Investigation: What happened to Honor Flight Northeast TN?

Investigations

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Some Tri-Cities volunteers are working to rebuild the local chapter of the non-profit charity called Honor Flight.

The non-profit organization compromised of independent hubs across the country raises money to host veterans on trips to Washington D.C. to visit America’s war memorials. The veterans travel at no cost.

“They do not pay a penny,” said Edie Lowry, Honor Flight Northeast Founder, Director, and CEO in a News Channel 11 interview conducted in August 2019. “It’s free. They already paid the price.”

But Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee shut down abruptly and without public explanation last year. A News Channel 11 investigation into why uncovered a state investigation of the charity that resulted in allegations of financial mismanagement.

Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee started in 2012 and hosted veterans on 15 trips from the Tri-Cities to Washington D.C., complete with patriotic send-offs, chartered bus trips and VIP tours.

“The whole Northeast Tennessee just embraced Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee because of what we were doing for our veterans,” said Ann Wooden, a volunteer who supported Honor Flight Northeast since 2013.

“We always made our trips, and we assumed the money was always being properly taken care of,” Wooden said.

But Wooden says she eventually started asking questions about Honor Flight finances – questions she says she posed to Honor Flight Northeast CEO Edie Lowry who was front and center at every fundraiser and every trip.

“We got the same answer all the time,” Wooden said. “‘We made the trips, didn’t we? You don’t need to know.'”

Wooden says by late 2019, warning signs no longer could be ignored.

“(I) started calling the (TN) Secretary of State, the Attorney General’s office – anybody I could get a hold of that would do an investigation into Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee and Edie Lowry,” Wooden said.

Ann Wooden said she soon learned she wasn’t the only person calling Nashville with complaints and concerns about Honor Flight Northeast.

“I knew – something’s just not right,” said Laura Hodge, another Honor Flight Northeast volunteer who started helping with fundraising in 2018 after her father, a Korean War veteran, went on an Honor Flight trip to Washington DC. “That trip changed his life,” Hodge said. “It changed his understanding of what it meant to be a veteran.”

But Hodge said her questions to Edie Lowry about charity finances never were completely answered. “I asked – where’s our funds? Where’s the treasurer’s report? How much in the account? How much have we spent? How much is in the account for the next trip?” Hodge said. “That information was often very minimal.”

Unaware of Ann Wooden’s actions, Hodge filed her own complaint with the state.

Soon, Hodge and Wooden learned Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee already was facing scrutiny by the Tennessee Attorney General and the Secretary of State.

“The Tennessee Attorney General’s office started looking into this and uncovered several examples of mismanagement by the leadership of the chapter and also poor or ineffective oversight by the board,” said Samantha Fisher, spokesperson for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

The Tennessee Secretary of State’s office said it issued the first non-compliance warning in February 2019 for failing to properly register with the Tennessee Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming, a division of the Tennessee Department of State that oversees charities that solicit donations.

“We worked with the attorney general’s office to investigate some allegations regarding potential misuse of funds,” said Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett in an interview with News Channel 11 about the Honor Flight Northeast. “Our office was part of the process of making sure that those individuals who might not have been doing what they should be doing aren’t doing it anymore.”

The following month, public records show the Attorney General’s office asked Lowry for detailed financial records and detailed information about the Honor Flight Northeast Board and records of board activity dating back to three years.

Public records show Lowry, through email, promised to comply and said she’d done nothing wrong. “Please understand I have not done anything that this person is accusing me of,” Lowry wrote in a May 23, 2019 email to the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office.

Meanwhile, fundraisers continued leading up to what would be Honor Flight Northeast’s final veterans trip to Washington D.C. in October 2019 despite the fact the charity still wasn’t properly registered to solicit funds.

Days before that trip, Edie Lowry was sent another letter from the Office of the Tennessee Attorney General. That letter said Honor Flight “has not fully produced all financial documentation requested.” The Assistant Attorney General who wrote the letter gave Lowry three weeks to submit full statements for credit cards and bank accounts linked to the charity.

Public records show by March 2020, the Tennessee Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming was tired of waiting for Honor Flight Northeast to comply. The agency issued Honor Flight Northeast a $7,500 civil penalty for soliciting donations without being properly registered with the division as required by law and for not responding to requests for documents.

But just four months later on July 7, 2020, Lowry appeared on WJHL’s “Daytime Tri-Cities” to update the public on the status of the charity and to ask for money.

“We’re accepting all the donations,” Lowry told the show’s host. “So I want to encourage people to get your donations and send it so we can take our veterans in the spring.”

Lowry gave no indication during the interview that the charity was out of compliance and wasn’t eligible to solicit funds. There was no on-air mention of the $7,500 penalty. Instead, Lowry indicated she was planning a “big veteran’s event” the following November and another trip for veterans to Washington D.C. in the spring.

Public records show her morning TV talk show appearance was viewed by officials in the Attorney General’s Office. Three weeks later, the office sent Lowry a scathing letter citing the WJHL-TV appeal for money and said Honor Flight was “currently operating in violation” of state law.

BELOW: July 27,2020 Settlement letter from TN Attorney General to Edie Lowry, Honor Flight of Northeast Tennessee Region

“Notwithstanding this penalty, and notwithstanding its continuing failure to properly register, Honor Flight has continued to solicit donations from the public,” wrote Andrew Campbell, Senior Assistant Attorney General.

