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Diamond’s Dogs: After city councilman’s surprise exit, troubles exposed at K9s For Warriors charity

It’s a question still whispered at Jacksonville City Hall: Why did recently reelected Councilman Rory Diamond leave his cushy $300,000-plus job last November? 

Diamond, after all, not only made that huge salary from the nonprofit K9s For Warriors, which provides service dogs to military veterans suffering from PTSD, but also saw his media and political profiles rise precipitously as a result of the affiliation. 

The 44-year-old Republican formed alliances with the most powerful politicians in the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott among them. Included in the $115 million raised by the charity since its inception in 2011 is millions of dollars in federal and state grants.  

Diamond’s stated reason for his exit was to focus on his reelection against a write-in candidate and his part-time job at the Army National Guard with a base salary of $4,000. 

“I am compelled by my heart and convictions to focus on military service and serving a second term on the Jacksonville City Council,” Diamond posted on social media in October. 

But more than 20 charity insiders, who spoke with the Florida Trident on condition of anonymity due in part to the charity’s extensive use of non-disclosure agreements, say Diamond walked away from a nonprofit that appeared headed for a disaster largely of his own making.  

A six-month Trident investigation found that veterans had at a troubling rate been returning aggressive and poorly trained service dogs back to K9s for Warriors, often a heartbreaking process adding  to the former service members’ trauma. 

As operational issues mounted within the organization, Diamond and a few hand-picked associates drew six-figure salaries funded not only by K9s For Warriors but also derivative organizations that the former CEO founded with K9’s money. 

Charity expense reports show that the councilman also at times spent lavishly with his charity-issued credit card and in some cases on what appear to be personal expenses. 

Multiple attempts by the Florida Trident to reach Diamond for comment by phone, text, email and messages left with the City of Jacksonville and his new employer, the Douglas Law firm, went unreturned. 

One former insider willing to put his name on the record is Randall Dexter, an Iraq War veteran who received a service dog from K9s For Warriors and went on to work as a training director for the nonprofit.

Dexter said he watched the organization deteriorate over the years from what was once a well-run family organization to a “corrupt corporate conglomerate only interested in using people like me and my dog to line their pockets with cash and launch political careers.” 

A soldier finds his Captain

During his tour as an Army medic in Iraq, Dexter was subjected to near-daily horrors before he hit his breaking point. 

Dexter in Iraq.

On the morning of April 5, 2005, his Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device. In the shrouded mist of the powerful explosion, a stunned Dexter crawled from the vehicle to witness a devastating sight. 

He rendered aid to multiple Iraqi civilians who were strewn across the roadside, suffering gruesome injuries. He said the horrific experience gave him an unwelcome final push into the dark psychological complexities of PTSD. 

Dexter was diagnosed with the disorder and hospitalized in military hospitals for 16 months. Extensive counseling and a long list of medications did little to help the soldier, who said he often contemplated suicide to end the horrors that flashed in his brain and coursed through his body. 

After learning of an Army pal who’d received a psychiatric service dog, Dexter searched online and found K9s For Warriors and was put on an eight-month waiting list for a dog. 

In August 2014, he arrived at K9s, which at the time was run out of a large home in Ponte Vedra. Dexter met the charity’s founder and driving force, Shari Duval, who many of the veterans simply called “mom.  

“She was like a bull in a china shop,” Dexter said. “She had a heart of gold and she was tough.” 

Duval was the wife of Senior PGA Champion Bob Duval and stepmother to David Duval, the former No. 1 golfer in the world. But it was her other son, Brett Simon, who inspired her to create K9s for Warriors. 

Simon suffered from PTSD following his service in Iraq as a civilian dog handler. Shari saw such a marked improvement in her son after he received a psychiatric service dog that she decided to found the nonprofit in 2011. 

It was a family affair: Shari was president, her husband served as vice president, Simon worked as a dog trainer, and David Duval’s celebrity helped fill the coffers. 

Captain called a life-saver. (Photos Courtesy: Randy Dexter)

The Duvals and their volunteers scoured rescue shelters in Florida and Georgia for trainable dogs, which required roughly nine months of training before being given to veterans for specialized training. To establish bonding, the veterans were “leashed” to their service dogs 24 hours a day for three weeks at the K9s facility.  

For Dexter it was a success. With his assigned dog, Captain, he found it easier to go out in public. He eventually enrolled in a community college in San Diego, where he received a degree in communications. 

“Captain saved my life,” said the veteran, who is married with two children. “He made it better than I could’ve ever imagined, even to this day.”

Dexter was such a believer that he began attending fundraising events with Duval. It was during one such trip to Orlando in 2015 that he remembers meeting Rory Diamond for the first time. 

