CUYAHOGA COUNTY -- Veteran's groups are demanding a review of a county commission that's supposed to look after former armed service members following a Channel 3 News investigation exposing allegations of mismanagement and questionable spending at the agency.
The Cuyahoga County Veterans Service Commission has routinely returned up to $1 million a year to the county's general fund because it cannot find veterans in need of assistance, The Investigator Tom Meyer found. In addition, nearly 60 percent of their taxpayer-funded budget goes to overhead costs such as salaries, benefits and rent.
Veterans' advocate Ray Saikus said the commission's inability to find needy veterans is inexcusable given that more than 14 percent of the county's homeless served in the military.
"That's an ultimate sin for an organization like that," said Saikus, of the Joint Veterans' Commission of Cuyahoga County. "We have been trained to search out the enemy. We can also search out fellow veterans."
A group of vets investigating commission spending statewide believes veterans service commissions in every county should be examined.
"We believe that Ohio's veterans have been denied $600 (million) to $700 million and maybe close to a billion dollars in the past 10 years," said Luke Patrino, a Vietnam War veteran.
Patrino says veterans are forced to jump through hoops when they apply for help.
"It's the humiliation they force them to go through to get relief," Patrino said. "It's bad enough you have to beg."
A county judge appoints members to the Cuyahoga County Veterans Service Commission. Presiding Common Pleas Judge Nancy Fuerst, who now oversees the appointments, said she is recommending the commission undergo an audit.
Channel 3 News found that the commission spends only 46 percent of its budget on assisting veterans. The rest goes to overhead, including a $132,000 salary for its executive director, Robert Schloendorn -- making him one of the highest paid administrators in the county.
The commission also employs 29 full-time individuals and eight part-time workers. Commission employees have received pay raises, longevity pay, and tuition reimbursements at a time when county employees have been laid off, forced to take furloughs, or had their pay cut. It spends $490,000 a year on office rent.
Schloendorn defended the commission's spending.
"We are trying to find them as best we can," said Schloendorn, who did admit the commission could be more aggressive in locating eligible veterans.
Schloendorn said that he has asked the county government for help conducting an audit.
County officials say they could examine the commission's books on their own, or they could bring in an outside group, like the state auditor.
But county officials say it is up to the commission whether the audit will simply make sure its financial statements are sound or whether the audit will do a top-to-bottom review of how the commission is doing its job.