The complex of veterans education and employment projects announced for Altoona in January has lost at least five officials recently - the chief officers for information, technology and education and the executive directors for education and events - because they weren't being paid, according to Cindy Estep, the former executive director of education for the enterprise.
The U.S. Veterans Educational Institute may be coming apart, according to Estep and Joe Hughes, executive director of events and promotions.
USVEI Chairman Dennis Butts denies that's the case.
USVEI is "absolutely not" unraveling, he said. "We're absolutely fine."
Hughes said, "He [Butts] sold us a dream." Hughes, a former Pennsylvania National Guard recruiter began work in October and resigned in January after never having been paid. "As time went on, it kept unraveling."
"He worked on my heartstrings," said Estep, who left her job as student services coordinator at YTI, after becoming enamored by Butts' promise that she could help stop veterans' suicides. Estep left after not receiving "several" paychecks. "I gave up everything, thinking it would be wonderful for vets."
Butts lashed back Thursday.
Asked why people haven't gotten paid, he blamed UPMC Altoona, which allowed a twice extended option to buy the former Bon Secours hospital - previously slated to be his centerpiece facility - to expire, because of title search and mold cleanup delays, that weren't his fault, left him no time to sell naming rights for hoped-for millions.
Still, those former participants in USVEI should have continued on, he said.
They weren't ordinary employees but equity holders, he said.
"They owned their own companies," he said.
"If they would get off their a-- and get [down] to business," there wouldn't have been a problem, he said. "There's no benevolent father," he added.
Chief Technology Officer Kevin Williams and Chief Information Officer Earl Bentley - both of whom were members of the USVEI executive board - cut ties with the company because it failed to pay the invoices from their firm, TekConnX, which was to run the organization's technology lab, Williams said.
"Breach of contract," Williams said. "That is the primary reason, along with a number of other[s]."
The pair had worked with Butts since last April but had only begun to bill for consulting, program management and project management services performed in Altoona in recent months, he said.
"He [Butts] hasn't responded to one single inquiry in reference to our invoice," Williams said.
On the departure of Williams and Bentley, Butts said, "their contract was canceled because they were no longer needed, because we are not doing the hospital."
"We also questioned their billing," Butts said.
Butts' basic idea of educating veterans to help them transition to civilian life is "still a very, very good cause," Williams said.
"But the expected end results never seemed to materialize," he said. "It seemed every time we appeared to take steps forward, we were taking five steps back."
The organization seemed to be departing from its "original tenets and precepts," he said.
The finances of the organization were a central concern.
"The board of directors never met officials to get a good accounting of funds," Williams said. "What came in, what went out, who the funds were dispensed to, who are the benefactors."
When he's asked specifically for a picture of the accounting situation, it's been "no response or the subject is changed," he said.
Williams said he never saw a report.
The board had no inner knowledge of what was going on, he added.
After Hughes began working for USVEI in October, "red flags started to pop up everywhere," he said.
"In January, I said, 'enough is enough,'" he said.
Butts should have kept with his initial basic idea of a post-secondary school for veterans, Hughes said.
The plan USVEI became much more than that, including a corporate protection group, a women's veterans construction group, the technology lab, an emergency database to mirror agency databases in Washington, D.C., and much more.
At one point, Butts was planning to contract with several universities to provide the college courses, but he eventually settled on one - Clarion University.
Clarion is still on board.
The departure of the educational officials that Clarion has been working with was "a personnel decision on [Butts'] end," said Ronald Nowaczyk, Clarion's provost and academic vice president.
Still, Clarion wants to ensure USVEI has the staffing and resources "to support our plan," he said.
Asked if he was confident they'd be there, he said, "We don't know at this point."
The school has been working on brochures to market the program and needs to have enough students lined up by early summer to ensure there will be enough to justify the planned opening in September, now at the former Ramada Inn, which is USVEI's alternate for the hospital property, Nowaczyk said.
Clarion also needs to go through a time-consuming evaluation of each student's military experience to determine how much college credit those students would get for his or her "competencies," Nowaczyk said.
He acknowledged that there's "pressure on us" to get what's necessary done in time.
Speaking of those who left, Butts said, "They want somebody else to cover their a--."
"Everybody thought he had a business," Hughes said. "It looks like he never did."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.