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.