American advocate of Vietnam's Agent Orange victims accused of fraud, embezzlement

By Calvin Godfrey   October 3, 2016 | 04:00 am GMT+7
American advocate of Vietnam's Agent Orange victims accused of fraud, embezzlement
Chuck Palazzo at age 60 in Da Nang. Drew Brown, the man who took this photo, now says that Palazzo fooled him and others into believing he had returned to Da Nang to heal psychological trauma incurred while fighting in and around the city from 1970-1971 as a U.S. Marine. After reviewing Palazzo’s military records, Brown wrote a letter to fellow members of the Veterans for Peace Chapter 160 claiming that Palazzo “never set foot in Vietnam” during the war. In May, members of the group asked local police to help investigate Palazzo for misappropriating approximately $100,000 in charitable donations during his time as their secretary and treasurer. Photo courtesy of Drew Brown

Chuck Palazzo is accused by the men who entrusted him with charitable donations.

Chuck Palazzo, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran living in Vietnam, has been accused of fraud and embezzlement by the men who entrusted him with thousands of dollars in charitable donations.

In May, donors and members of the Veterans for Peace Chapter 160 had removed Palazzo as secretary and treasurer pending an internal audit and investigation into the disappearance of funds. VnExpress International has obtained a letter, dated May 23, sent to donors and members of the group announcing Palazzo's removal and plans to conduct a thorough audit of the missing funds.

“It has always been clear that donors conveyed these funds, in good faith and with full trust, to VFP 160 with the intention that the money be used to provide support and mitigation to war victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and Agent Orange (AO) in Vietnam,” the letter reads. “It is now clear that there has been an unconscionable violation of that trust, involving an undetermined amount of money, by a key officer of the organization, CHARLES (CHUCK) PALAZZO, which PALAZZO has admitted.”

Three current and former members of the group claim that roughly $100,000 in charitable donations went missing this year from the organization's coffers and that police in the central city of Da Nang are nearing an end to their investigation of Palazzo as the prime suspect.

“We have no comment pending the outcome of the investigation,” said Chuck Searcy, the vice president of VFP 160 who has played a central role in raising funds to help clear un-exploded ordnance from the central province of Quang Tri.

Palazzo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In 2012, the group began offering a two-week guided tour to Vietnam for up to 20 veterans, their spouses and peace activists. Participants were required to make a minimum $1,000 donation.

Members of the group say the program raised $15-20,000 per year in funds that were quickly dispersed to a list of local charities. In recent years, members say, three anonymous donors gave the group an additional $100,000 that can no longer be accounted for.

The beneficiaries of these funds included the Da Nang Association of Victims of Agent Orange whose vice president said VFP 160 tours added $2,000-3,000 to their annual budget. The official also said he was awaiting the outcome of a police investigation of Palazzo, who did not respond to numerous calls, emails and text messages seeking comment.

The most-profiled man in Da Nang

Numerous stories have been written about the recalcitrant U.S. Marine who had returned to his former battleground to heal his own psychological wounds by assisting the victims of Agent Orange -- a toxic defoliant the U.S. Air Force sprayed throughout Southern Vietnam to deny food and cover to those below them.

Images of the veteran posing next to those deformed and disabled by dioxin (a byproduct of the spray) abound on the internet. Palazzo frequently emailed friends stories critical of Monsanto, one of several companies that manufactured the dioxin-laced spray.

Palazzo also wrote a regular column for veteranstoday.com, which described him as a veteran of the 1st and 3rd Marine Reconnaissance Units from 1970-1971.

In July of 2015, he attached his personal bank details to an email solicitation for donations.

“This is the FIRST of what I hope to be, many, Respite Homes For Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange,” he wrote in the email. “This is probably the most important thing that we can do together - for the over 3 million Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange. Give what you can. But please donate something. Be part of this very special project.”

Last year, Palazzo, an affable, heavyset 62-year old with a butterfly tattooed over his left thumb welcomed foreign journalists to the central city of Da Nang for the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Over beer and seafood, he offered a now well-documented narrative of having grown up rough in the Bronx and come of age under fire in Quang Nam Province.

Palazzo then told VnExpress International that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder had ruined his marriage and professional career and, ultimately, inspired him to return to Vietnam in 2007 to provide assistance to the victims of Agent Orange.

'A total fraud'

This July, Drew Brown, a photographer, journalist and veteran of the U.S. invasion of Panama sent out a letter to members of the Veterans for Peace Chapter 160 accusing Palazzo of lying about his experience in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“Palazzo's a total fraud,” Brown told VnExpress International when reached on his cell phone in Byron, Georgia.

Brown wrote that he decided to share the findings of his investigation into Palazzo's military record after receiving a letter from two VFP 160 members announcing that Palazzo had “stolen practically all of chapter 160's money.”

Brown wrote that he first met Palazzo in 2012 while preparing a photo series about the impact of Agent Orange in Vietnam..

“Palazzo told me that his recon team had been sent regularly into North Vietnam to locate and 'take out' surface to air missile sites,” he wrote in his letter. “He also told me that he had been exposed to Agent Orange when a U.S. helicopter sprayed defoliant nearby while his team was on a mission in the hills near Da Nang […] Palazzo later claimed in a February 2013 interview, for which I shot the pictures, that he had also parachuted into combat on several occasions.”

Profiles offering a similar account of Palazzo’s life have appeared in the Guardian, Bloomberg, The New Yorker and in the Vietnamese media.

Brown says that Palazzo duped them all.

“Every single one of Chuck Palazzo’s tales about serving as a Marine in Vietnam is a complete fabrication, part of an elaborate series of lies that he built up over the years, presumably to bolster his standing among other veterans and to enhance his credibility as an activist working on behalf of Agent Orange victims in the country.”

Brown wrote and maintains that Palazzo has never responded to his requests for comment or disputed his accusations.

Military history

Brown moved to Da Nang in 2013 and became a partner in a bar called Dimples, which he says closed after the landlord sold their location. Brown says he also invested $20,000 in Palazzo's web development company, NFS Mobile.

Brown says his suspicion that Palazzo did nothing to hold up his end of the agreement led him to investigate his military history.

“According to information released from [Palazzo's] DD-214, which I obtained from the National Personnel Records Center in February 2016 through a Freedom of Information Act Request, Palazzo did, in fact, serve as a Marine, but he never stepped foot in Vietnam nor did he ever serve in a reconnaissance unit in any capacity,” Brown wrote in the letter he addressed to fellow members of the Veterans for Peace chapter in July.

Brown says he initially planned to keep the information to himself for fear that he might cause strife among the veterans community.

“Had I come forward a year ago, when I finally realized that my project with him had really been nothing more than a vehicle to fund his living expenses for a year, then perhaps his embezzlement of Chapter 160’s money might have come to light sooner,” he wrote. “I sincerely regret not doing so.”

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