Diamond takes control 

Dexter recalls that Diamond, who was dressed impeccably in a business suit and cowboy boots, told him that he’d met Duval at a local Jacksonville fundraiser the previous year and had signed up to volunteer for the charity. 

Diamond boasted of national political and legal experience and assured Duval he could help raise money, prompting her to hire him as executive director in late 2014 at a starting salary of $162,061 plus expenses. 

Former employees said Diamond hired a consultant to provide fundraising ideas. One suggestion was to make a video showing a veteran with his service dog. Duval selected Dexter for that project, and, in a video titled “Dear Captain,” the former soldier expressed his gratitude for the dog he says saved him. 

At the time Dexter was still a true believer in K9s For Warriors, but soon his faith began to fade.   

An assistant’s complaints  

In February 2017, K9s For Warriors received a letter from an Orlando law firm threatening litigation. The firm was representing Diamond’s former personal assistant at the charity, a woman named Melissa Johnson.

Johnson, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, alleged Diamond created an “uncomfortable” work environment at K9s. In the letter, she alleged he once instructed her to meet with a construction contractor who needed what Diamond  called a “pretty girl to make him smile.” 

She also claimed Diamond instructed her to hug a construction supervisor and say “thank you” in an attempt to ease tensions between the construction company and the charity.   

The letter also alleged that two witnesses, one of them retired Marine Corps Capt. Jason Haag, said Diamond had behaved in a “disgusting” fashion at a fundraising event in Colorado in 2015. According to the letter, Diamond was “intoxicated, belligerent, and accompanied by a ‘prostitute.’” The letter also alleges Diamond spouted offensive comments about women, including the C word. 

Johnson claimed that Haag told Shari Duval that “Diamond could not possibly continue in a leadership role with the organization after his offensive behavior at the fundraising event.” 

While the matter was settled out of court, a former employee said Haag’s comments appeared to create a rift between Diamond and Duval. 

Diamond was elected to the city commission in 2019.

There were seven board members  when Diamond was hired, but the board had grown to 14 by 2017,  many of whom, according to two former administration employees, appeared to be Diamond loyalists. Despite the conflict between the K9s’ president and executive director, Diamond kept his job. 

It was around this time that Diamond hired Jacksonville attorney Patty Dodson to work at K9s at a starting salary of  $115,799.  Dodson’s  salary increased to $161,434 the following year. Employees said Dodson’s work centered around K9s, but tax forms show she was paid by an affiliate organization founded by Diamond in 2016 called the K9s For Warriors Research Institute.

Other than commissioning a study, the K9s For Warriors Research Institute did little more than write checks, some of which were made out to Diamond, said employees. The charity’s 990 tax filings show that on top of his six-figure K9s salary, the Research Institute paid Diamond an additional $34,775 in 2016, which grew to $60,274 in 2017 and continued to increase each year after that. 

The Institute had received approximately $2.2 million of K9s’ money by the end of 2021, according to an audit of the charity by Pivot CPAs that was posted online. In 2020 the Institute was given a failing grade from the nonprofit watchdog group Charity Navigator, which flagged  the Institute because it was paying “excessive” administrative costs.

Shari Duval continued to be concerned about her charity under Diamond’s leadership, according to insiders. But in 2017, Diamond, with a compliant board of directors, took over as CEO. 

As part of a confidential settlement agreement, Duval was able to retain a board seat and her son Brett Simon was named as president, but she was effectively banished from day-to-day activities. Insiders said Shari Duval was “inconsolable” after being exiled from K9s For Warriors.

NDAs are frowned upon at nonprofits, where they are often used as “tricks to protect bullies and abusers inside charities” and give “senior figures and trustees a short-term solution to toxic cultural problems,” according to Civil Society Media, an independent organization dedicated to supporting charities. 

But under Diamond’s tenure at the organization, employees, volunteers and veterans say they were routinely required to sign NDAs and, according to Dexter, many with negative information about K9s were given payouts upon leaving the nonprofit. 

‘A toxic hell-hole’

Even with its internal problems, K9s For Warriors was expanding under Diamond’s leadership. 

In 2017, the philanthropic Gold family from Alachua County donated a 67-acre ranch to K9s For Warriors that came complete with a well-kept, nine-bedroom, seven-bathroom home and two smaller houses. 

In January 2018, Diamond called Dexter with an offer to serve as director of K9s for Warriors at what came to be known as the “Gold Campus.” Dexter, then living in his hometown of Las Vegas with his family, accepted the position. 

Dexter bought a travel trailer and headed to Florida with his wife, two daughters and Captain. He said that when he arrived at the property, one of his first calls was to Shari Duval, whom he asked for help in managing the Gold Campus. 

