Operation Welcome Home

At the time Gilbert Town Council terminated its relationship with Operation Welcome Home in October, a sign still hung on fencing surrounding the site of the defunct veterans park. (Pablo Robles/GSN Staff Photographer)

Three years ago, with much fanfare and a ground blessing, dignitaries ceremonially shoveled dirt on a site in Gilbert that was to give rise to a veterans commemorative park.

Anchored by a scaled-down version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., it promised to be a place for veterans to heal and to find help and for school children to learn about military history and patriotism.

Today, 7 acres on the southeast corner of Gilbert Road and Civic Center Drive remain a dirt lot and the nonprofit who initially took in over $1 million in public dollars and in-kind donations, for its $3 million project - folded, leaving it unclear where and how the money was spent.

Town Council, which authorized over $1.6 million in taxpayer money to do off-site improvements for the project, voted in October to terminate the lease agreement with Operation Welcome Home, after it was notified by the group, the organization was dissolving.

 The nonprofit was to pay $1 a year for use of the town-owned land east of the Gilbert Public Safety Complex.

“I wished the town had been able to vet that more thoroughly,” Vice Mayor Eddie Cook said. “Because I think we would have probably not have moved forward with anything.”

Cook said plans are for the town to convert the site back to its original desert landscaping at an estimated cost of $100,000.

Origins in a celebration

Operation Welcome Home was co-founded by then-Council members Jenn Daniels and Les Presmyk almost a decade ago as a town program to honor service members returning home to Gilbert from active duty. 

The program was modeled after one adopted in Daniels’ hometown of Danville, California. Daniels, who served on the nonprofit’s board until 2016, did not return a call for comment.

Lisa Rigler, who was president of the Gilbert Small Business Alliance she founded, soon partnered with the town and took over the program, eventually taking it to nonprofit status in July 2014 and becoming Operation Welcome Home’s president. 

The same year the board also looked at building a permanent memorial to all war veterans as part of the Vietnam Commemorative Partner Program launched by Congress in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.  

In September 2014, Town Council directed Operation Welcome Home to explore the concept of a memorial park on townland, with town staff and the nonprofit’s representatives meeting frequently to determine the project’s feasibility, the responsibility of each party and the estimated costs for construction, operations and maintenance, according to a council report.

In August 2015, Council approved a 30-year lease agreement with Operation Welcome Home, which included each party’s responsibility for the project, which was scheduled to debut on Veterans Day 2017.

The nonprofit was required to come up with at least half of the $2.1 million price tag the first phase was estimated to cost, with cash and in-kind donations before the town issued permits. 

Operation Welcome Home also had to secure a performance bond to cover the other half of the cost if fundraising faltered during construction.

The nonprofit was given until Nov. 4, 2016, to come up with the money until Rigler in 2016 obtained a year extension from Town Manager Patrick Banger, the town’s point man on the project.

In December 2016, Banger emailed the Council Operation Welcome Home met its requirement and was eligible to pull a permit and begin construction.

For proof, the nonprofit’s treasurer Ron Elwood gave the town copies of bank statements showing $415,548 in cash and $679,747 in written commitments for in-kind donations, totaling $1.1 million, according to a November 2017 document.

But somewhere between getting the town’s green light and the first quarter of 2018, the project began unraveling.

As grading began, things soured

Justin Yentes, who said he joined the board in October, told Gilbert Sun News in October the project took a turn for the worst as soon as grading commenced.

 Yentes is married to Councilwoman Aimee Yentes, the nonprofit’s vice president and Lisa Rigler’s daughter. Justin also was a director of the Gilbert Small Business Alliance.

Justin Yentes told the Gilbert Sun News in-kind donors – some who promised “pretty sizeable” construction work – pulled out, leaving the nonprofit in a bind.

“Over the years, several said they wanted to donate time and money,” he said. “Lots of folks were interested. Unfortunately, lot of these interests went away.”

Aimee Yentes said part of the reason was the booming market, where contractors had the opportunity to make money on projects.

