Fundraising plans by ex-county employee draw concerns

Tom Joyce Staff Reporter

October 25, 2013

Leaders of local veterans groups are concerned about fundraising plans by a former employee of the Surry County Veterans Services Office who was dismissed over financial-related dealings while with that agency.

The concerns stem from an effort recently announced by Angie Thomas involving the launching of the Surry County Republican Women’s Club. Among her stated goals for the new group is promoting conservative values and community service, including programs to raise money for the families of slain service members.

But that fundraising goal is drawing scrutiny from officials of local veterans organizations due to the emergence of a letter detailing the reason why Thomas lost her job with the Veterans Services Office. It helps ex-military personnel in the county receive governmental benefits to which they’re entitled.

The letter sent to Thomas in August 2012, a copy of which was obtained from her personnel file, states that she was fired for violating a provision in the county’s code of ethics involving the accepting of gifts.

In responding to allegations along those lines, Thomas had submitted a written response acknowledging “the receipt of cash and other gifts from a veteran,” according to the dismissal letter that details activities leading to the firing.

Rule No. 14 of the county code of ethics, which Thomas agreed to abide by in writing in 2009, says: “I will not offer nor accept any gifts from any source that may reflect or be perceived to reflect on my actions as a Surry County employee.”

Thomas noted in her written response that her acceptance of cash and other gifts could be considered a conflict of interest with her job duties.

Concerns Expressed

The emergence of the dismissal letter has prompted strong reaction from officials of local veterans groups, given Thomas’ recent announcement that the new GOP women’s organization will be involved with fundraising for a veterans-related cause.

“Based on what I’ve seen, I know the American Legion wouldn’t support anyone raising money for veterans that has that past,” said Gary Willard, the commander of American Legion Post 123 based in Mount Airy.

“Believe me, we’re all for raising food and money and stuff for the veterans,” added Willard, who has been commander of the American Legion for two years and a member for 19. “But I don’t think we could support someone with a past of taking money from veterans.”

Willard said he doesn’t know Angie Thomas personally.

“But it wouldn’t matter if I did or not — I’m just going by the facts I’ve seen,” he said. “She’s already been in the situation of helping veterans, and took advantage of it.”

Carl Whitaker, who is in his third year of heading Mount Post 2019 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, also expressed concern this week about the matter.

“I cannot comment for the organization, as far as that goes — we’d have to have a meeting and have it brought up,” Whitaker said of the fundraising issue involving Thomas. “But my personal opinion is that I really don’t think it’s a good idea.”

One reason for that, Whitaker said, is the large number of groups and individuals now claiming to support former military members. “I would say in Mount Airy they’re probably 16 people, at least, taking up money for veterans.”

Whitaker questions whether all funds solicited are properly accounted for and spent on the stated purposes.

“They are finding more and more organizations each year that are spending more money on administration than they are for veterans,” the local VFW official added.

That also was alluded to by J.C. Short, commander of the Disabled American Veterans branch in Mount Airy.

While Short declined to comment on the Angie Thomas situation specifically, he said the DAV and other veterans organizations must adhere to strict rules when conducting fundraisers.

“We have to send a letter to the DAV in Raleigh and they have to approve it — and if they don’t approve it, we don’t do it,” Short explained.

And when fundraising activities are held, that strict oversight continues. “All this money has to be accounted for — every penny that’s spent, we know where it goes to,” said Short, who added that without such rules, “it would be chaos.”

Short also made reference to a June article in The Wall Street Journal that noted since 2008, nearly 1,800 groups have been created in the U.S. to assist aging or newly returning troops — a much higher rate than charities overall.

Rawley King, a Mount Airy veteran who has logged 60 years with the American Legion as well as served on the governing board of Veterans Memorial Park, also weighed in on Angie Thomas this week.

“She should not be allowed to take up money for any organization, especially veterans,” King said.

But one person associated with a local veterans organization did come forward on the former county employee’s behalf Thursday.

Susanne Miller of Westfield, secretary of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary in Mount Airy, said Thomas has proven “100 percent” trustworthy in fundraising activities with that group. This includes recent sales of chances on a gas giveaway to help soldiers oversees.

“We’ve given her 50 books to sell tickets for us, and we’ve gotten every penny,” Miller said. “We have never had no problem with Angie.”

Thomas Responds

Thomas said Thursday that factors including “bad blood” and “politics” led to her dismissal from the Surry Veterans Services Office.

She said one lapse in judgment triggered that outcome. “A veteran I dated is what got me released from the county,” Thomas said.

However, Thomas stressed that she was not involved in any criminal activity and there is no reason for anyone to mistrust her in a fundraising capacity.

Thomas also emphasized that her actual role with the new Surry County Republican Women’s Club won’t involve that function.

“I’m not a fundraiser, I’m just an organizer” of the group, she said.

Its plans to aid families of deceased service personnel reflects a goal of the national GOP women’s organization, Thomas said.

When asked if he foresees any fundraising involvement by Angie Thomas as a problem from a party standpoint, Gary Tilley, the chairman of the Surry County Republican Party, said he believes the concerns are “premature” at this point.

“I just think it remains to be seen,” Tilley said.

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