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Conduct of veterans service worker questioned

Veterans service officer Deron Mikal has fans among those he has helped, but his borrowing money from some of them and steering them to hire men with criminal records have raised eyebrows.

By COLLINS CONNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

BROOKSVILLE -- When they need money, down-on-their-luck veterans jam the office of Deron Mikal, one of Hernando's three veterans service officers.

Mikal's job is to help veterans get government benefits, but these vets want quick cash.

"They line up around here," says Mikal's boss, Ken Wrinkle. "They want $20 for this, $20 for that. And Deron just digs in his pocket and hands out money to them. He's got a big, big liberal heart."

However, there's a different take on Mikal.

Others say Mikal manipulates vulnerable veterans, borrows money from them and gets them to hire or help David Holland and Bill Fultz, two men with criminal records Mikal calls his "mental health family." Holland stole from two of Mikal's clients and is in prison as a result.

Mikal "does come in with a good impression. He's got the good gab," said Angelo Oliva, a 75-year-old veteran who loaned Mikal $972, paid Holland for odd jobs, then had his credit card stolen by Holland. "It's got to be a racket or something."

How can one person have such conflicting reputations?

Wrinkle has an explanation: He describes Mikal as a kind of hapless do-gooder whose efforts to help others impoverish him and sometimes end in a tangled mess.

"He wants to take care of other people before he takes care of himself," Wrinkle said. "He doesn't think of the consequences."

Mikal, 68, is appalled that his conduct is being questioned. "I'm on the better side of everything that's going on here," Mikal said.

The handful of complaints made to Mikal's boss do not reflect his true record, he said:

Of the 3,000 veterans he has served, "there's more good and charitable involved in my actions than conflict of interest."

He impugned Oliva's character.

He said the Times reporter was biased because of her friendship with one complainant's attorney.

"I have been engaged in the esoteric for 45 years and I had a total reality sweep into my mind that detailed the connection" between the reporter and the attorney, he wrote the Times.

"Because of the curse of their actions, their evil efforts will come back to visit them both within four to six months."

Accusations of victimization

Wrinkle says it's not always easy being Mikal's boss.

In April, he threatened to fire Mikal if he didn't repay the Oliva loan. Last year, Wrinkle reminded Mikal that soliciting or receiving money or favors from clients was a firing offense. Two years ago, he reprimanded Mikal after hearing he had borrowed money from 74-year-old veteran Dorothy Wentz.

Wentz said Mikal helped her get Veterans Administration benefits, moved her to a mobile home near his in Floral City and got her medical care.

Mikal told her to hire Holland for odd jobs and rides, she said; then Holland stole from her. Wentz said Mikal borrowed several hundred dollars he didn't repay. "When I was fussing about getting that money back, he said, "Well, that's why I got you the (veterans) pension,' " she said.

Wrinkle said county workers determined Wentz was "not credible." Mikal said Wentz victimized him, not the other way around.

An investigation by the state's Adult Protective Services was closed "without classification" for lack of hard evidence, according to case records.

But the State Attorney's Office charged Holland with grand theft for using Wentz's Social Security number to get a phone and run up a $900 bill.

Getting loans and arranging odd jobs

Angelo Oliva said when Mikal was his VA representative, Mikal called with a question:

"Remember when you said you'd give any veteran the shirt off your back? Will you do that for me?"

Oliva said Mikal needed money to get a car for his daughter in Ohio. Oliva gave him $500. "He was handling my VA claim, so I wanted to help him," Oliva said.

Seven months later, Oliva gave Mikal a second loan -- $472.50 for the car's tax and title.

Mikal said Oliva insisted he take the money.

Oliva "put the money on the table," Mikal said. "I protested vigorously, so he slammed the money down. What can I do?"

Oliva said at Mikal's urging he hired Holland for odd jobs. Holland stole items from Oliva's home, pocketed his credit card and went on a $1,000 spree, he said.

