In a disturbing turn of events, a group of homeless men say a well-known veterans’ advocate in the Hudson Valley region bribed them with cash, food and booze to pretend they were former military personnel who had been booted from a hotel in favor of migrants.
The seven men — who have not been named — were part of a group of 15 who were recruited from a Poughkeepsie homeless shelter to pose as traumatized veterans who allegedly had been kicked out of Newburgh’s Crossroads Hotel, the Mid Hudson News reported Friday.
A spokesman for State Attorney General Letitia James said their office is currently conducting a review of the matter.
“We’re aware of the situation and are reviewing the matter,” said the individual.
The lie was supposedly spearheaded by Sharon Toney-Finch, a decorated military veteran and director of the Yerik Israel Toney Foundation (YIT), who made headlines last week when she claimed she was forced to find the “vets” accommodations after they were asked to leave the Crossroads to make room for migrant arrivals.
In an interview with The Post on Friday, Orange County DA David Hoovler said he was planning on launching an investigation into how the money from the nonprofit group linked to the alleged scam was allocated.
“We’re looking at where the money went,” said Hoovler. “The big thing you’re gonna look at is, was money spent for the purpose it was raised and again, if she raised money for the needs of veterans, is the money actually going to the needs of veterans?”
When contacted by The Post, Toney-Finch flatly denied any wrongdoing: “No, I never hired. No, I never said paid anybody – who I had was veterans. And that’s all I’m gonna say. This is insane,” before hanging up the phone.
Her story unraveled earlier this week when she rebuffed Assemblyman Brian Maher’s requests for financial records proving that YIT funded the veterans’ new hotel stays.
The Crossroads has denied that veterans associated with the nonprofit ever stayed there.
Maher also reportedly spoke with the 15 recruits, who told him that two people came to the shelter and said they had work for men ages 40 to 60, Mid Hudson News said.
The group claims they were each promised $200 in addition to food and alcohol in exchange for attending a meeting with an elected official to talk about homelessness.
Maher also told The Post he met with two of the alleged veterans at the Wingate by Wyndham Hotel in Fishkill on Friday, May 12.
In a picture shared by the publication, one of the men holds a sign demanding his payment.
They said they agreed to the deal in part because one of the recruiters, Diana, previously stayed at the shelter.
The men said they were then shuttled to the Daily Planet Diner in LaGrange, where Toney-Finch encouraged them to order anything they wanted off the menu.
“We ate like kings,” one of the men told the outlet.
“Sharon introduced herself and told us we could have whatever we wanted and she would pick up the tab.”
After the smorgasbord, the man continued, Toney-Finch brought them to a parking lot, where she told them about the meeting they were going to.
“She told us to act like we were the veterans that had been displaced. And she told us that if asked, we were supposed to say we had been kicked out and Sharon found us rooms in Fishkill,” he explained.
Those who were unwilling to answer questions were told to respond with “I’m too traumatized to talk about it,” he alleged.
Although none of the men were sure where the meeting took place, Mid Hudson News identified the location as the Orange County Veterans Center in New Windsor.
The outlet also identified the person who was asking Toney-Finch and the group about the ordeal as Orange County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Heather Bell-Meyer.
When interviewed by Mid Hudson News earlier this week, Bell-Meyer indicated that Maher asked her to visit the center and scope out how he might help the veterans.
She also said she is on the advisory board of YIT.
When reached by Mid Hudson News on Friday, however, Toney-Finch alleged that Bell-Meyer demanded to meet the allegedly displaced veterans in person.
Toney-Finch — who was deployed to Iraq twice during her military career — admitted that her volunteer, Diana, picked up the men in Poughkeepsie and brought them to the diner in LaGrange before they all went to the center.
However, she denied that she offered the 15 men $200 each as paid performers.
“I bought them lunch and that was it,” she reportedly exclaimed.
On Friday, US Rep. Mike Lawler (D-NY) excoriated Toney-Finch’s alleged actions as “truly appalling.”
“Her decision to exploit our veterans — and the genuine admiration and love our community has for them — could have turned an already tense situation into something much worse,” he wrote in a statement.
“I am glad the truth was uncovered and trust those responsible will be held accountable after a full investigation by the proper authorities.”
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