Bill Hampshire served in the US Air Force for 20 years from 1994 to 2014. So when his wife, also a veteran, dropped a few dollars into a donation box for “Gift A Vet” outside his Los Gatos grocery store, he didn’t think much of it. Then he asked the man collecting the money about his service.
“He said he wasn’t a vet, that he worked for the Department of Defense,” Hampshire said. “I said ‘Why are you wearing a uniform if you’re not a veteran? Why are you pretending or implying you’re a vet and tricking people in to donating money to you?’”
Hampshire wasn’t satisfied with the answers he received.
“They never explained how much money they’ve ever given out.”
Over several weeks, NBC Bay Area producers used undercover cameras to record Gift A Vet’s operations. They recorded the group's co-founder Fallean Mintz, and a man who introduced himself as Bob, collecting cash donations from shoppers outside a Whole Foods and Lunardi’s grocery store on Blossom Hill Road in Los Gatos.
Mintz told our producers that he used to work for the Department of Defense. Bob said he served five years with the Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer organization that performs tasks such as disaster relief and search and rescue. Neither man served in the military.
“It’s kind of like asking a person if they were in the Marines and the response was Boy Scouts! It’s not the same thing at all,” Hampshire said.
What’s more, the Department of Defense emailed NBC Bay Area indicating it didn’t “have any record of his name on file.
Mintz said that all donations go to veterans. However, Bob told Hampshire and our hidden cameras he keeps 40% of what he collects.
“On the weekends here, we average about 200 donations. In the average box it’s roughly $200, $250 on the weekends. Maybe $300,” said Mintz on hidden camera.
Mintz made multiple claims about how that money is used to help veterans. He said they worked with the Homeless Veterans Recovery Program in Santa Clara County. He also said they help veterans at the county court.
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The acting director of the county office of Veterans Services, Armando Murillo, told us that the "Homeless Veterans Recovery Program" doesn’t exist and that he has never heard of Gift a Vet. A spokesman for the Santa Clara County Veteran’s Court gave a similar statement: “The Court does not nor has ever had any relationship of any kind with Gift a Vet or Fallean Mintz/Dorothy Arndt.”
Mintz told our hidden cameras that Dorothy Arndt is his wife and the co-founder of Gift a Vet. “She’s out seven days a week, 12 hours a day, working with veterans. Directly helping veterans,” said Mintz.
But just a few weeks later, when we requested an interview with Arndt, Mintz changed his story. He said she’s been ill for the past year. She didn’t return our calls or emails for comment and we never saw Arndt collecting donations with Mintz or Bob.
Records the Investigative Unit obtained show Mintz and Arndt have a history with law enforcement.
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Arndt is listed on the Illinois sex offender registry, convicted in 2007 for aggravated sexual abuse of a 15 year old. Mintz was arrested in Florida in 2007 for third degree grand theft but failed to appear in court. A warrant was issued for his arrest. Two years later, police found him in Illinois, but charges were later dismissed.
When we tried to ask Mintz about his claims and the work of Gift A Vet, he walked away from our cameras. He later declined to provide any documents or proof that Gift a Vet has helped anyone.
Tips for Donors
“You should really be cautious around unsolicited donations, people asking you for cash when you’re not familiar with their organization,” said Evan Paul, vice president of products for Guidestar. The organization tracks 2.4 million non-profits and charities registered in the United States to help people decide where to send their donations.
Guidestar data reveals there are 45,429 non-profits in the U.S. that serve veterans. Nearly a quarter of those organizations, 10,341, were created after 9/11. California is home to about 2,500 non-profits serving vets.
“The vast majority of them are great organizations doing great work,” Paul said. “They should be able to show you the track record of achievement. If they can’t show you that, then look for an organization that can.”
Air Force veteran Bill Hampshire said that’s what he hopes people will do.
“There are lots of military charities that provide great services for our military vets," he said. "It bothers me to see our vets aren’t receiving these donations intended for them.”
Update 8/18/2015: Representatives from the Cornerstone Shopping Center and Los Gatos Police Officers have confirmed that Mintz and Gift A Vet are no longer collecting donations outside of the Whole Foods and Lunardis at that location. Los Gatos Police said a citizen contacted them about the group and that when confronted, they left voluntarily. The police say they are working with the property managers to see if there is a way to ban this kind of solicitation in the future.