Chairman of Brevard veterans nonprofit arrested amid state financial investigation

The chairman of Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, Inc. has been charged with two felonies

Richard "Doc" Russo was arrested Thursday (MALCOM DENMARK/FLORIDA TODAY)

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The chairman of Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, Inc. has been charged with two felonies after the nonprofit improperly paid board members and employees and filed false information with state charity regulators, a warrant affidavit said.

Richard “Doc” Russo — who also chairs Melbourne’s annual Florida Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion at Wickham Park — was arrested Thursday, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates charitable organizations, charged Russo with two third-degree felonies: submitting false information on a document and failure to register as a charitable organization.

Russo remains held on $2,000 bond at the Brevard County Jail Complex, and his initial court appearance is scheduled this afternoon. Message seeking comment were left on his cell phone. Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard President Richard Hickman declined comment.

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Russo is chairman/vendor coordinator of the Florida Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion committee — which bills itself as the nation’s largest veterans reunion. Hundreds of veterans and their relatives flock to Wickham Park every year, and dozens of military and civic organizations participate.

He is also manager of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, a Melbourne-based, 288-foot-long mobile monument that is a 3/5 replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

In a less publicly visible role, Russo is chairman and vice president of Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, Inc. Founded in 1985, the nonprofit operates the Veterans Transitional Facility, a temporary shelter for homeless veterans and their immediate families, on Fee Avenue in Melbourne.

According to an FDACS warrant affidavit, Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard’s IRS 990 forms from 2016-20 claimed zero compensation was paid to officers or key employees.

However, a review of bank records showed paychecks were issued to various board members and employees, along with Christmas bonuses and bonuses for passing inspections, the affidavit said.

Dorothy Walsh is a veterans advocate who served as resident counselor at the nonprofit’s Veterans Transitional Facility before resigning in February 2021.

“This is just one step in addressing an issue that’s been ongoing for many years. They say that they’re a 501c3 and that they’re volunteers, but they’re not. When you dig into the records, it shows that they have been paid all along,” Walsh said.

“That takes away from the benefits that the veterans should have access to,” she said.

The FDACS bank review showed four checks in the amount of $500 were issued to a Suzanne Russo as a monthly stipend from February 2020 to April 2020, the affidavit said. She is listed as Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard’s membership coordinator on the nonprofit’s website.

“The review of bank records from 2020 also showed that multiple employees were paid a salary,” the affidavit said.

Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard also failed to reregister with FDACS as required by state law from 1997 to 2020, but continued to solicit donations. After the department issued a notice of inquiry, an application was completed and registered by Russo in November 2020.

Todd Brown, spokesman for State Attorney’s Office, referred comment on the investigation to FDACS.

Activities with Melbourne’s 34th annual Florida Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion are scheduled to kick off May 1. That’s when hundreds of motorcyclists will escort the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall from Eastern Florida State College’s Cocoa campus south along U.S. 1 to Wickham Park.

Reunion ceremonies are scheduled to continue at the park through the May 8 closing ceremony.

The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall is next scheduled to appear at a Vietnam veterans’ gathering from April 21 to 25 in Homosassa, according to the organization’s website.