The Veterans Park

The Veterans Park never reached the elegant building touted in renderings like the one on the left and remained a barren, semi-cleared desert lot. (File photos)

A now-defunct Gilbert nonprofit that received hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a veterans memorial park, which never took off, gave conflicting accounts in 2016 to two government agencies about how much money it had on hand.

While telling the Arizona Department of Veteran Services it had collected $600,000 in in-kind services and $1.2 million in cash, Operation Welcome Home told the IRS the same year it had $184,646 in net assets or fund balances, according to documents obtained by the Gilbert Sun News.

The discrepancies raise more questions surrounding the nonprofit’s handling of donations and the oversight given by town, state and federal officials, after Gilbert spent over $1.6 million in taxpayer funds for around the park site.

The nonprofit and the town were partners in the project. Gilbert not only performed the off-site improvements but also leased the town-owned land to the nonprofit for $1 a year for 30 years.

Operation Welcome Home two months ago declared it couldn’t come up with the funds to build the $3 million veterans park and was dissolving.

Gilbert Vice Mayor Eddie Cook said he was concerned with the inconsistencies in the financial statements to the state and IRS.

“I see a significant discrepancy as it relates to the information Operation Welcome Home provided to the Arizona Department of Veteran Services,” Cook said. “To me, the data the town received doesn’t align with what they provided.”

Cook suspected the nonprofit “over-inflated their numbers so maybe it was a way for them to secure the grant.”

The nonprofit was set up by Lisa Rigler, who at the time was president of the Gilbert Small Business Alliance, an organization she had created more than 10 years ago.

It was born out of periodic celebrations then-Councilwoman Jenn Daniels and former Councilman Les Presmyk organized to honor returning military men and women who served overseas.

Operation Welcome Home in 2016 applied for a $100,000 grant from the Arizona Department of Veteran Services to help build the park at Gilbert Road and Civic Center Drive and include a scaled-down replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. D.C.

The grant application included a document stating Operation Welcome Home had $1.25 million in cash – including $250,000 in grants, $250,000 in corporate contributions and $350,000 from individual donors. It also claimed $600,000 for in-kind donations for a total of $1.8 million in revenue.

In the Form 990 the nonprofit filed with the IRS for that same year, it claimed it had $184,646 in net assets or fund balances. 

The IRS declined to comment for the story.

Rigler signed the application to the state Veterans Services Department, certifying the numbers were “true and correct.”

Riger, who stepped down either late last year or early this year citing health reasons, has not returned calls from the Gilbert Sun News and did not return a call to explain the discrepancy.

Ron Elwood, the certified public accountant who prepared the Form 990 for the nonprofit and was its treasurer, said he didn’t have a hand in the grant application and declined to answer further questions. Elwood has said he left the nonprofit board almost 12 months ago.

Veteran Services spokeswoman Nicole Baker said this was the first time she saw a grant-receiving project fail.

“We’ve never had it happen that I know of,” she said. “I’ve been here almost three years. I’ve never seen it happen.”

Baker said the grant application was reviewed by a committee, which includes veterans and members of Veteran Services.

She also noted Rigler signed paperwork attesting what she submitted was truthful.

But Baker also said the department has no intention to delve deeper into the matter.

She cited a cashed check Operation Welcome Home sent the agency showing it had paid $284,487 to MT Builders, the general contractor Operation Welcome Home had hired to build the park.

 “What we are looking for is, ‘Did you use the money for what you said you would spend it on?’” Baker said. “We took the check as them spending the money on what they said they were spending the money on.”

The state agency’s grants are funded by the motor vehicle owners who pay fees for specialty license plates showing they are military personnel or veterans.

Operation Welcome Home’s application was reviewed by five unnamed committee members. They scored the application highly, ranging from 95 to 100 points. Two committee members, however, recommended giving the group $50,000 instead of the $100,000 it sought.

One committee member who approved of the full award wrote: “Showed credibility on how they are using their finances, not splurging. Looking for something extra to make their program stronger. CPA does funding, they have board oversight. Main source of sustainability is through donations and fundraising.”

Cook said the state’s handling of Operation Welcome Home’s application raises potential flaws in the way Veterans Services handles requests for money.

He said the Veterans Services committee has to come up with a better process to verify the information on the applications.

“If I had to make a comment to Veteran Services – just like my comments about the town (needing) to come up with a process to verify and validate in-kind donations – that committee that reviewed that applications has to do the same thing,” Cook said.

In her application, Rigler outlined Operation Welcome Home’s financial controls. 

Rigler stated the board of directors will check all statements and balance sheets each month and an annual audit of the books is to be done every December.

But this kind of board oversight apparently never existed for the nonprofit.

 Presmyk, a former board member, said he was never privy to its finances even after asking to see the books. He said he became so frustrated by Rigler’s lack of disclosure, so, he left the group in late 2016 or early 2017.

The agency in February 2017 awarded Operation Welcome Home the $100,000 grant – part of $861,750 in grants it gave for a variety of veterans-related projects across the state.

Operation Welcome Home that same year gave the town a bank statement showing it had $415,548 in cash and $679,747 in written commitments for in-kind donations.

The total, of $1.1 million it claimed to have, satisfied the town’s threshold for issuing a permit so construction could begin. 

Also for 2017, Operation Welcome Home told the IRS it had $427,968, according to its Form 990.

Lisa Riger’s daughter, Aimee Yentes – a town councilwoman and the vice president of the nonprofit before it folded – blamed the project’s demise on MT Builders, saying the company’s list of in-kind donors didn’t materialize. The project never made it past the earthwork.

Two months canceling its lease with Operation Welcome Home and taking back control of the 7 acres, the town now plans to convert the site back to desert landscaping.