Rift forms between veterans’ charities

Local fundraiser Hank Purnell thinks Earl Hillis is a criminal who stole his donor database.

Hillis said Purnell is concerned more about lining his own pockets rather than helping veterans. He also said he never stole anything from Purnell and that Purnell’s out to get him.
They used to work together.

Purnell heads the Veterans Action Project, a New Port Richey-based charity that raises money for local military veterans. It also has a satellite office in Spring Hill.

Purnell said Hillis was a solid employee. Hillis had been down on his luck, Purnell said, virtually homeless when he first met him. He was desperate to get his life back on track.

“We got him a job and he was good at it,” Purnell said.

Hillis said he had worked for Purnell for more than 10 years. After serving 20 months in federal prison, he returned to Spring Hill and started his own charity – Hernando Veterans Aid. He operates it out of his home.

“We did a lot of good here in Hernando County,” said Hillis of his time with VAP, “but I thought that I could do a lot more for local veterans.”

He said 60 percent of what he collects goes to the veterans because he has so little overhead.
Hillis’ former employer, by comparison, gives out only 25 percent, and most of that is to veterans in Pasco County, he said.

During the past two months, Hernando Veterans Aid has paid out nearly $5,000 to Hernando veterans, Hillis said.

Hernando Veterans Aid became a state-registered charity earlier this month, according to records provided by Hillis.

“He really wants to help,” said Dee Mills, whose organization received a $100 check from Hillis in April and another earlier this month.

Mills, whose son, Sgt. Lea Mills, was killed in action in Iraq in 2006, operates Lea’s Prayers and Postage, which sends care packages to troops overseas.

“I really respect the older veterans who help the younger veterans,” Mills said of Hillis. “He’s out there helping the younger veterans. I like that a lot.”

Hiding a criminal past

Rev. Bill Prior had dealt with Hillis for years while he was with VAP. He has a starkly different opinion of him.

He remembered Hillis telling him he was in Tennessee undergoing a triple bypass. That was why he had gone nearly two years without calling him.

Prior had talked to Hillis several times over the phone during the latter’s employment with VAP.
“We got to be on a first-name basis,” said Prior.

After Hillis was released from federal prison, he went out on his own. He started calling all of the people he regularly contacted while a solicitor for Purnell’s charity group.

“He said he had a new veterans operation and he needed my help,” Prior said.
He believed Hillis and wrote a check for $20.

Purnell and others at VAP learned about Hillis’ new group in March after they received calls from confused donors. Pretty soon, VAP started calling everyone on its list to warn them about Hillis.
Prior was one of them. A VAP employee called him and spilled the beans about Hillis’ conviction and prison sentence.

Prior had placed his check under the rug by his door so that Hillis’ driver could pick it up.
The man never showed and Prior destroyed the check.

He was ready for Hillis’ next call.
“I told him, ‘You lied to me,'” Prior said.
He said Hillis never apologized.

“What difference does it make?” Prior said he asked him.
“I don’t do business with people who lie to me,” Prior shot back.

Others who were warned about Hillis reacted the same way. They promised they’d never give money to him again.

“I was very upset about it,” said Helen Swartz, a local resident who regularly gives to VAP. “I don’t like people cheating me.”

Charity versus charity

Purnell is convinced Hillis stole his extensive list of donors.

“He’s been calling the very same people we’ve been calling for years,” he said. “A lot of them thought it was us calling them at first.”

Hillis scoffed at Purnell’s accusations. He has called some of the same donors, but only those he remembered by heart. He called many of them regularly for 10 years, so naturally he’s going to remember, he said.

Otherwise, he uses the White Pages.

Hillis also questioned his former boss’ integrity.

“Hank claims to do things for veterans that he really doesn’t do,” said Hillis. “He claims 73 cents of every dollar (he) collects make it to the veterans. That’s totally erroneous.”

He also said Purnell made up stories about Hillis moving to Tennessee after donors asked him why they hadn’t heard from him. He said he continued to go with the story concocted by his former boss. At the time, it seemed like the painless alternative.

Hillis, who has a criminal record, said he was convicted of his gun charge after he mailed a photograph of himself holding an automatic weapon. It was sent to a friend of his, who was in jail.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives got involved and Hillis was arrested. He pleaded guilty and served 20 months in federal prison in Coleman, he said.

“That isn’t something people brag about,” he said about his criminal past. “It has nothing to do with fundraising for veterans.”

Hillis, 66, said he served in the U.S. Army from 1961-67. The first three years were active duty.
His father served under Gen. George Patton during World War II, he said. His uncle was a POW during the Korean War.

Hillis also is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Sons of the American Revolution.
“I come from a long line of patriots and soldiers,” he said.

Hillis doesn’t expect his relations with Purnell or others at VAP to improve anytime soon.
He said Hernando Veterans Aid has suffered due to Purnell’s frantic calls to potential donors. He thinks it has been mean-spirited.

“I run a charity and he runs a business,” Hillis said. “They’ve done a lot of mudslinging over there.”

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or wholt@hernandotoday.com.

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