Clear55° FULL FORECASTClear55° FULL FORECAST
Make us your home page
Instagram

Veteran who wants to help homeless has problems of his own

Morson Livingston has proudly told his story: Retired Army chaplain, a combat veteran who ministered to troops in Bosnia. Years later, he said, the sight of homeless men in military fatigues inspired him to create a nonprofit agency to find shelter and other services for vets.

But when he sought nearly $1 million in taxpayer-funded grants for his ambitious plans, and when he tried to plant his transitional housing facility in an upscale neighborhood, the spotlight turned brighter on him. His military records, including allegations he sexually harassed three women while serving as a Catholic chaplain, surfaced.

His plan fell apart.

In the three weeks since, more information has surfaced about the 51-year-old native of Kerala, India. But the founder of the St. Jude's Veterans Resource Center stopped answering questions after the Times reported the sexual harassment scandal.

"Right now I am dealing with what (the Times) has done," he told reporters who visited his Land O'Lakes home last week. He declined to participate in an interview and did not respond to detailed questions sent via e-mail.

Livingston, by many accounts, has made a sincere effort to help veterans in need. He has organized fundraisers, collected donations and hosted events to provide meals, clothing, showers and haircuts for the homeless.

"I just know Rev. Livingston as being a kind, gentle person that has the best interest of the vets," said County Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who chairs the local homeless advisory board. "I've always seen him go out of his way to do good for the veterans."

Still, a review of records and his life since he moved to the United States in 1994 raises several issues:

• Livingston's resume says he served as a "liaison officer for NATO's mission in Kosovo" and was "part of numerous high profile missions" during his three-year stint in the Army. But military records obtained by the Times show no overseas deployment. Nor do they reflect some of the ribbons on the dress uniform Livingston wears to veterans events.

• Livingston's nonprofit has operated in the red, spending about $2.15 for every $1 it took in, according to the most recent accounting records filed with two different government agencies. He also has faced personal financial difficulties, including foreclosure proceedings on all three homes he purchased back in 2007.

• While Livingston has earned praise from county officials and folks at Tampa's VA hospital for his efforts to help vets, he has not partnered with the lead local agency addressing homelessness: the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County.

The Rev. Dan Campbell is president of the coalition, which drafted an ambitious plan to end homelessness within a decade through a mix of grants and coordination among agencies. He said the coalition would like to work with St. Jude's, but Livingston told him he couldn't afford the $100 annual membership fee. Campbell offered to waive the fee if Livingston wrote a letter explaining the financial hardship.

That was seven months ago.

Livingston never wrote the letter.

• • •

Generous people are ready to help when the cause is homeless vets. So when Livingston founded St. Jude's a few years back, the helpers lined up.

VFW and American Legion posts contributed money. Walmart and Publix chipped in gift cards. Students at Chasco Middle School donated blankets. And various agencies jumped on board for St. Jude's events, providing food and other aid to the homeless.

William Klinger, Pasco County's veterans service officer, was impressed by the efforts. He described a barbecue event two years ago in which volunteers had a direct line to call the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, where a designated employee pulled and faxed veterans' discharge papers so they could register for benefits on the spot.

"Morson organized all of that," Klinger said.

At that event and others, Livingston wore his dress Army uniform with the silver cross on his lapel, his captain's bars and two rows of ribbons above his left pocket. He still uses the title reverend, although he said he left the priesthood a few years back to get married.

He previously told the Times he left the military in 2001 after suffering a neck and back injury in Bosnia, and that he eventually landed in the Tampa area with the hopes of getting an aggressive spinal treatment program offered at the James Haley Veterans Hospital.

When the Times obtained Livingston's military records, however, the paperwork showed no sign of deployment to Bosnia or Kosovo. The records showed he received the Army Service Ribbon and the Army Commendation Medal, as well as the Army Lapel Button, but there was no documentation for the other ribbons on Livingston's uniform: the NATO Medal Ribbon, the Army Overseas Ribbon and the Armed Forces Service Ribbon.

Nor was there any indication of a military injury: His discharge papers said he was "released from active duty not by reason of physical disability."

But his departure came on the heels of a "punitive memorandum of reprimand" after three women in the Army complained Livingston had sexually harassed them.

"I am shocked by your conduct," Brig. Gen. Joseph F.H. Peterson wrote in the April 24, 2001 memo. "I cannot imagine a more egregious breach of the confidence placed in you. As a Catholic priest and an officer in the United States Army, an unquestionably higher standard is expected of you."

Livingston told the Times last month those allegations were "not true" and had nothing to do with his plans to open a veterans resource center.

• • •

County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand first met Living-ston more than a year ago, when he approached her about grant funding to turn an old Hudson motel into a homeless veterans center. She said she appreciated his "passion for the mission," but doubted he had the resources to launch such a project.

