Debra Bodden hadn’t worked in eight years, so the stay-at-home mother was thrilled when a paid Fulton County job training program led to a full-time position with Veterans Home & Business Services.
She even spent $45 a month to rent a laptop for the job, and paid up-front for high-speed internet that her new boss promised to reimburse.
But the reimbursements never came, and even her paychecks were sporadic before they ceased. Rent-A-Center repossessed her laptop, and she nearly lost her apartment and car as the expected money didn’t come, and she quickly fell behind on her bills. A relative picked up extra work as an Uber driver to help support her five children, including a daughter with Down syndrome and an epileptic son.
“It almost broke me. It did break me,” Bodden said. “It was a nightmare.”
WorkSource Fulton, the county’s taxpayer-funded jobs agency, placed Bodden and 19 other job seekers in the hands of David Gallemore, the charismatic, camouflage-wearing chief executive officer of Veterans Home & Business Services. The DeKalb businessman described his startup, which made appliance and home repairs for warranty companies, as a Fulton County-based national operation hiring 10,000 U.S. military veterans, with plans to expand into 100 new cities.
His 10-week, county-funded, paid training program was supposed to provide on-the-job experience to fledgling workers beginning last summer. But when he hired those workers on after their training, Gallemore trapped the trainees and other employees in a failed business that didn’t pay them promised wages, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found.
Gallemore’s promised National Service Hub was a makeshift call center run on the county’s dime from a second-floor conference room at Fulton’s Adamsville Regional Health Center. Fulton County sent him experienced workers whom he tasked with expanding the business and hiring employees as quickly as possible.
Thanks to the county, the office space was free, and workers brought their own computers. Fulton paid the trainees directly at $10 per hour. The repair technicians that trainees hired on were required to use their own vehicles and tools, and were not reimbursed for mileage. Gallemore owes some of them hundreds of dollars for replacement parts they purchased with their own money to complete service calls, employees said.
By Christmas, the trainees and repair technicians were begging Gallemore for their paychecks so they could keep their lights on or buy food, according to text messages provided by former employees. Nine former employees interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution all said they were left in worse financial shape than before they took the jobs.
County administrators declined repeated requests for specifics on how WorkSource Fulton chose Gallemore, whose contract was not put out for competitive bid. The agency was in tumult when it agreed to work with Gallemore, and since 2015 has returned more than $700,000 in federal funds that was meant to help displaced workers find jobs.
Gallemore took advantage of the turmoil, and Fulton failed to follow its own rules for vetting the businessman. Had administrators taken a close look, they would have found plenty of reasons to think twice about backing him with taxpayer dollars.
The AJC found liens for unpaid taxes in two states; three personal bankruptcy filings in less than five years; an eviction from a downtown Atlanta office; a Texas federal court judgment for unpaid wages; a contempt of court ruling affirmed by the Georgia Supreme Court in a child support case; and more than $100,000 in unpaid federal taxes.
And had they visited the location where Gallemore contracted to provide workers on-the-job experience they would have realized it does not exist. The address Gallemore gave the county traces back to an abandoned commissary building at Fort McPherson, the shuttered U.S. Army base in south Atlanta.
Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson stressed that the county — which connected the trainees with VHBS — is not at fault for the unpaid wages, which total thousands of dollars.
“It’s trying to assign blame where blame isn’t warranted,” Anderson said. “We’re not responsible as the government for small business performance in a program that’s not focused on long-term employment.”
Latron Price, the head of Fulton’s workforce development board, called the situation “a tragedy” and an ugly mark for the program. Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said he feels a “moral obligation” to fix what went wrong for workers, but stopped short of saying he would reimburse those who had not been paid.
“I will try to make them whole to the extent that we can,” said Pitts, who learned of the problems from the AJC.
Fulton County Commissioner Natalie Hall said the fact that workers were not paid was “absolutely crazy” and called for an audit. Emails she sent in support of VHBS to Anderson and WorkSource Fulton helped get the program off the ground, but she said she did not know Gallemore or the company and she said her office handled the issue according to standard procedures.
