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Government-funded phones issued to Central Florida veterans in scheme

800,000 approved veterans never eligible

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From September 2014 to July 2015 an estimated 40,000 to 800,000 Florida vets were illegally approved for free cellphones under the government's Lifeline program.

On Sept. 1 most, if not all, of those phones will be disconnected because the vets were never eligible to receive them in the first place.

Former employees with New York based Elite Marketing came to WKMG after they started getting complaints from veterans who were being told they didn't qualify for the phones.

Letters from Safe Link, one of the largest distributors of the free phones, asked veterans for proof of eligibility.

The letter reading in part: "We need to obtain copies of valid documentation that shows you are a qualified benefit recipient."

Under the Lifeline program eligibility includes anyone receiving: food stamps, Medicaid, SSI, Section 8 housing or National School Free Lunch Program. Military service has never been on the list.

One former Elite Marketing employee identifying herself only as Carrie, was considered one of Elite's top employees.

In 10 months dating back to September 2014, she said she must have given away 20,000 free phones to veterans.

Carrie says she was paid roughly $4,000 every two weeks. She was told Elite was making $150 per application.

"I felt like I was doing a good cause, (instead)" I was lied to and deceived and I'm humiliated for what I've done."

The program is paid for in part by the Federal Universal Service Fees on your monthly phone bill.

Former employees are convinced Elite made millions in the illegal applications.
Another former Elite employee says she first benefited from the program as a veteran and wanted other vets to benefit from the program too.

"I gave my word it's not fraud it's not this , it's not that and that was a lie."

When asked by News4Jax sister station Local 6 if she thought Elite was behind the deception she replied:" Yes, 110 percent absolutely."

But when asked how Elite got away with she admits: "I don't know."

The employees say 30 to 40 men and women were hired by Elite Marketing all of them told to take applications from veterans for free cell phones.

An email sent by Elite Marketing Group's Director of Account Services to the Orlando supervisor last February included attachments of fliers announcing the Free Phones Program.

The top of the flyer has a picture of an American flag fluttering in a steady breeze. At the top of the page it reads : Safe Link wireless.

In the center of the page it reads: Safe link's Free Cell Phone & Minutes Program.

Do You Have Veterans Benefits, A Military ID, or Receive Medicare? Apply today."
The email message obtained by Local 6 reads : "We finally have an approved VA Flyer for you…….Let me know if you have any questions or need anything additional."

Safe Link, one of the largest distributors of the government's free phone program, hired Elite Marketing to handle the application process for qualified persons.
There is no evidence Safe Link approved the Free Phones For Vets program.

However it is not clear how the applications were approved and who ultimately signed off on the applications and the delivery of the cellphones to the veterans.
Congressman Richard Nugent of the 11th congressional district has been contacted by area vets in the Ocala area.

Jack Allen, former president of the Vietnam Vets Chapter 1085 says 30 of his 40 members signed up for the phones and were approved.

The Safe Link Phones were delivered from Plainfield, Indiana.

"Somebody's being scammed here and I think it's us," Allen said.

Nugent has asked the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Center to explain how this happened.

In a letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler Nugent writes, "This is clearly an abuse of the Universal Service Fund."

The FCC will not confirm or deny it is investigating the case however at least one former employee has been contacted by federal investigators.