NEW PORT RICHEY — So a stranger walked into the canteen of the Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic last Tuesday afternoon. He did not want a hot dog. He wanted a word with the hot dog man.
The hot dog man was Bill Donley. He sold Florida Mutt Dogs for $2 and Texas Prairie Dogs for $2.50 from his cart called The Dog Sled.
The stranger pulled out an identification card. He was a criminal investigator with the Department of Veterans Affairs. He had driven over from James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa. He had a few questions.
The investigator quizzed him, Donley later recounted, on whether he talked with the media about the Veterans Affairs' decision to cancel his concession stand contract. Or whether he threatened an administrator at the clinic over the issue.
Donley's year-long reign as the hot dog man of the VA clinic was coming to an end after disputes with officials over business signs and the volunteer groups Donley says were hurting his business by offering free coffee and sweets in the canteen during his breakfast hours.
No surprise that his final week was marked by a little more intrigue.
"I say the truth, and they don't like that around here," said Donley. "I'm what they call a 'loose cannon.' "
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The 65-year-old Army veteran from Spring Hill may also be what they call a liability. Donley has hired a lawyer, J. Kenneth McIntyre of Spring Hill, to look into the VA's decision to deny renewing his contract as well as his allegations that officials impeded his business. No lawsuit has been filed.
Haley spokeswoman Susan Wentzell issued a terse statement saying only that officials had elected not to renew Donley's contract when it expired last month.
The contract had four optional one-year renewals. In a June 16 letter to Donley, the VA's Missouri-based canteen service headquarters said that "this service is no longer needed at this facility." (Donley said hundreds of customer comment cards from veterans, which he showed a reporter, tell a different story.)
Wentzell confirmed that a VA investigator from Haley had visited Donley at the Little Road outpatient center but said their conversation related to such things as Donley's plans for removing his equipment.
Donley said the investigator told him he was putting together a file. That file, the investigator said, would go nowhere as long as Donley left quietly, refrained from contacting one administrator in particular and did not return to the clinic other than for health care.
"It's off the wall," Donley said.
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Until Donley and wife Thelma got the contract a year ago to run the concession stand, the VA clinic's canteen was more like a break room with vending machines.
There was also a long-standing tradition of volunteers from local nonprofit groups, such as the Elks, giving away coffee and donuts or cookies to veterans who drop by the canteen on their way to medical appointments.
Donley pitched his idea to run a concession cart to the VA's canteen services unit in Tampa. They came up with a seven-page contract outlining how much he must pay the VA — 10 percent of his monthly gross receipts, a fee that has typically amounted to less than $70 — and specifying he would be liable for any damage, loss or injury should someone get hurt on the canteen premises.
Donley subsequently got a $300,000 liability insurance policy.
His biggest beef with the VA? They let the volunteers from service groups stick around until nearly 11:30 a.m. His concession stand, which sold 75-cent Dunkin Donuts coffee and pastries, opened at 10 a.m. and closed at 3 p.m. Most people go for the free food, he said.
"I can't compete with free," he said.
The breakfast war may seem like small potatoes — except it's drawn the attention of elected officials and top administrators.
Earlier this year, Donley took his complaints to U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, whose office asked Haley about it. The inquiry prompted a Feb. 5 letter to Waite's office from Haley director Stephen Lucas, who noted volunteers "have provided an invaluable service for their fellow veterans," including providing free coffee, since the clinic opened in 1985.
"Mr. Donley has been personally advised by both the Administrative Officer and the Chief Medical Officer at the clinic that volunteers will be permitted to continue providing coffee to clinic patients and that he is in no way to interfere with this service," Lucas wrote.
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One morning last week, Donley waved his hand at the volunteers, who were chatting and sitting at a table with open boxes of powdered donuts for the taking.
"Germs," he sniffed. "Not at mine. I've got sneeze guards all around. I'm in total control of everything."
Well, not everything, of course. Donley said even though the contract said he could advertise with fliers and signs, a staff member at the clinic lit into him when he put up a sign near the doorway of the canteen advertising his coffee.
"She stormed in, looked at me and she says, 'Who authorized you to put that sign there?' " he said. "I says no one. I says I have the right in my contract. She says, 'How dare you talk to me like that.' Says it right it front of my wife."
He said he eventually took the sign down.
Donley, whose mother nicknamed him "motor mouth," acknowledges a number of verbal run-ins with clinic staff and administrators. But the hot dog man said he was only taking a stand.
"I want to expose them for what they are trying to do to me, a veteran," Donley said. "They were basically trying to squeeze me out of there."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.