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'I was never a choir boy': Ex-wrestler says criminal record won't prevent charity work with amputees

50 Legs in 50 Days board member John Thompson, from left, and founder Steve Chamberland talk to the media Tuesday while Jerry and Nicole Nugent, with daughters, Giavanna, 5, and Ireland, 2, stand in support. Ireland lost both her legs in a Palm Harbor lawn mower accident last month.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

50 Legs in 50 Days board member John Thompson, from left, and founder Steve Chamberland talk to the media Tuesday while Jerry and Nicole Nugent, with daughters, Giavanna, 5, and Ireland, 2, stand in support. Ireland lost both her legs in a Palm Harbor lawn mower accident last month.

CLEARWATER — Representatives of the Seminole-based charity 50 Legs in 50 Days said Tuesday that they are working to comply with state regulations and that Steve Chamberland, the organization's outspoken founder, can continue in his leadership position despite his criminal record.

At a hastily convened press conference in Clearwater, Chamberland and 50 Legs in 50 Days board members said the nonprofit, formed in 2011 to provide prosthetic limbs for needy amputees, will not falter despite legal issues first described in a Saturday Tampa Bay Times story.

The article disclosed that Chamberland was barred under state law from personally soliciting donations because he pleaded guilty to felony grand theft in 2009, and that state regulators sent 50 Legs in 50 Days a letter last month because the group had never registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

However, Chamberland and his board members said Tuesday that they were in the process of applying for state registration as a charity and that the restriction on asking for money would not stop Chamberland from staying front-and-center. The Internal Revenue Service has already certified the group as a 501(c)3 charity for federal tax purposes.

"I'm a wrestler. I was never a choir boy," Chamberland, a former professional wrestler who lost his right leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident, said of his criminal background. He described the 20-month delay in registering with Florida regulators as an honest oversight.

"I'm not the brightest bulb in the circuit, so once we got our 501(c)3 (status), I thought we were good," Chamberland said, adding he was happy a Times reporter had brought attention to his charity's regulatory issues. "I'm glad he wrote the story, and I'm glad it's out there," he said. "This was a blessing in disguise."

Chamberland also rejected a Tampa Bay area prosthetist's claim of questionable dealings with 50 Legs in 50 Days. West Coast Brace & Limb president Greg Bauer told the Times last week that he decided not to work with the charity because Chamberland asked for a free prosthetic leg for his personal use in exchange for sending patients to the clinic.

"That never happened," Chamberland said Tuesday, declining to comment further.

Chamberland was flanked at the press conference by the family of Ireland Nugent, a 2-year-old Palm Harbor girl who lost both her legs below the knee in a lawn mower accident last month. Chamberland's efforts to help the girl secure care, along with his offers to aid amputee survivors of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, have drawn extensive media coverage.

"Everybody has a past," Nicole Nugent, Ireland's mother, said. "Steve's been nothing but supportive to us the past four weeks."

She said that Chamberland is "a wonderful guy" and that the family has no concerns about its involvement with 50 Legs in 50 Days. The press conference was held outside Trinity Presbyterian Church, the Nugents' church.

"Steve's story is really one of redemption," said John Thompson, who described himself as the charity's secretary. "He's determined not to let his past dictate his future."

Yet questions remain about how the nonprofit will have to shape its future activities to comply with state law, which bars those who have pleaded guilty to crimes including theft, fraud and embezzlement from soliciting charitable donations.

Chamberland pleaded guilty to grand theft in Hillsborough Circuit Court four years ago after he was accused of stealing a work associate's trailer in Tampa. Adjudication was withheld and he received 18 months probation and was ordered to pay $3,500 in restitution.

Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said 50 Legs in 50 Days is cooperating with regulators. Right now, and until its registration is complete, the charity cannot solicit donations, she said.

State law prevents Chamberland only from asking for money, Gillespie said, not leading his charity or representing it in the public eye. She said the details of what Chamberland can and cannot do will be specified for him.

"The one thing he is barred from doing is ever saying, 'Give us money,' " Gillespie said. However, "it would be difficult to be the primary representative of a charity without asking for money," she said.

Chamberland asserted Tuesday he can do just that, and said he rarely asks for money on behalf of his charity anyway. He also said news coverage of the organization's legal issues has prompted a new round of support and phone calls from those who favor its mission.

"This actually helped the charity," he said, predicting that the group will soon have the strength to expand beyond the Tampa Bay area. "I think it's going to blow up."

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

'I was never a choir boy': Ex-wrestler says criminal record won't prevent charity work with amputees 05/14/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 11:13pm]
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