ORLANDO, Fla. – A nonprofit led by former Orlando mayoral candidate Neil "Paul" Paulson Sr. misled people who donated more than $20 million to his charity thinking the funds would go toward helping provide services to veterans, Attorney General Pam Bondi said.
Paulson and his nonprofit Help the Vets Inc. recently settled with Florida, California, Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio and Oregon, in a lawsuit that alleges that between 2014 and 2017, Paulson collected donations across the U.S. "based on misleading promises that the donations would assist veterans by providing funding for grants, medical care, a suicide prevention program, therapeutic family retreats and similar programs," according to a news release from Bondi's office.
Paulson lost in a bid for Orlando mayor to incumbent Buddy Dyer in 2015. He ran for Florida Agriculture Commissioner for a short time, but his campaign website, PaulPaulson.org, has since been deleted.
Paulson was a practicing attorney in Orlando, but lost his Florida Bar license in 2000 "after allegations that he appropriated funds from personal injury claims for other legal work without clients’ knowledge or consent," Florida Bar records show.
Bondi and Department of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam announced the settlement Thursday in a donor education campaign kickoff. Bondi said Florida is joining other states and the Federal Trade Commission to combat fraudulent veterans charities, citing Help the Vets Inc. as an example of deception, according to a news release.
Instead of helping veterans, the millions in donations benefited Paulson, according to the settlement.
“It is reprehensible that anyone would prey on the good intentions of people trying to help our heroes and I will not let the immoral actions of a few bad actors taint the good work of our legitimate charities,” Bondi said in a news release."
Help the Vets Inc. is required to relinquish its remaining assets of at least $72,000, and Paulson must also pay $1.75 million to legitimate veterans charities as part of the settlement.
Help the Vets, Inc. has a "high concern" advisory for potential donors on nonprofit watchdog website Charity Navigator. That rating is given to charities with "proven or confirmed allegation against a charity or an employee of a charity that is serious both in nature and scope," according to the website.
Another charity watchdog, CharityWatch.org, gave Help the Vets and its Breast Cancer Outreach Foundation an “F’ rating, for “spending a paltry 6 percent of its cash budget on program services and incurring $89 to raise each $100 in funds in 2015.”
Help the Vets Inc. and Breast Cancer Outreach Foundation were previously investigated by the Michigan Attorney General's Office in 2017. Paulson settled with the state when Help the Vets Inc. withdrew its application to register in the state and agreed not to operate in Michigan for five years, according to Charity Navigator. In a separate settlement with the Breast Cancer Outreach Foundation, the fraudulent charity was required to pay $125,000 toward breast cancer research and the organization was banned from soliciting in Michigan for 10 years.
Paulson is now banned from operating a charity and overseeing charitable assets. Help the Vets Inc. is no longer registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer services.