'Catholic Veterans' or Panhandlers? Neighbors Question Edgewater Group
EDGEWATER — "Hi, would you like to help the veterans today?”
That's how Adam Silvani, wearing a lanyard and gray T-shirt saying "Support Catholic Veterans," greeted drivers stopped at a busy Edgewater intersection on a recent afternoon. He said he was collecting money for a group called the Catholic Veterans of Northern Illinois.
Silvani said the $30 to $50 he collects daily "goes straight" to nearby Catholic churches and food pantries.
"We’re grass roots," said the 35-year-old, between trips to rows of cars stopped in a left-turn lane. "The idea is to spread the awareness. Families need help."
But it's unclear whether the group is a legitimate charity, whether its collection tactics are legal or whether the money collected is being donated as group officials say.
A purported veterans group involving some of the same players has gotten the attention of the attorney general in Indiana — which has opened an investigation into its collection tactics there — and Illinois officials say they are looking into the group here, too.
The group's constant presence at Ridge Avenue and Clark Street and at Ridge and Peterson avenues has caught the attention of many residents and drivers because of its bold tactics.
"They're really raking in a lot of money," Edgewater resident Jane Doherty said. "They would come up to your car, stand there, and seriously it was almost like bullying. I noticed that they were very, very aggressive."
Silvani denied that, saying there was "nothing pushy" about his group's collection habits.
But when asked whom his group was helping, Silvani gave two generic church names and later didn't respond to follow-up questions asking for more specifics. Local churches with similar names either hadn't heard of his group or couldn't verify they had received any donations from the group.
While Doherty said the group has been "back at it really hard" for the last two weeks, it's unclear how long Silvani and others he collects with have been actively soliciting donations in Illinois.
In June 2013, Catholic Veterans of Northern Illinois was incorporated in Illinois by Roger Locke as a not-for-profit. The group is not federally recognized as a nonprofit, which requires tax filings and other stringent documentation.
The corporation's address is listed as 700 W. Adams St., the same location as the well-known Old St. Patrick's Church in the West Loop. A church spokeswoman, Veronica Sepin, said the church was unaware of the filing and said the group had no connection to the church. She said the church "would never" allow an outside group to use its address for official purposes.
Locke, when reached by email, denied working with Silvani and the Catholic Veterans in Chicago despite the corporation's filing listing him as an officer. He did admit to setting up the group's Facebook page, which has 22 "likes" and is promoted on the group's T-shirts.
But Silvani and Locke previously have teamed up in Fort Wayne, Ind., collecting for a group called the "Sandbox Veterans."
There, a local TV news station aired a series of stories about the group's questionable collection tactics.
About two months ago, the Indiana Attorney General's Office announced it was launching an investigation into the group, which is ongoing, said Erin Reece, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney general.
After pressure from police and officials there, the group changed its name to the Catholic Veterans of Fort Wayne, and then appeared to have stopped its public collections, officials said.
After being told by DNAinfo Chicago that members of the group appeared to have moved and launched a new corporation in Illinois, Reece said her office would work with the Illinois attorney general to widen its inquiry.
An Illinois attorney general spokeswoman confirmed that the office would "look into" the group's fundraising tactics.
According to Illinois law, the group also would need to be registered with the state attorney general as a charity that solicits donations. But the group has not registered, officials said.
It's also unclear whether Silvani served in the military, as he claimed. He said he was an Army veteran, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash., until 2006.
But the Army has no record of Silvani ever serving, said Troy Rolan, an Army spokesman.
Silvani is a convicted felon, according to Indiana court records. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to one count of nonsupport of a dependent child, a felony in Indiana.
Locke and Silvani did not respond to several follow-up requests for comment.
While city spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier said soliciting money on the street is prohibited by city ordinance, Chicago Police Department spokesman Lt. Steven Sesso said police were not aware of any complaints about the Catholic Veterans.
Doherty said she brought her concerns to residents and police at a CAPS beat meeting, and nearly everyone knew whom she was talking about.
"Everybody there said, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe you're talking about that,'" she said. "Just all around the room, everyone was like, 'Oh yeah, those guys.' We all know what it is; it's so in your face. I can't believe the stupidity of people giving them money."
Aides at Ald. Harry Osterman's office said they had been in contact with the group. But Dan Luna, chief of staff for Osterman (48th), said his office gets complaints about panhandlers on a "regular basis."
"They’re all over the place," he said, speaking in general. "It’s not just that intersection, trust me. When they get shooed away from one, they go to another."
He said there was not much the city or police could do unless a criminal complaint is filed.
"I’ve tried until blue in the face to get panhandlers off the street," he said. "Unfortunately, they have more rights than we do."
Resident Michael Johnson, 39, said he worried that the Catholic Veterans members were a nuisance and safety hazard to motorists and themselves and questioned whether the money the group collects is indeed being donated to charity.
"If this is legitimate, it's great. That's fantastic if they want to donate their money to someone in need," he said. "But it doesn't seem right."