“It’s the county’s responsibility to vet the organizations they’re doing any type of business with,” Hall said.
Whether Gallemore intended to short workers is unclear. The AJC was unable to reach him despite leaving several phone, text and social media messages, sending emails to numerous addresses, visiting a business where his current company is registered and talking to residents of two homes where he once lived.
VHBS Chief Financial Officer Jackie Robinson said that the business had trouble paying workers because it hired too many at once. He added that the Fulton trainees performed poorly, although the AJC found they were offered full-time jobs after two months of work and Gallemore personally trained them in customer service.
“It just didn’t work out,” said Robinson. “I didn’t make a dime.”
A startup for veterans
With more than a dozen companies registered under his name, Gallemore was no stranger to starting new businesses. During the early 2000s, one of his technology companies received about $2.6 million in payments from DeKalb County, according to court records released in 2013.
Gallemore’s pitch that VHBS would provide jobs for veterans was hard to resist. He said he could hire former and active-duty military at any base across the country, said Kristin Lewis, vice president of Marietta-based AFC Home Club, which provides warranties for home systems and appliances.
“Everything he said made complete sense,” said Lewis, who did not contract with Gallemore because he stopped returning calls.
VHBS’s focus on veterans drew the attention of Commissioner Hall. In June 2018, a VHBS manager complained to her in an email that its project with WorkSource Fulton to connect veterans with high-paying jobs had stalled. The email called the county’s delay an “embarrassment” and “ridiculous.”
“I want to ensure that veterans in my district have access to this opportunity,” Hall replied and promised her staff would set up a meeting. She passed the complaint to workforce development administrators and Anderson, the county manager, emails show.
From there, the approval process for VHBS went quickly. Anderson chimed in within a week to check on the program’s progress. Hours later, a deputy director with WorkSource Fulton replied, promising $116,000 to fund a “worker experience” contract.
After classes started in Aug. 2018, Hall greeted trainees at an instructor’s request, she said. She assumed they were veterans. But none were, trainees interviewed by the AJC said.
From the start, training at VHBS bore little resemblance to a standard Work Experience program. The federal program, which is administered by states and local workforce development agencies, exposes inexperienced workers, especially youth, to jobs so they can build basic skills. State rules bar Work Experience employers from depending on trainees to increase company profits or performance, and discourage hiring them.
Many VHBS trainees interviewed by the AJC had decades of work experience or college degrees. WorkSource Fulton touted in a press release last August that trainees underwent “rigorous” screening and could become permanent employees following a probation period. Trainees all said they were tasked with expanding the startup by running the new call center and hiring veterans as repair technicians.
Trainees began to suspect something was wrong soon after classes began. They were told they would work from an office in Hurt Plaza in downtown Atlanta, but never did. Fulton County Magistrate Court records show one of Gallemore’s businesses had been evicted from there nearly two years earlier. They received button-down shirts with the company logo to wear for an assignment at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, but never transferred there. Work texts would start as early as 6 a.m.
Trainees overlooked irregularities because they believed in the business’ mission of helping veterans. They also wanted the jobs worth up to $30 per hour that Gallemore and WorkSource Fulton promised if they did well. As startup employees, they would get bonuses and other rewards, too.
“I wanted to believe (the problems) were isolated incidents,” said Mia Johnson, who was hired through the training program as a recruitment manager. She helped Gallemore hire technicians in Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas and Washington, D.C.
Delois Yates, 63, who has a masters degree in accounting, said she even helped Gallemore with a side business as a home renovations contractor for Home Depot. Records she kept and shared with the AJC showed she handled as many as 119 phone calls in a single day.
“He always talked like it was about us. That we were all in it together,” Yates said. She said she fears she cannot use the work experience with Gallemore on her resume, and has yet to find a new job.
