HOUSTON (CN) - A nonprofit that builds homes for wounded veterans claims in court that its former director defamed it by claiming that more than $500,000 in donations were "unaccounted for."
Helping a Hero sued its former director Judith DuBose and former board member Karen Lloyd in Harris County Court.
"Helping a Hero.org is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to building specially adapted homes for severely injured military personnel and their families," the group says in the lawsuit.
The Houston-based organization builds homes with monetary and in-kind donations.
"Developers working with HAH typically donate the lot upon which the home will be constructed," the complaint states. "Builders partnering with HAH match the value of the lot donated by the developer or agree to build the home at cost. Although the average value of homes provided by HAH is approximately $250,000, the Hero is typically only asked to pay a $50,000.00 mortgage."
Helping a Hero says it has "awarded over 100 homes to heroes in 22 states" and plans to build 40 more this year, of which 17 are under construction.
But despite its charitable efforts the nonprofit has not escaped controversy.
Helping a Hero built a home in The Woodlands, Texas for U.S. Army Specialist Hunter N. LeVine in 2012. LeVine had suffered brain damage and lost his eyesight when an improvised explosive device destroyed the Humvee he was driving while returning from a mission in Iraq.
After LeVine suffered a fatal a heart attack at age 25 his estate sued Helping a Hero in Harris County Probate Court, alleging that its director Meredith Iler breached contract by attempting to exercise Helping a Hero's "buyout right" to buy back his home, according to a lawsuit in Probate Court
The attorney for LeVine's estate, Chad Pinkerton, issued a statement that took Helping a Hero and Iler to task for their actions before and after LeVine's death.
Pinkerton claimed that Iler had LeVine sign documents for the home "without the presence of an advisor even though he was completely blind," and asked what the nonprofit did with the extra money it raised for LeVine's home.
"Hunter LeVine was promised a $250,000 home with special adaptations for a blind person. Instead, he received a 'spec' home valued at $168,000 for which he paid $50,000 and which included no adaptations for the blind whatsoever. The organization reportedly raised over $250,000 for LeVine's home. Where's the rest of the money?" Pinkerton asked in a statement.
LeVine's estate claimed Helping a Hero's buyout rights expired 60 days after it received notice of his death, and it had no right to reclaim the home.
Pinkerton helped organize an April 7 press conference at which five veterans and several former Helping a Hero board members said the nonprofit is taking too long to build homes and is not building them according to veterans' needs.
Helping a Hero fired back with its lawsuit this week.
In it, Helping a Hero claims DuBose and Lloyd breached a confidentiality agreement when they discussed in a chain of emails "allegations of financial impropriety and mismanagement by HAH" while asking veterans, their families and donors to join in a group interview about Helping a Hero with Channel 11 News in Houston.
Helping a Hero hired DuBose as its executive director in 2012 under a 6-month consulting agreement, and declined to renew her contract when it expired on Dec. 31, 2012, according to the complaint.
Helping a Hero claims DuBose defamed it on her Facebook page when she posted this on April 15: "This is what is happening with Helping a Hero. Please do not misunderstand my worry is the hundreds of thousands of dollars missing and unaccounted for.
"I am certainly not against the donations of houses. I am against people giving money and the [sic] having it disappear. Between 2006 and 2012 hundreds of thousands of dollars (more than a half of a million) in checks and American Express charges were written and done [sic] they are unaccounted for!! NO RECEIPTS!! That amount of money would have built 3 houses! Maybe 4!" (Parentheses, brackets and punctuation as in complaint.)
A Helping a Hero spokeswoman told Courthouse News it was suspicious of DuBose's motives.
"We cannot say with certainty what motivated Ms. Dubose, but a contributing factor may be that she was denied a full-time employment opportunity with Helping a Hero," Jeff Ragland said via email.
Ragland defended the nonprofit's business practices.
He said the length of time it takes to build a veteran's home depends on the local market. "On average, in Texas, it takes about 18 months," he said.
He also addressed concerns that Helping a Hero does not tailor its homes to veterans' needs.
"The Veteran's Administration has established standards for a person's injuries and what will qualify for a fully accessible home. We build homes to meet these standards and the needs that we identify in our close consultations with the veterans," Ragland said.
As for DuBose's accusations about "unaccounted for" donations, Ragland said that Helping a Hero posts its tax statements on its website, and said that in 2012 it raised around $4 million.
Pinkerton represents DuBose in the lawsuit. He emailed a statement to Courthouse News on Tuesday: "Mrs. DuBose denies any allegation that she has sought to defame or harm Helping-A-Hero in any manner. As a disabled Army veteran and widow of a fallen Army officer, she has always worked to support legitimate veteran activities and benefits. Mrs. DuBose has always been committed to the mission of helping wounded veterans. Here, she has merely questioned the accuracy of the finances of this charity, and in return to her questions, they slapped her with a lawsuit. Clearly this is an attempt to silence Mrs. Dubose and Retired Colonel Karen Lloyd."
The war of words will play out in court.
Helping a Hero seeks punitive damages for defamation, breach of contract, tortious interference, trade secret theft and conspiracy.
It is represented by Paul Dobrowski with Dobrowski, Larkin and Johnson of Houston.