Wrinkle said he wishes Mikal wouldn't introduce Holland, 28, and Fultz, 37, to his county clients, but "I have no control over him doing that."

Mikal and the two men moved here in 1991, when Holland was 17 and Fultz 27. He told a Hernando judge the men had been "foster youths of mine in Ohio."

As for Mikal's urging clients to hire Holland, Wrinkle said, "Deron probably feels David (Holland) can help people. He probably asks David not to do anything wrong."

But Wrinkle believes the two men "take advantage of (Mikal) or anyone else he happens to deal with."

Holland is in state prison for the thefts and other charges. The state lists Fultz as an "absconder" from probation on charges of drunken driving and fleeing a law enforcement officer.

'Deron is not a horror story'

In August, Wrinkle learned Mikal had helped William Branigan, an Alzheimer's victim, divert his VA checks -- including a lump sum benefit of $12,000 -- from a guardianship account to Mikal's post office box. Mikal did not benefit from the money, Mikal and Wrinkle said; a VA-appointed fiduciary cashed the checks and invested them in a certificate of deposit.

Still, Wrinkle said, "I could do without that problem. I could do without all the problems Deron caused me, but never once has he done it to benefit himself."

Branigan, 80, had spent himself into destitution, giving thousands of dollars to David Holland's brother-in-law, Ronnie Smalley.

A sheriff's deputy, investigating possible exploitation, said Branigan's mental capacity was so diminished that, when questioned, "he would immediately forget who he was speaking to or what I had just asked him."

Branigan's son, Patrick, turned to the courts for help; Circuit Judge Jack Springstead ruled that the elderly man could not manage his own finances, sign contracts or decide where to live. He named Patrick Branigan his father's guardian.

Despite that ruling, Mikal encouraged William Branigan to buy property next to him, and Mikal helped Branigan divert his VA money from the guardianship account -- actions even the VA fiduciary's attorney called "inappropriate."

Mikal said he was told to take those steps by VA officials; VA representative Marilyn Thomas declined to comment.

Mikal accused the Times' reporter of conspiring against him because of her friendship with Patrick Branigan's attorney, Antonina Vaznelis.

He said Patrick Branigan abandoned his father and was "making a grab" for his income.

Wrinkle said Mikal told him Patrick Branigan intended to make his father live in a basement.

"I believe in my heart Deron was trying to save Mr. Branigan from a fate worse than death," said Wrinkle.

But Patrick Branigan said Mikal was exploiting his father and that Mikal once borrowed $2,300 from his father. Because the debt was not fully repaid, William Branigan and Mikal wound up suing each other over it.

Wrinkle said he didn't know about the loans or lawsuits, which occurred before Mikal was Branigan's VA representative. Mikal should have told him, Wrinkle said, because that history could "color the way he (Mikal) deals with Mr. Branigan after the fact."

Wrinkle said he didn't know Branigan had once housed Bill Fultz, Mikal's other former foster youth, and, according to Patrick Branigan, even bailed Fultz out of jail. He said he didn't know Mikal's clients rented him property, helped him litigate his disputes with others, sold him auto parts or stored his vehicles.

Though he has "counseled Deron on not getting overly involved with clients" several times in Mikal's eight years with the county, Wrinkle said, Mikal "puts his heart into it and just lets it go."

"Deron is not a horror story. To the literally hundreds and hundreds of people he has helped, he walks on water."

Mikal said he works constantly to help veterans.

"I took one man on a stretcher to take his pension (medical) exam," he said. He recently had a veteran move into his house, though he subsequently accused the veteran's stepson of theft.

Mikal's personnel file holds numerous letters of praise.

"Mr. Mikal has freely given his valuable personal time assisting my wife and I in the maintenance of our homestead during this difficult period," wrote Robert McCann in 1995.

"Mr. Mikal was never too busy, always understanding, and spent countless hours on my case," wrote Carol G. Adgie two years ago.

Mikal, says veteran Adam Dzafic, "would give you his shirt off his back if you're hungry."

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