The concerns grew once trainees became full employees. Workers realized that VHBS had no real office because Gallemore accepted delivery for replacement parts at his home inside a gated south DeKalb community. They found it strange that he paid them through Cash App, an online mobile payment service, and noticed complaints posted on websites that Gallemore and his businesses shorted employee pay and performed shoddy work.
Earlier veterans startup goes bust
It wasn’t the first time Gallemore’s businesses had garnered complaints. VHBS bore more than a passing resemblance to Technicians USA, which operated electronics repair counters inside five Dallas-Ft. Worth area Walmarts starting in 2015. It also emphasized hiring military veterans and coordinated with a local workforce development agency to recruit and train employees.
As with VHBS, Gallemore advertised that Technicians USA was experiencing explosive growth. It was poised to become the Geek Squad of Walmart, with projected revenues of $262 million in eight years, according to a copy of a presentation for investors provided by Antoneth Johnson, a south DeKalb resident. She had cleaned Gallemore’s 4,195-square-foot house on and off since 2009.
Antoneth Johnson, 58, entrusted Gallemore with $5,000 she saved to help her quadriplegic son after attending a packed presentation for prospective investors. Gallemore offered 30 percent returns over 12 months, according to a Feb. 2015 promissory note Johnson showed the AJC. She sued in 2018 after he failed to return her initial investment and promised profits.
Like VHBS, Technicians USA stopped paying its employees, making workers so frustrated they got into a physical fight in front of customers, said former manager Natay Hollie, 31, who won a Dec. 2016 judgment in federal court for more than $5,600 in back wages with co-worker Donald Powell, 48, a disabled U.S. Army veteran. Gallemore has yet to pay those wages, three years after the company was dissolved, Powell, Hollie and their attorney said.
Hollie lost her job, apartment and car just as her mother was diagnosed with cancer in early 2016.
“This hurt on levels that I can’t explain,” Hollie said. She said she was hospitalized for anxiety and is still paying off debts from that time. Powell said he struggled to buy milk for his infant son, his car was repossessed and he remains some $10,000 behind in child support for his daughter.
Fulton pledges help
There was always a new excuse for the unpaid wages at VHBS, according to former employees and copies of text messages they provided. Robinson, Gallemore’s business partner, said VHBS was poorly capitalized and warranty companies paid too slowly. A spokesman for Choice Warranty said Gallemore was paid on time for each of the 73 jobs his technicians performed for them.
Gallemore blamed technicians, whom he said made costly mistakes, or claimed employees filled out time sheets incorrectly, according to those text messages and interviews. He’d offer a partial payment, they said, or simply fail to respond. Bodden, the mother of five, grew so desperate when her family ran out of groceries that she called Gallemore from the supermarket to plead with him.
“I’m not begging him for money I didn’t work for, earn. I’m begging him for my own check,” she recalled. Gallemore sent her $100 through Cash App, but did not pay her wages.
Mia Johnson said she sent texts, emails and a letter to retrieve her wages. The former project manager, who was owed as much as $1,300, said her boss paid back a portion after she retained an attorney, but the lost paychecks ruined Christmas and he still owes her money.
Five workers complained in writing to the county after their own pay was short, and an eventual investigation found that Gallemore had breached his agreement with Fulton when he hired the trainees as full-time staff. County officials told the workers Fulton would no longer do business with Gallemore, but did not inform him until May 23, after the AJC asked questions about whether he had been notified.
WorkSource Fulton offered additional training to participants after the AJC inquired about problems with VHBS, but declined to say how many or what services they were providing.
Trainees worry that the DeKalb businessman may continue to harm workers. In February, Mia Johnson received an email from WorkSource Cobb advertising positions for painters from a company with a VHBS email address. A spokeswoman for the Cobb agency said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sent it to them. The Atlanta VA said it has no association with the company.
“I really just want to stop this from happening to somebody else,” Mia Johnson said. “I wish somehow he had been stopped before he got to me.”
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