The nonprofit’s Form 990 filed with the IRS for 2017 showed its net assets totaled $427,968 for the year.

Aimee Yentes in a Sept. 18, 2019, email to Town Attorney Chris Payne blamed the group’s hired general contractor MT Builders in Scottsdale, which supplied the list of in-kind donors used to show the town it had met its benchmark to move forward with the project.

“We paid MT about $300,000 for the bond and the initial payment with the expectation their in-kind donors would kick in and supplement our cash payments,” she wrote Payne. 

Instead, she continued, MT Builders told Rigler and Elwood “the in-kind donors would not provide the services as outlined in the forms they’d shown the town, but rather they would give discounts on services and would only be made available as larger cash payments were made.” 

“This was out of OWH’s budget and was a surprise to Ron and Lisa,” she added. “When Lisa and Ron confronted MT about the in-kind donations that were actually discounts, it resulted in a very heated argument.”

A few of the over two dozen in-kind donors did indicate in their written pledges their services were discounted. 

In a recent GSN interview with Aimee Yentes, who brought along her husband, the couple was asked which subcontractors backed out of their donation commitment.

Justin Yentes declined to answer, saying they were not going to point fingers.

The in-kind donors contacted by Gilbert Sun News said they either already provided their services or had waited to be called for their donations.

Todd Neill, president of Neill and Young Associates, a landscape architectural firm in Scottsdale, pledged $97,824 worth of services. 

“I was the lead professional consultant for the project for the phase 1 site design,” Neill said. “We provided full construction drawing for the park that was approved by the town of Gilbert. We provided the design for what we called phase 1, the site not the building.”

Neill said he worked alongside others who also donated and had not discounted their expertise – such as Everett Landscape Architecture, which did the irrigation design system and details, valued at $2,900.

“All the design for the project was in-kind donations,” Neill said. “No one was paid for their design work.”

Neill said he’s often approached by veterans who ask when the project was going to get built.

“For whatever reason, it lost its momentum,” he said. “I hope someday the ship gets righted and the memorial gets built.” 

No one called

Some of the donors listed on Operation Welcome Home’s report to the town told the Gilbert Sun News they were prepared to make good on their pledge in full.

Mark Larson, who was vice president of Marlin Mechanical Corp. until he retired the first of the year, stood behind its pledge of $52,975 in-kind donation.

“We promised to provide plumbing for the project and that was the value of the plumbing,” Larson said. “To our knowledge, it never got built. Nothing ever materialized.”

Rick Ziehl, president of Ridgeline Construction in Phoenix, said its pledge of $10,300 for concrete foundation and rough carpentry work was a straight donation, which was never utilized by the nonprofit.

“I have no idea what the issue was,” Ziehl said. “I don’t know anything about it. All I know is it happened a long time ago.”    

Michael Maledon, president of M.C. Metal Craft in Phoenix, said he pledged $25,180 for the project but was not contacted after his pledge.

“I don’t know what happened to it so I dismissed it as not going forward,” he said.

Aimee Yentes said the board decided to move forward with MT Builders and get more aggressive with fundraising to try and get the project back on track.

The nonprofit’s Form 990 for 2018 showed it spent $94,362 for fundraising, including hiring a fundraiser. Total assets for that year were reported at $206,227.

Aimee Yentes declined to say how much money remains in the organization’s bank account because its attorney was in the process of shutting it down.

The project, however, never regained its footing and all work apparently stopped soon after February 2018, according to Donna Lemons-Roush, MT Builder’s COO.

“After completing the grading work for the project in February 2018, no further funding has been provided for us to accomplish other work on the project,” Lemons-Roush wrote in a letter dated April 1, 2019, to Annie Remsburg, who assumed the board president job after Rigler stepped down, citing health reasons. “Effectively, the project has now been suspended for 13 months.”

According to town paperwork, R.A.P.I, Ltd was issued an engineering construction permit for grading on Feb. 5, 2018.

In her correspondence, Lemons-Roush also gave a seven-day notice MT Builders was terminating its Oct. 25, 2017, contract with Operation Welcome Home and the performance bond was “null and void.”

