INDIANAPOLIS — Two Indiana veterans are raising concerns publicly about the Military Family Relief Fund, a fund that helps veterans get emergency help with food, housing, utilities, medical services and transportation.
When you purchase a veteran license plate or a Support the Troops plate, a chunk of that money goes into the Military Family Relief Fund.
The Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs administers the fund, and it says on their website that veterans and their families can get up to $2,500.
“Grants up to $2,500 may be awarded,” reads the website. “The qualified individual or family member can receive up to $2,500 one time from the Family Relief Fund.”
Lisa Wilken, an Air Force veteran and veterans advocate, told WRTV someone contacted her with state records that show some people are getting beyond the $2,500 limit.
“I was very shocked,” said Wilken. “The big deal is ... the rules are the rules. Anytime it’s beyond that limit, that’s a misuse of that fund.”
The records shared with WRTV show several of the people who received more than the $2,500 include employees of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs and the Military Family Relief Fund itself.
“Employees at IDVA have been able to get this fund above $2,500 where veterans around the state have been denied that opportunity,” said Wilken.
Since 2016, IDVA has denied 799 applications to the Military Family Relief Fund.
During that time frame, 3,971 applications have been approved.
William Henry, an Army veteran and former adjutant of the American Legion, is also concerned about the inconsistency of how the fund is distributed to veterans in need.
"Those documents show potential misuse with the Military Family Relief Fund," said Henry. “To me, it looked very suspicious and called a lot of things into question and I thought immediately it needed to be looked into.”
Henry said the American Legion asked him to resign when he pushed for the Indiana Inspector General to investigate IDVA and the Military Family Relief Fund.
"That's what it comes down to, doing the right thing,” said Henry. “Even though I lose a job. I'll find another job. That's fine but the thing that's important to me is justice."
WRTV asked for an on-camera interview with IDVA director Jim Brown.
He declined but provided a statement in which he said “a limited number” of people who received funds beyond the $2,500 limit were IDVA employees.
“The Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to upholding a high standard of care for all Hoosier Veterans. When we receive applications for those who do not qualify for the MFRF, we provide them with a number of contacts for organizations that assist eligible veterans.
In 2016, the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs approved 829 applications and denied 85. In 2017, the agency approved 1717 applications and denied 354. And, in 2018, the agency approved 1425 applications and denied 360. In past years, some applicants have received more than $2500. These situations are rare and at my discretion, but they include Gold Star Families, elderly widows, single parent households, and spouses of KIA (Killed In Service) service members.
Over the past few months, the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs has been in regular communication with the Veterans Affairs Commission which is promulgating rules regarding the $2500 limit. We are also working closely to respond to any and all inquiries the state board of accounts has regarding the administration of this fund.”
Wilken said Brown can issue a waiver for the application's requirements, but not for the dollar amount.
“The Director of the Indiana Dept. of Veterans Affairs may waive the requirements for emergency cases only upon written request indicating the circumstances justifying such a waiver,” reads the IDVA website.
Veterans advocates have submitted state records to the Indiana Inspector General and the State Board of Accounts.
The State Board of Accounts is looking into the fund as part of their ongoing state audit.
The inspector general does not disclose information about the existence of an investigation until the ethics commission finds probable cause, a prosecutor files charges or a final report is issued.
The IG only discloses information about investigations if the ethics commission finds probable cause, a prosecuting authority files charges or a final report is issued at the conclusion of a matter.
“Until the fund is audited and that is transparent, we have no idea,” said Wilken.
Wilken and Henry want Hoosiers to know about the possible misuse, especially those who buy the license plates hoping to help veterans in need.
“Our state agencies need to follow the rules and most importantly, our good citizens buy those license plates that fund our Military Family Relief Fund,” said Wilken.
Wilken and Henry also hope the Indiana Veterans’ Affairs Commission will look into the matter as well.
“I have integrity, and I’m going to do the right thing no matter who is watching or not,” said Henry.
The governor’s office declined to provide a statement to WRTV.
When asked about the Military Family Relief Fund, the chairman of the Indiana Veterans’ Affairs Commission Erika Steuterman told WRTV she had a death in the family, but she forwarded questions to the appropriate person.
Dick Jewell, former chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Commission, said the issue came up during his tenure but their efforts were hampered because the accuser did not provide enough specific information.
Jewell said he was removed from the commission 15 months ago and has had limited contact with IDVA since then.
“Were I still Chairman, these allegations would be taken seriously and addressed appropriately by the Commission,” Jewell said in an email.
The American Legion provided the following statement regarding Will Henry’s resignation:
“The American Legion accepted the resignation of former Department of Indiana Adjutant on Sunday, September 9, 2018. It is our policy not to divulge information into employee performance without expressed permission of the employee involved as it is private and privileged information. The position of Department Adjutant is custodial and secretarial in nature and does not influence or direct official positions of The American Legion. The Adjutant’s duties are to carry out the administrative work required to uphold and carry out official positions of The American Legion as decided by the organization’s board of directors which are voted on in a parliamentarian process in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order.”
Henry has provided permission to the American Legion to discuss his departure, according to documents provided by Henry.