JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A former Army cook who fell on hard times, Debbie Bowman has been living at the Allied Veterans Center, a shelter for homeless veterans, since August.
Bowman stays in the barracks-style brick building — formerly a state-run nursing home — with 27 other vets. She received career counseling and took online courses, and is applying for a job as a 911 operator. But before Bowman can get back on her feet, the shelter may be forced to close its doors. The center was founded and almost entirely funded by the Allied Veterans of the World, the charity at the center of an illegal gambling investigation that's resulted in some 50 arrests and the resignation of Florida's lieutenant governor.
Authorities said the charity was a ruse that raked in $300 million from gambling at its 49 parlors across Florida over the last five years. Investigators said only about 2 percent of the money — or nearly $6 million — actually went to charities.
The Allied Veterans Center, which is independently operated despite its similar name, appeared to benefit the most.
"We still need a place to go and we still need a place to stay," said Bowman, 43, who served 12 years in the Army on active duty in Germany and later in the National Guard. "Don't throw us out just because of people making bad choices. We still need this place to be here."
Altogether, Allied Veterans of the World poured about $1.85 million into the shelter since 2011.
Kelly Mathis, the charity's attorney and the alleged mastermind of the gambling scheme, has said in media interviews that 70 percent or more of Allied Veterans' net proceeds went to Veterans Affairs hospitals, ROTC programs and other veterans and military-related services, yet none of the charities The Associated Press contacted got anywhere near the money the shelter received.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Allied Veterans made roughly $500,000 in donations to Florida's seven VA hospitals between 2007 and 2010. The Florida Veterans Foundation, which helps struggling veterans with monthly bills, got $360,000 since 2008.
Florida high school officials from Lyman and Apopka confirmed they each received $6,000, and Allied Veterans paid $10,000 for a fireworks show for the town of Callahan in 2011, according to the town attorney. Allied Veterans also donated $10,000 for veterans services in Jacksonville, city officials said.
Allied Veterans also donated an unspecified amount of money to a Veterans of Foreign War post in Deland, but state VFW officials said Allied Veterans had no contact with their headquarters over the years even though several alleged gambling parlors were located in the same county as the group's headquarters.
"I just think it's a shame they used the veterans as bait to lure money in to be donated," said Joe Gault of the Florida VFW.
In 2011, Allied Veterans established the homeless shelter as a separate corporation and gave it an initial donation of $630,000 — enough to make a down payment on the shuttered nursing home and to pay for repairs and renovations.
In December 2011, dignitaries, including two Florida members of Congress, attended a dedication ceremony. Its brick walls were freshly whitewashed and accented with red and blue trim. Flagpoles erected on the front lawn flew flags for each of the military service branches. Gold-painted statues of soldiers flanked the walkway to the front door.
Inside, there were rooms to house 40 men and eight women, a kitchen staffed by a full-time cook, a computer lab and a weight room. In early 2012, the first homeless veteran moved in.
"It has always been my dream to have a place where we could house the faction of needy veterans who were willing to give all they had to protect our freedoms, and offer them the chance to excel in life, but at the same time become a viable part of society again," Jerry Bass, the president of Allied Veterans of the World, said on the center's website.
Bass also served on the shelter's board of directors and occasionally would stop by to visit. On Tuesday, police arrested Bass at the veterans shelter on charges related to the gambling investigation.
Bass has not returned telephone calls. Mathis' attorney has said he did nothing wrong and was not the ringleader.
Len Loving, the retired Marine Corps colonel who runs the Allied veterans shelter, said he was been shocked by allegations that Allied Veterans lavished millions on its top executives, who allegedly spent the money on boats, beachfront condos and sports cars such as Maseratis and Ferraris.
"I really thought the majority of the money coming into the organization was going to veterans," Loving said. "I'm very upset and very angry after learning this information, if in fact it's true."
His wife, Suzie Loving, handles the shelter's finances. She said they have enough money to keep the doors open through June. They plan to go without most of their pay, and are asking other staff to accept similar cuts. They've also told their residents there's a chance the center will be forced to close.
"If we don't get funding to be able to move forward, I have to say that we'll probably have to walk over and lock the door," Len Loving said.
Kelli Kennedy reported from Miami.