10 News Investigators: Veterans Support Organization (VSO) agrees to pay state fine, back taxes

10:23 PM, Jan 21, 2013   |    comments
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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida - After the 10 News Investigators exposed the misleading and illegal practices from the non-profit Veterans Support Organization (VSO), the group has agreed to pay a series of fines to the State of Florida. Additionally, the VSO has agreed to pay back taxes following an IRS audit of its financials.

Florida's agency in charge of supervising charities, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DOACS), cited the VSO for five major violations, including hiring felons to solicit funds, claiming 86 percent of donations went to "programs," and taking advantage of solicitors by not providing benefits, workers comp coverage, or minimum wage.

READ - State fines VSO (12/18/12)

The VSO has worked with DOACS to come into compliance, but still paid a $2,500 penalty, the maximum the state could fine a non-profit for five violations. It is unclear how much in back taxes the VSO paid, but it has been given the equivelant of an "all-clear" from the IRS following a year's worth of reorganizing.

Where's my donation going?

It can be tough to tell good charities from bad ones since the IRS only reviews 0.5 percent of all U.S. non-profits' tax returns each year. But 10 News has compiled some tips:

  1. First, find out if the organization currently has non-profit status with the IRS.
  2. Review the group's Form 990 tax filings for free on FoundationCenter.org or Guidestar.org to learn about its expenses, salaries, fundraising costs, and board of directors.
  3. Look for red flags, such as high salaries, board members receiving salaries, board of directors or employees related to each other, or high fundraising expenses in relation to revenue.
  4. Use charity watchdog websites such as:
    1. The American Institute of Philanthropy
    2. The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance
    3. The Charity Navigator
    4. Givewell.org
  5. You can also call a non-profit to ask specific questions about how its funds are being spent. Most organizations that aren't religious groups are required to provide their last three 990s upon request.
  6. UPDATE - For tips on giving to victims of the Newtown, Conn. tragedy, read the BBB's tips.

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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