JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens frequently recounts how he used his military combat pay from Iraq to found a charity that helps veterans transition to the private-sector through volunteer work.
Although Greitens initially took no salary at The Mission Continues, federal tax records show he eventually received $700,000 from the charity — a fact his Democratic opponent highlighted in television ads that began airing Wednesday.
One of the ads by Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster accuses Greitens of diverting money intended for veterans to instead promote himself.
The ads mark Koster's most aggressive criticism yet of Greitens, who has built his campaign around his remarkable resume as a Navy SEAL officer, worldwide humanitarian and founder of The Mission Continues. In one of Greitens' previous ads, an Army veteran credits Greitens with saving his life though the charity's help.
An Associated Press review of the charity's Internal Revenue Service tax filings, independent audits and annual reports shows that The Mission Continues has grown significantly since Greitens founded it in 2007. The proportion of its revenues spent on programs is comparable to other charities or slightly better. Greitens' salary was perhaps somewhat higher than similarly situated charities but not extravagant, according to analysts who focus on nonprofits.
Greitens told the AP in an interview last week that he used about $2,500 to $3,500 of his military pay, plus donations from two other military friends, to launch The Mission Continues, which originally was named The Center for Citizen Leadership. The St. Louis-based charity provides grants for veterans to work in temporary fellowships at other charitable organizations as a way to serve their communities and develop skill sets that can lead to jobs.
Records show Greitens worked without pay in 2007 and 2008 as The Mission Continues got underway. After receiving a grant from the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Greitens was paid a total of $150,000 from mid-2009 through 2010. As contributions continued to flow into The Mission Continues, Greitens' salary was raised to $175,000 in 2011 and he received a $25,000 bonus that year. His salary remained at that level the next two years, before he stepped down as CEO in 2014.
According to 2014 report by Charity Navigator, which evaluates nonprofit organizations, Greitens' salary was about one-third higher than the $131,000 median compensation for chief executives of 237 median-sized charities in the Midwest.
"I don't think it's to the point where it's egregious or it's a huge red flag," said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing and chief financial officer at Charity Navigator. But "looking at the data, it is on the high side for a charity located there of that size."
Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of CharityWatch, discounted comparisons made largely by geography and the finances of the charities. He said it's better to look at a charity's mission and the qualifications needed to lead it. As a former Navy SEAL officer with a doctorate degree in politics from Oxford University in England, Greitens would carry appealing qualifications to a veterans service organization.
Borochoff said Greitens' wages "seem within a reasonable range."
The leaders of The Mission Continues "do have a big responsibility with this program, dealing with kind of a complicated population, so people shouldn't make that comparison to their own salary," he said.
Koster is paid about $116,000 annually as attorney general.
Annual reports by The Mission Continues show Greitens gave an equivalent of at least 5 percent of his $175,000 salary back as a donation to the charity starting in 2011. He continued to contribute after leaving the organization and has given a total of more than $50,000, said Greitens campaign manager Austin Chambers.
Koster's ads also criticize about $619,000 paid by The Mission Continues to what the ads characterize as "image consultants." The ads show brief video clips of Greitens appearing to have makeup applied to his face while implying the money was meant to spruce up Greitens' image for his political campaign.
The money at issue was paid to the St. Louis-based public relations firm FleishmanHillard in 2013 and 2014. Chambers said it went toward a rebranding of The Mission Continues, as well as marketing and outreach efforts.
Greitens' campaign quickly attempted to use Koster's new ads as a fundraising tool. It distributed an email to supporters saying "Chris Koster should be ashamed of himself for attacking an organization that helps veterans" and urging them to "chip in $3, $5, $10, or whatever you can" to fight back.
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