According to the contract, MT Builders was to be paid a general contractor’s fee of $50,000, payable at $5,000 a month and a “general conditions” amount of $175,000 to be paid in equal installments of $17,500 a month to bring phase 1 in at a guaranteed maximum cost of $2.1 million.

MT Builders also indicated a $100,000 in-kind donation in its written commitment to the town. Aimee Yentes didn’t know if the in-kind applied toward the contract price. 

Justin Yentes showed on his cell phone, a photo of a check from Alliance Bank of Arizona made out to MT Builders dated March 26, 2018, for $284,487 with a written notation on the bottom that it cleared on March 27, 2018. He declined to give a copy of the check to the Gilbert Sun News.

He also shared paperwork showing $17,820 was paid on Oct. 24, 2017, for the performance bond.

Aimee Yentes also said the nonprofit had paid the town over $60,000 for a permit and document review, which further drained its cash reserves at the time. But a town invoice sent to Operation Welcome Home for $66,123 for the building permit, plan review and other services showed the invoice and payment in full dated this year.

Asked what work MT Builders completed for the $284,000, Aimee Yentes said tons of dirt were trucked to the site, which she called expensive.

A schedule with cost estimates for phase 1 in Oct. 2017 showed 17,680 cubic yards of dirt at an estimated cost of $204,734 was to be brought onto the site. 

“There were truckloads of dirt brought to the site,” said Town Engineer David Fabiano, whose staff worked on the town’s off-site improvements for the park. “We believe it to be around 3,000 cubic yards.”

He didn’t know the project’s details saying, “Anything I have seen is as I go by.”

MT Builders’ role murky

Asked by GSN about Aimee Yentes’ statement the nonprofit gave MT Builders $300,000, Lemons-Roush responded, “We did not take any money from them.” She added the board hired her company to be the general contractor.

Asked about the $100,000 in-kind donation MT Builders pledged, Lemons-Roush said calls should be directed to Rigler and hung up the phone. 

The Gilbert Sun News sent two follow-up emails to Lemons-Roush asking her to explain how the $284,000 the company received was spent and what work was done.

Lemons-Roush only replied after the second email the company was “saddened and surprised” to learn of the nonprofit dissolving.

“We are confused by the closure and the ending of the project and we are in contact with the town and will cooperate with them as needed,” she wrote. “Our company significantly reduced our fees and contributed personal money directly to this project, as we believed so strongly in honoring those who served and sacrificed. All payments MT Builders received were reviewed and approved by the Operation Welcome Home organization as per our contract with them.”

 Grading on the site

The project never moved beyond the earthwork.  

A schedule for phase 1 in 2017 showed the estimated subtotal for earthwork on the site came to $286,000. But it is unclear what could have been donated and what was paid for.

R.A.P.I Ltd. Vice President Brian Wagner said his company was contracted by MT Builders to do mass grading.

He said his company didn’t finish the job because MT Builders removed it from the company’s scope in February 2018, when MT “pulled out of the deal.”

 He couldn’t find accounting for the project, saying it was a small job and he was unsure if the work was paid or donated.

Paperwork shows company President Michael Wagner pledging an in-kind donation of $25,000 for grading and asphalt paving.

Two months later, from April 5-8, 2018, the 3rd Platoon of the 258th Engineer Company of the Arizona National Guard stepped in and donated pre-construction earth and site work, according to Rigler in a July 2018 East Valley Tribune article.

Aaron Thacker, a Guard spokesman, said upon arriving at the job site, a fence was in place and soil dropped off for grading.

“Our engineers worked on rough grading or earthwork,” Thacker said. “An onsite general contractor was available during the grading process.”

Justin Yentes was asked for invoices from MT Builders for the work completed. He said the nonprofit moved out of its office about seven months ago and everything was packed in boxes, Operation Welcome Home was letting go of its one paid employee and that the nonprofit didn’t have the resources to dedicate to a search for invoices.

