A veteran-led organization helping Afghan allies escape the Taliban was allegedly fleeced out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by companies and people, including other veterans, who promised to help nearly 200 refugees but failed to deliver, the organization claimed in a lawsuit filed in federal court this week.
Save Our Allies, which was founded by three veterans and a veteran's wife to help Afghans who served as interpreters for the U.S. military flee after the Taliban returned to power last year, said in the lawsuit it was defrauded out of $735,128 by defendants who pressured them for more cash in order to get the "fat lady to sing."
"They did not provide what was promised as far as air transport, visas, decent housing and kept trying to stick 'em up for more money to the point where it became clear that it was a classic scam," Kevin Carroll, the lawyer representing Save Our Allies, told Military.com in a phone interview.
The allegedly broken promises have left 197 Afghans stranded in Pakistan without a clear path forward.
"Efforts are continuing to get those refugees who can get resettled into other third countries resettled in those countries," Carroll said. "But unlike the situation as it was described to Save Our Allies, these people are not all perfect candidates for Special Immigrant Visas."
Special Immigrant Visas are the category of visas reserved for those who aided the U.S. war effort and their families.
The lawsuit names three companies -- Ravenswood Group, a business consultancy based in Florida; SAMA Global, an investment firm based in Qatar; and City Gate Trading and Contracting Company, a Qatari housing company -- and three people: Matt Nelson, a Marine veteran and a former board member of Save Our Allies; Greg Gustin, CEO at Ravenswood and a Marine veteran; and Shahzada Khurram, a senior employee at both Ravenswood and Sama Global.
Nelson, Gustin and Khurram did not respond to Military.com's emailed requests for comment, but Gustin and Khurram denied wrongdoing to The Washington Post, which first reported on the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court in Florida on Monday, seeks to recoup the money Save Our Allies says it was swindled out of, as well as more than $2.2 million in damages.
The lawsuit alleges that Nelson approached Save Our Allies in early 2022 about a group of Afghan refugees he could safely evacuate to Qatar via Pakistan "if only Save Our Allies provided him with funding and assistance." The organization agreed to provide the funds and added Nelson to its board, and he then introduced the group to Gustin and Khurram, the suit says.
In January, Save Our Allies entered into an agreement with SAMA that said SAMA and subcontractors, including Ravenswood, would provide transportation for the refugees to get to Qatar, as well as housing, employment and other services in Qatar, according to the suit, which included a copy of the agreement.
But, the lawsuit alleges, SAMA and Ravenswood "knowingly lacked the capability to assist, and never intended to assist, the Afghan refugees' relocation to Qatar," and Nelson "knew or should have known" that.
The agreement stipulated costs should be no more than $750,000. But in February, Gustin wrote a memo, a copy of which is attached to the suit, saying he had "learned that the 'costs' for what we are providing exceeds $10M per planeload."
The memo also warned that "the fat lady has not yet sung, but she is on stage, adjusting the microphone."
"But we are out of cash -- and it is cash that is needed to get the lady to sing. Don't worry, she will sing, (soon) but we need more help as fast as possible," the memo said.
Save Our Allies had been promised the evacuees would be sent to Qatar in February, but when nothing had happened by mid-March, employees of the organization flew to Pakistan and found the refugees were "ill-housed and without visas," the lawsuit added.
Further, during the wait to get to Qatar, a 12-year-old girl with leukemia who couldn't get treatment in Pakistan died, according to the lawsuit.
The memo in which Gustin asked for more cash is not specifically addressed to Save Our Allies, and Carroll said he suspects there are more victims out there. Hundreds of veterans formed dozens of groups to help evacuate Afghan allies after summer 2021.
"You dishonor the uniform that you wore if you use it to try to build up your credibility with other people and then take their money," said Carroll, who said he also served in Afghanistan. "It's even worse when there's innocent, defenseless, vulnerable civilians that are harmed by the scheme."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.
Editor’s note: After publication, defendant Greg Gustin responded to Military.com with a five paragraph statement denying wrongdoing. The statement reads in part: “On behalf of the named defendants, we categorically deny all charges and any wrongdoing whatsoever. We have written, verifiable evidence that refutes each and every baseless accusation. … Their assertion that we demanded more money is also without foundation; we merely stated the costs far exceeded our estimates (we never ever claimed to be in the ‘rescue business’).”