"He has circulated himself to where he has become known," said Hildebrand, who serves on several nonprofit boards herself. "But if you're going to take on this kind of a mission, you have to have some staying power and a plan for how to subsidize what you're going to do."

St. Jude's was incorporated in 2005 under the name Universal Spiritual Center. The nonprofit's records from 2009, the most recent year available from Pasco County officials and the state Division of Consumer Services, show the group received $5,740 in cash and other donations — but spent $12,371. None of the money went to salaries; much of it went to fundraising. Nearly $1,700 went directly to helping the needy, including monthly cash assistance to vets listed as "Jesse, Scott, David, Randy, Rat Bastard, Randy II and other homeless."

Small donations came in from residents, businesses and a few church collection plates. But doing anything of scope — like the transitional housing facility Livingston envisioned — would require substantial grants.

Last April, Livingston applied for grants from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Pasco County government with the hope of opening a halfway house for veterans. He envisioned a place where vets could get temporary housing plus counseling and other services.

He scoped out several sites, including the former Happy Hill motel north of Zephyrhills, another motel in Hudson and a couple of buildings in New Port Richey. County officials balked at the sites, which were either too expensive or just a bad fit, Community Development director George Romagnoli said.

"However, we did like the concept that St. Jude's was presenting, and we decided we should give St. Jude's a chance," Romagnoli said. "We felt there was a need in the county to provide for homeless veterans."

By October, the county set aside $400,000 for Livingston's group. The VA approved $493,675 toward a building and agreed to help pay for the day-to-day operations, too. All of the money would be provided as reimbursements once St. Jude's lined up an acceptable location.

Livingston and his supporters thought they found the right site earlier this year at the former Immanuel Lutheran Church at Ridge Road and Sycamore Drive in New Port Richey. But Livingston withdrew the proposal last month after about 100 neighbors turned out in opposition, questioning the location, the plans for running the facility — and Livingston's fitness to do so.

• • •

At the same time Livingston was seeking nearly $1 million in government grants, his private finances were falling into disarray.

Back in 2007, Livingston took out mortgages totaling $1 million to buy three homes. One was his two-story, $350,000 home in upscale Ballantrae in Land O'Lakes. The other two were model homes — one in Land O'Lakes, the other in Manatee County — that he immediately leased back to developer K. Hovnanian Windward Homes, a fairly common type of real estate investment.

What was unusual: The mortgage paperwork on all three homes listed Livingston as "a single person" or "unmarried," even though months earlier he had married Seema Ramroop — the woman for whom he said he'd left the priesthood.

Even if the spouse is not involved in the financing, her existence should be reflected in the mortgage documents, in part because the marriage gives her a legal claim to the property, said Richard Peek, president of the Florida Association of Mortgage Professionals. Such an omission is a serious matter, Peek said.

Within three years, Livingston had fallen behind on all three mortgages, and Ramroop surrendered any claim to those properties in an amicable divorce. The bank took the Manatee County house. The Land O'Lakes investment home was unloaded at a short sale. Livingston negotiated to keep his Ballantrae home after writing a letter last summer telling the CitiMortgage attorney that he'd lost all his money in the 2008 stock market crash.

"I am unable to work and on a fixed income," Livingston wrote.

Mortgage documents show that property has a VA guaranteed loan, which provides default assistance to help keep veterans from losing their homes to foreclosure.

• • •

While the marriage ended in January 2010, Ramroop has remained Livingston's partner in St. Jude's. Documents list the 37-year-old stockbroker as the group's secretary. At last month's meetings on turning the old Lutheran church into a veterans facility, Ramroop jumped in several times to elaborate on Livingston's statements.

"There are numerous programs that the Veterans Administration has actually done throughout the country, and this is just one of them," Ramroop told the crowd, after Livingston described the facility as something new to Pasco but tried elsewhere. "Well, we should be proud that it's coming here. This program is done by the VA."

The private donor offering $250,000 toward the shelter project is Ramroop's co-worker Jeffrey McDonald, senior vice president of the McDonald Group at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Palm Harbor.

Neither would comment for this story.

At one point, St. Jude's listed 10 members on its board of directors. But some, like Maj. Gen. Wayne Rollings and his wife, Gwen, stepped down after the controversies arose over Livingston's background and the Lutheran church site. A few others, like Volunteer Way food bank director Lester Cypher, were surprised to learn they were listed as board members.

"I have not had a close relationship with him at all," Cypher told the Times.

The list of board members no longer appears on St. Jude's website.

Former board member Richard Sebek, a Tampa lawyer, said Livingston told him he removed the members' names so their reputations wouldn't be hurt by all of the controversy.

Livingston said he would "pretty much do whatever he is going to do alone," Sebek said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Veteran who wants to help homeless has problems of his own 05/07/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 7, 2011 4:56pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...