Later in a text message to Gilbert Sun News, he wrote, “I didn’t see any detailed accounting but I have not had time to search much. I know that several contractors (at least two off the top of my head) were met with and MT’s pricing was in line. Our construction guy said we wouldn’t have received a line-item accounting for the expenditure. MT would have the details of how they paid subs.”

When pressed if MT Builders did other work than trucking dirt to the site, he responded he’s given GSN all the documentation that he had.

“I feel like you’re wanting me to answer for MT’s use of our funds, which I can’t do,” he wrote. “There were no red flags that we ever saw and no impropriety. They operated under a contract and there’s no dispute between OWH and MTB.”

Red flags for some

There may have been no red flags for Yentes but there were for Presmyk, who served on the nonprofit’s board from its inception until late 2016 or early 2017.

“Ultimately I was uncomfortable enough with the lack of disclosure. That’s the reason why I left the board,” he told GSN. “I knew what our budget was, the cost of the wall and we held several fundraisers but there was never any information divulged as to how successful a fundraiser was or how much money was raised.”

Presmyk, who served 12 years on the Gilbert Town Council until he left in 2011, said he had asked Rigler and Elwood several times to see the books.

“All I got were assurances the finances were fine or we would see them in future meetings,” Presmyk said. “I remember at least one other member in the committee asking for it. There was no regular treasurer report.”

Presmyk said the entire board was committed to the project.

“Everybody’s goal was to build this park,” he said. “And everybody’s intention was very well-meaning. I believe to this day. The financials were, if you will, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“I think if you talk to any nonprofit, any 501c3 trying to raise money, ‘transparency’ is the watchword,” he said. 

He said every nonprofit he’s been involved with – such as Dignity Health Foundation East Valley, where he is board vice president – provides a monthly treasurer’s report.

“You see the finances, you see how much money was raised for the year and the goals and where the money is going,” he said. “Based on my experience and working with other 501c3s, it’s all about transparency.”

Lisa Rigler did not return calls for comment.

Many declined comment

A number of people with ties to Operation Welcome Home who could possibly shed light on the project did not return calls for comment or refused to answer questions by the Gilbert Sun News.

Elwood, a certified public accountant in Florence, said he left the board late last year and would not say how much money the organization had when he left. He referred questions to Remsburg or the group’s Form 990s.

“If you are trying to find dirt, there isn’t any,” he said before hanging up.  

Brian Andersen of BMA Architecture, who was responsible for administrating the contract and representing Operation Welcome Home during the construction, did not return repeated calls for comment. 

According to the contract, he was supposed to visit the site at intervals and become familiar with the project’s progress and report back to the nonprofit. 

Andersen, who pledged $25,000 in design services and documents for the project also is chairman of the Gilbert Planning Commission and was a member of the nonprofit board.

A number of former and current board members such as Roger Pollard also did not return calls for comment.

Town defends its oversight

For its share of the project, Gilbert was to do off-site improvements included building a parking lot, a bus bay and extending water and sewer lines from existing lines to the property – all of which the town completed for $1.67 million.

Town officials, for the most part, insist they did everything to ensure the project was viable.

“The town was regularly working with Operation Welcome Home and were given assurances the project was moving forward and they would get the funding necessary to complete it,” Jennifer Harrison, a town spokeswoman said in an email. 

Operation Welcome Home officially notified the town on Sept. 25 that it was disbanding because it was unable to raise the money to complete its main project after repeated efforts, according to a letter from Remsburg to Mayor Daniels.

The group previously met with Daniels on Sept. 11 to alert her of the situation.

Asked when did the nonprofit realize it was in trouble and alert the town, Aimee Yentes said everyone knew the group was looking for funds.

Documents show the town was notified this past May of MT Builder’s cancellation of the contract and the bond.

On May 14, 2019, email to Payne, the town attorney, Justin Yentes stated Operation Welcome Home did not acknowledge the contract termination and he had instructed all of the board members not to respond to the general contractor’s request for acknowledgment.

Justin Yentes later said the bond was with the general contractor and the town and he didn’t want the cancellation recognized so as not to “jeopardize the town.”

