moved back in 2013 and already secured a seat on the board of directors of the Fraternal Order of Police Foundation through his work with Guns ‘N Hoses and a relationship with the FOP President David Stevens.

Shaffer approached the FOP to aid Five Star and was able to get a $10,000 donation from the group in 2013.

“[Stevens] and I sat down and I said here’s the situation,” Shaffer said. “He said he’d read about it and said actually they were in the same boat because of what happened with the FOP side of the house with Robbie Frietas and Nelson Cuba.”

Local Fraternal Order of Police Foundation president Nelson Cuba and executive director Robbie Frietas were among 57 arrested in the Allied Veterans scandal.

In April 2013, one month after the arrests, Shaffer and Overstreet met with the Lovings at Five Star.

“It was an interesting presentation and was at a time when the hammer had recently fallen with Allied Veterans and it sounded like they had an interesting plan in Texas,” said Five Star board member Mike Atter who attended the meeting. “Jerry talked to me at Len’s request sometime in May and had a number of observations about what he perceived were some of the strengths and weaknesses of Five Star and places where he thought Warrior City could step in and do a better job.”

Atter asked Shaffer to put those thoughts in writing.

The letter, a copy obtained by the Times-Union and verified by Shaffer, cited numerous concerns:

“Being run as a ‘mom and pop’ and not a business. Questionable leadership and management of facility. Cats in facility. Lack of vision.”

Atter said Shaffer had several misconceptions about the idea behind the center. “My own personal thoughts about it were that I don’t think Jerry is entirely in sync with the atmosphere Len and the board are trying to create with Five Star,” he said. “I thought he was incorrect in some of the conceptions and there were some factual errors as well.”

In addition, some board members began to see Warrior City in a different light.

“A year ago, it seemed as if Warrior City was ready to put shovels in the ground and seemed as though they were farther along than they were,” Atter said. “I also got the impression they were hoping to expand because while they were in a planning stage of building Warrior City in Texas if they could come in and run or takeover Five Star they would have a fixed asset and that that would be beneficial to them.”

Five Star’s financial outlook also started to change.

“Frankly, I think Five Star’s position is significantly different than it was a year ago,” Atter said.

That changed hasn’t detered Shaffer from reaching out to possible donors.

“What I’ve told every single company representative that I’ve come across and met with is that my company is looking to come in and we’ve been helping Five Star and there’s a possibility that we may take this over,” Shaffer said. “If this happens, we’d like to talk about some possibilities.”

That approach may be hurting Five Star’s community standing.

“We have had a report that at least on one occasion that Jerry had talked to some people, and I don’t know if he was intentionally trying to undermine, but told people that Warrior City was interested in taking over control of Five Star Veterans Center,” Loving said.

Asked about this, Shaffer said, “It absolutely can do that, but here’s the bottom line: They’ve failed. They’ve had a year and a half to go out there and attract companies and they’ve failed.”

Atter disagreed. “Our expectation, I believe, is to be able to proceed as we are without a takeover or someone else coming in to run it,” he said. “[Loving] has been doing this to his own financial distress and I think his own service and record speak for themselves. I believe he is someone beyond reproach.”

Clifford Davis: (904) 359-4103

Comments (1)

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Ima Vet
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Ima Vet 07/09/14 - 04:50 am
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Premium Member

Well, a little bit of Google

Well, a little bit of Google search would have served this story well. Check out Warrior City. They have a mail drop in Austin, Texas and a one room office in an office park in Plano. One of the "board" members was cited for the irregular selling of burial insurance. They are not registered to fundraise in Florida, although they had a fundraiser at Hidden Hills Country Club to raise money. Check out his Veteran Direct company and see all the service that company does for veterans. And then go to Leatherneck.com and see what they are doing for our veterans.

Oh, and visit the Five Star Center any time. They are as open and transparent as any nonprofit in this town. I have been there numerous times, and it feels like a home for these veterans with PTSD and TBI. Talk to the residents and ask them how they are treated and what the Lovings and the Center have meant to them.

Then visit Warrior City and talk to....oh wait. Warrior City is only a concept. Perhaps just contact Mr. Shaffer and ask him to tell all the rich stories about how many veterans his shell game of a nonprofit have helped.

I would suggest that Shaffer and Warrior City go back to Texas. That would be a cheap flight since it is only Shaffer.

We are supposed to be a military friendly city, and thus a veteran friendly city. I would expect better research and reporting on something as critical as a local, grassroots center for homeless veterans and a wannabe looking for a job by attempting a lame hostile takeover.

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