SEMINOLE — State regulators say they are scrutinizing the charitable activities of Steve Chamberland, the gregarious ex-wrestler from Seminole whose work on behalf of young amputees has gained widespread publicity over the past month.
Chamberland's 50 Legs in 50 Days nonprofit, founded in 2011 to provide prosthetics to needy patients, had not until this week applied for state registration as a charity. Officials reviewing the organization now say its iconic front man cannot personally solicit donations because he has a criminal record.
In 2009, Chamberland pleaded guilty to a felony grand theft charge in Hillsborough Circuit Court after he was accused of stealing a trailer from a work associate. State law prohibits anyone who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to charges including fraud, theft and embezzlement during the last 10 years from seeking charitable donations.
The attention of state authorities comes as some are questioning the sudden rise of Chamberland — a 6-foot-3 painting contractor who walks on a prosthetic leg and once aspired to be a professional wrestler — and the charity he founded.
One well-regarded Tampa Bay area prosthetist said he has avoided working with 50 Legs in 50 Days because he believed Chamberland was seeking personal gain through the charity.
Chamberland has an impassioned following among families he has helped and says that regulators' questions about his charity can be resolved without jeopardizing its mission.
"It's just something we've got to take care of," Chamberland said of the state requirements. "I didn't know. I didn't do this charity to hurt. I did this charity to help."
'He can't be on TV'
Chamberland, who lost his right leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident, is helping the family of Ireland Nugent, a 2-year-old Palm Harbor girl. Ireland's legs were severed at mid-calf April 11 when her father accidentally ran over her on a riding lawn mower.
The girl's recovery has been closely watched by reporters and television news crews, and Chamberland has rarely been far from the camera's eye.
Jerry Nugent, Ireland's dad, has called Chamberland an "inspiration" and a "brother" who played a crucial role in helping him overcome his guilt about the accident. Chamberland has also gained national publicity through his offers to help amputee survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15.
Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Chamberland could remain involved with the charity as an officer or administrator, if not as an active fundraiser.
But a shift out of the limelight is difficult to imagine for the man whose presence is inseparable in the public eye from the work of 50 Legs in 50 Days.
"Not only can he not make the phone call, he cannot write the letter, he can't be on TV asking for the money, and he cannot be the face of the organization," Gillespie said.
On April 30, state regulators sent the organization a letter stating that it must register as a charity "in order to avoid any further action." Gillespie said the letter was written after a state official noticed the extensive media coverage of the group. This week the department learned about Chamberland's criminal history, including the theft charge and a 2004 domestic battery charge to which he pleaded no contest.
John Thompson, an officer of 50 Legs in 50 Days who also serves as the organization's secretary, said the charity will work with the state to make sure they are doing things by the book.
"We have no interest in being out of compliance with anything," Thompson said.
Nicole Nugent, Ireland's mother, said she was not aware of regulators' discussions with Chamberland. She said her family has independently made decisions on her daughter's care and noted that donations for Ireland have been routed through their church and not 50 Legs in 50 Days.
"We've had excellent experiences with him the past three weeks," she said. "Other than that, I can't say."
Lakeland resident Susan Gibbs said Chamberland was instrumental in procuring a high-tech prosthetic limb last year for her daughter, Zoe, who lost part of her leg in a personal watercraft accident two years ago.
"It was a match made in heaven for all of us," she said of her family's involvement with 50 Legs in 50 Days. "He is the most amazing, generous, big-hearted person you'd ever want to meet."
History of disputes
Chamberland's charitable activities came as a surprise to Jeffrey Currence, a Tampa contractor who worked with Chamberland on a residential housing project in 2007. In November of that year, Currence reported to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that Chamberland had stolen a trailer from him.
"I find it hard to believe that he's up to any good," Currence said of Chamberland's current activities. "I always found him to be shady. I never found any of his statements to pan out. He's a likable enough guy when you meet him, but there's something about him that wasn't right."
Chamberland pleaded guilty to the charge. Adjudication was withheld and he was ordered to pay Currence $3,500. He received 18 months of probation.
Chamberland also has an acrimonious relationship with some local prosthetic clinics. He has criticized in particular the two facilities he says were recommended to the Nugents by Tampa General Hospital when Ireland was discharged earlier this month: Shriners Hospitals for Children-Tampa and West Coast Brace & Limb.
Shriners provides care regardless of a family's ability to pay until a patient turns 18, but Chamberland said that both Shriners and West Coast provide inferior prosthetics and that he has begun encouraging their patients to seek care elsewhere.
"This is b-------. Seeing what West Coast Brace & Limb did to these people, it's disgusting to me," Chamberland said. "And then you get Shriners making these kids legs. I got three or four kids from Shriners (to switch). Thank God I did, because I saved their lives, knowing what they do there."
The Nugent family has chosen to take Ireland to an Orlando clinic that has worked in the past with Chamberland's charity. It is a two-hour drive from the family's Palm Harbor home, but Chamberland says the trip is worth it for superior care.
Greg Bauer, president of West Coast Brace & Limb, said his family-owned practice has operated for more than four decades in the Tampa Bay area and has a proven record. He said he suspects attacks on the clinic stem from an episode last year when Chamberland asked West Coast Brace & Limb to partner with 50 Legs.
Bauer said Chamberland asked the clinic to make him a free leg for his personal use. Chamberland told him that in return he would direct patients to West Coast, Bauer said.
"The way he operates, we just felt like it was kind of slimy," Bauer said. "When someone says that, it just raises a red flag."
Shriners declined to comment on allegations of inferior service, but provided a statement that the group's Tampa facility offers "expert care" and has delivered more than 2,250 artificial limbs to children over the past decade.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.