Aimee Yentes added, “We had no authority to let them out of the bond.”

Cook said staff at the time informed the Council, Operation Welcome Home was “in the process of securing a different contractor and it was a bigger name than MT Builders.”

There are town documents showing staff was monitoring the project. 

Minutes from a Sept. 10, 2018, meeting involving Rigler, Andersen, Elwood, Aimee Yentes and Town Engineer Fabiano and Ryan Blair, a town project supervisor, stated the town had not seen any active construction on the site for several months. 

The town contacted MT Builders for an update but the company referred the town back to the nonprofit, according to the minutes.

“We had at least one meeting in person,” recalled Fabiano in an interview with GSN.

Fabiano said he was asked to coordinate with the nonprofit’s development team. “And we had several times scheduled meetings but they were rescheduled for various reasons. Each time a meeting was scheduled, they called and shared a conflict and I had no reason to question it.”

Future face-to-face meetings with nonprofit representatives didn’t take place, he added.

Fabiano in a Nov. 2, 2017, correspondence to Lemons-Roush, showed some concern with the project’s schedule.

“With your work all being in-kind donations, I can see a possibility for the schedule to be even a little more elusive than typical,” he wrote at the time. 

“Having in-kind work done and in scheduling, that kind of activity typically takes longer than if paying someone a fee to show up and do the work,” Fabiano said in the GSN interview.

Councilman Jordan Ray said, “I do think the town did their due diligence to make sure No. l, make sure it was a legitimate group and throughout the process, the town continued to do their part and make sure Operation Welcome Home was able to fulfill their end of the bargain.” 

“It’s sad it didn’t work out as expected,” Ray told GSN. “I think years from now it will be a great location for the growth of Gilbert.”

Harrison said the site's enhancements were designed and constructed for the benefit of the town and the future growth of the area. 

Cook said in moving forward, the town will need to do a better job in verifying in-kind donations for these sorts of projects.

“I think the town basically believed the executive team of Welcome Home was presenting data factually,” he said. “And the town took it at their word based on documents they provided.”

Cook believes the organization lacked the right team players with the experience to do fundraising for a project of this magnitude. 

“I think they had very good intentions and their heart was in the right place,” he said. “But from a business perspective of trying to raise this amount of money, they obviously did not have the appropriate skills set and they were unable to raise the money.”

One donor on the trail

At least one of the larger donors is following up on what happened with its money.

Roney Family Foundation in 2015 awarded $100,000 to Operation Welcome Home, distributed in five payments of $20,000 a year.

“At this time what Ms. Roney is prepared to say is she has significant concerns,” said attorney Prescott Pohl, who represented Mary Roney, the president/director of the family foundation.

Pohl said they were actively trying to coordinator contact with the organization, which has referred them to its attorney. 

Arizona Department of Veteran’s Services also gave the group $100,000 in February 2017.

“From our standpoint in administering the grants, they did everything according to our process,” said department spokeswoman Nicole Baker. “They did everything right to get the grant.”

Operation Welcome Home had to submit with its proposal the cost of its project, along with three bids, she said.

Baker said the group notified the department it was disbanding and was pulling together project receipts to send for review.  

“Seeing that and knowing they are following rules I don’t see a reason to go after the $100,000 or try to recoup it in any way,” Baker said. “Let’s wait and see what the receipts say. As far as we know they spent the money on what they were going to.”

The department receives its money for the grants through veteran license plate fees.

“I’m a Vietnam War veteran, these projects mean a lot to me,” said Rick Romley, former Maricopa County Attorney, who lost both his legs above the knee to a land mine during the war.  

“I thought the town of Gilbert was so committed to this project,” Romley said. “They gave not just financial resources to a great degree the land and so forth but gave their wholehearted political support.

 Romley was both honorary chairman of Operation Welcome Home and attended the groundbreaking ceremony. U.S. Sen. John McCain, who died in August 2018, also was an honorary chairman. 

“I don’t know exactly what is going on,” Romley said. “It’s a shame because it hurts a worthwhile program."