Campbell wrote that the attorney general’s office determined “no budgets appear to have been prepared for several years,” that “Honor Flight has not had a complete Board for some period of time,” that “Honor Flight has not kept regular minute of its Board meetings,” and that “financial records… indicate (at best) very poor financial record-keeping…. and (at worst) indicate use of all the nonprofit’s assets for personal purposes.”

“(We found) several examples of mismanagement and poor oversight by the people who were supposed to be leading the organization,” Fischer told News Channel 11.

According to the letter, the Attorney General’s concluded that “assets of Honor Flight have been misapplied and/or wasted and that the non-profit no longer is able to carry out the purposes for which it was created.”

The letter notified Edie Lowry and Honor Flight’s Board they were facing the threat of legal action by the state.

But records show the Attorney General offered mercy. Slatery’s office said they would not pursue legal action if Edie Lowry paid a reduced penalty from $7,500 to $5,000 if Lowry and all Board members resigned immediately, and if Lowry agreed to “a lifetime ban…. in any charitable fundraising activities.”

The state says Lowry paid the reduced fine.

Lowry now lives in another state.

News Channel 11 reached out to Lowry. By phone, she told us her side of the story.

“This whole situation has been hard on me,” said Lowry who said she’d suffered two strokes in the final months of her time leading Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee.

“I was not aware that I had to register with the gaming department to do fundraisers,” she said. “I was not aware of it. I was not told. This was my first time having to do something like this, and I did not know I had to register because once I got all my paperwork, I thought I was done.”

But Lowry said she was the victim of more than just a lack of information. She says she became the target of disloyal volunteers.

“A lot of them like to see me getting the attention from people, thanking me for this and that,” Lowry said. “I felt like they all turned against me. They were hurting the veterans. Its tore me up, and it’s killed me.”

Lowry insists donor dollars were never used for anything other than honoring veterans.

“Every penny of it went on the trips, and every bill I had was paid,” she said.

News Channel 11 asked specifically if any money was ever used for anything other than the Honor Flight trips.

“No sir,” Lowry replied. “I was just doing what I was supposed to do for the Honor Flight. I was taking care of the veterans.”

Today, Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee no longer exists as an organization. But records show it’s not because of Tennessee Attorney General’s office didn’t attempt to help the organization survive. The July 27th settlement offer provided a way for the hub to remain open and rebuild, allowing the board to continue if the current board members immediately resigned and if a new board would “be reconstituted by individuals approved by this Office.” The attorney general’s office said the Honor Flight chapter would have to be voluntarily dissolved only if “no suitable replacements can be found.”

But that’s not what happened.

A spokesperson for Honor Flight Network, the national organization that told News Channel 11, “When we learned of the investigation, we notified that hub that HFN was suspending their use of the Honor Flight brand.” The spokesman said the Honor Flight national organization “licenses its trademarks to legally separate “hubs” around the country which are self-organized, have their own local leadership, and manage their own finances, activities, and compliance with corporate and nonprofit legal requirements.”

On August 4, 2020 – one week after the Attorney General’s ultimatum – records show Edie Lowry filed official notice of her intent to stop fundraising with the Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming – the same agency with which the organization had never properly registered.

By October 26, 2020, state records show Honor Flight Northeast was officially declared “Inactive – Terminated.”

At that point, the Attorney General’s office considered the charity to no longer exist, and the case appears to have been closed. No charges were filed against anyone involved in the charity.

“The national organization pulled the charter so at that point there wasn’t any need for the Tennessee Attorney General’s office to take civil action, and that is the only action we can take,” said Attorney General spokesman Samantha Fisher. “The Tennessee Attorney general doesn’t have original jurisdiction that would have come from the district attorney in the area.”

Records show Honor Flight Network waited less than a year to grant a new license for a hub in Northeast Tennessee. A group called Honor Flight Appalachian Highlands filed with the state on September 8, 2021, and is now raising funds for an upcoming veteran’s trip. “A new group of volunteers in the area requested permission to become a new licensee of Honor Flight National to serve veterans in northeast Tennessee,” a spokesman for Honor Flight National said. ” We granted this group’s request and we are excited that there is a new hub in the area to serve veterans.”

An Honor Flight Network spokesperson denied News Channel 11’s request for further comment and an interview.

BELOW: Honor Flight Network response to News Channel 11 on 10/20/21

Neither Ann Wooden nor Laura Hodge was asked to be on the new board by the Honor Flight national organization.

“I truly believe I’m not involved because I squealed,” Hodge said. “I opened the can of worms, and I’ve been pretty vigilant to come forward with information.”

She’s frustrated by the lack of oversight by the national organization and the lack of transparency with the volunteers and donors who she says never were told the full story of what happened.

“They have misled individuals who truly have a heart for the veterans,” she said.

Volunteer Ann Wooden said even if she was invited, she couldn’t be involved in the organization because of what she witnessed.

“The veterans have been cheated,” Wooden said. “The people who supported the organization have been cheated. They’ve been hurt and betrayed.”

Honor Flight Appalachian Highlands has properly registered with the State, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State confirmed to News Channel 11. The organization is appealing for funds on its website and has a fundraiser planned Saturday December 4th at Antioch Baptist Church.

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