Murkiness surrounds Veterans Boat Show event in Safety Harbor

SAFETY HARBOR — The Veterans Boat Show, a city-sponsored public event at the Safety Harbor marina Nov. 9-11, promises water ski shows, drill teams and even Miss Pinup America — all in the name of honoring veterans and, according to the event website, "to raise funds and awareness of two very worthy nonprofit organizations."

But there's no mention of the name of the host organization that stands to benefit from most of the free event's potential proceeds.

That would be the Organization for Health and Fitness, unofficially doing business under the name Presidents Reef Foundation, according to the event's application with the city.

The Veterans Boat Show is a "soft launch" of a project under wraps until 2013, said the organizer, Glen Caristinos.

Caristinos said he plans to build an artificial reef off the coast of Dunedin. Spanning 40 acres, 40 feet underwater, the Presidents Reef Memorial will be "a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall, (and) a dedication to President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail Gorbachev," the foundation's website said.

Caristinos declined to make public more details of the artificial reef project until next year, a request that he said came from members of Congress.

The website also claims Presidents Reef Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It's not. That name isn't registered with the state.

"I'll be sure to make sure the webmaster corrects that," Caristinos said.

Eventually, he said, the Organization for Health and Fitness will change its name to the Presidents Reef Foundation. But no name change has yet been filed with the state.

Because the Presidents Reef Foundation doesn't exist on paper, any proceeds from the Veterans Boat Show will go to the Organization for Health and Fitness, but will be for the artificial reef project.

Caristinos also provided a list of nonprofits affiliated with veterans' causes that he said will benefit from the Veterans Boat Show. For example, the Armed Forces Military Museum in Largo plans to run a booth one day of the event and didn't have to pay for the space.

The Safety Harbor City Commission unanimously approved the Veterans Boat Show this summer. City Manager Matt Spoor said the event had clearly stated its objectives in its submitted paperwork. The city only helps events with logistics, not marketing.

A local nonprofit expert says transparency can be the greatest challenge for charitable organizations, as well as the greatest boost.

"The more transparent a nonprofit can be about everything, the more successful they can be," said Grace Armstrong, CEO of the Nonprofit Leadership Center of Tampa Bay. "A lot of what we do is public anyway, so why not make it easy for the public to find out about us?"

Nonprofits' fumbles with transparency often derive from a lack of knowledge, she said, and the hasty drive to make a difference, not from bad intentions.

"Many people who start nonprofits do it from their heart, wanting to solve a problem and wanting to solve it now," Armstrong said. "They're not stepping back and saying, 'What steps do I need to take to make sure I get to that solution very effectively?' "

The Veterans Boat Show's front man, Caristinos, said, "I believe we're more than clear enough."

Caristinos, a 2009 candidate for City Commission, has long volunteered for causes and helped out local nonprofits.

"I have a lot of contacts, and I help out a lot of people," Caristinos said.

But a murky history with personal financial affairs continues to dog him.

During his campaign for elected office, he told the Tampa Bay Times that he didn't know he owed $21,000 in back taxes to the state of Maine, where he used to live. Caristinos said he now has a payment plan for settling the Maine taxes, the result of a failed business. Records still show two liens for more than $16,000 in delinquent taxes and withholdings.

But records also revealed an even bigger debt: a federal tax lien against Caristinos for $168,953.66 for unpaid federal taxes from 2003 to 2007. Caristinos said he wasn't aware of the debt.

The president of the Organization for Health and Fitness, Dennis Kellenberger, said he didn't know about Caristinos' financial history. Caristinos is a volunteer board member for the nonprofit, which started up years ago to promote educational health and nutritional programs.

Caristinos called his debts personal issues. He said he doesn't handle money for the nonprofit and will not for the Veterans Boat Show.

"I see how that may look," he said, "but I don't get the money, and I don't see the money, and it doesn't come to me."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or swang@tampabay.com.

Murkiness surrounds Veterans Boat Show event in Safety Harbor 11/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 7:40pm]

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