“She was so happy,” Dexter said. “And she was ready to get started.” 

Dexter’s return to K9s For Warriors was fraught with problems.

But just days later Diamond scuttled that plan.  

“He told me that Shari was ‘out of K9s,’” said Dexter. “Rory said she could not be part of any projects or be on any K9s’ property.” 

Dexter called Duval to break the news. 

“She was angry at first,” he said. “Then she was absolutely heartbroken.” 

Following that bitter blow, Dexter was charged with retraining failing service dogs that had been returned by veterans, he said.

“The dogs should have never been given to seriously ill veterans,” he said. “I was just cleaning up the mess, trying to fix training problems. What I saw first-hand was disheartening.” 

Dexter said he soon learned the charity was essentially playing a numbers game with the dogs. Because federal and state grants required K9s to award a certain number of dogs each year, Dexter said K9s for Warriors leadership had become fixated with moving service dogs out the door whether they were properly trained or not, he said. 

“It was clear Rory wanted quantity over quality,” said Dexter. “Even if the dogs were returned, K9s still got paid. The dogs were Rory’s cash cows.” 

K9s attorney, Dodson, refused to release most of the charity’s records requested by the Florida Trident, but independent sources provided internal documents showing that from 2011 to 2019 approximately 144 dogs were returned. Among the reasons listed for return were sickness, aggressiveness, nervousness in traffic and other poor behaviors. 

In written answers to the Trident’s questions, Carl Cricco, the current CEO of K9s for Warriors, said the nonprofit has awarded 844 service dogs in the life of the organization and that 12.5% of them had been returned. This equates to 106 dogs returned, under the 144 indicated in the charity’s internal documents through just 2019.  

“We consider close to a 90% success rate an accomplishment,” Cricco wrote. “While we have a world-class program designed to pair Service Dogs with Warriors, unfortunately, some dogs are returned for various reasons, including life changes for the Warrior.”

One veteran’s experience at K9s For Warriors was anything but “world-class.” This past December, an anonymous military veteran calling herself only “Linda M.” decided to break her silence about the alarming problems she witnessed at K9s for Warriors.

Linda M. wrote in an online Yelp review that she was part of a class of 10 female veterans who received service dogs from K9s for Warriors in October 2021. 

“I attest that the service dogs that were given to veterans during my stay were aggressive in nature which consisted of growling, lunging, attacking each other, and showing signs of unprovoked aggression,” wrote Linda M. “The dogs could not remain behaviorally stable in certain environments which caused more trauma and problems for the veteran.”  

She relayed that trainers blamed the veterans for the dogs’ behavioral issues, writing, “We were told that the dogs were feeding off our anxiety and some classmates believed it, not knowing any better that the dogs just lacked proper training as service dogs.”  

And she learned it wasn’t a new problem. At least three of the other women in her class were repeats to K9s for Warriors whose previous dogs were returned for “aggressive or unstable behaviors,” according to the review.

“Most of the dogs were not trained to ignore distractions and behave poorly,” she wrote. “Some [veterans] even wanted to quit but the training instructor would talk them out of it saying to ‘trust the process.’” 

After the stress-filled training period, seven of the classmates went on to return their service dogs due to unsuitability, Linda M. alleged. She added she’d learned that one classmate’s dog bit her small daughter in the face, while another dog allegedly pulled a classmate down a flight of stairs, fracturing the classmate’s hip. 

She too had to return her dog after it tried to attack people at her apartment complex.

“Even though there has been a change of leadership in K9s For Warriors,” she wrote, “there are still training issues that warrant an overhaul of the entire dog training program and to relook at the type of dogs that are given to veterans.” 

Cricco confirmed in a written response to the Florida Trident, he had communicated with “Linda M.” about the problems she witnessed and had “put changes in place” as a result, and continues to look for “areas of improvement.” 

But, again, he claimed the problems Linda M. and her classmates experienced in that class weren’t the norm, but rather an “outlier.” 

Dexter, the former K9s training director, said Linda M.’s complaints mirror what he saw at the nonprofit. And another veteran, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Florida Trident a similar story.

The veteran said his K9s-issued service dog “growled and snarled” at his children and acted “hostile.” He said it was so bad that he “took the dog to K9s in the middle of the night and dropped him over the fence.” 

A K9s trainer said another dog that was returned after it tried to bite someone at Home Depot. Staffers said some ex-soldiers blamed themselves when their service dog didn’t work out and believed they “were too far gone” to be helped. 

“[K9s for Warriors] was a toxic hell-hole,” said Dexter. “People at K9s were bringing lawsuits one after another. Rory was just using the NDA to keep employees quiet and paying out huge settlements.” 

Another K9s trainer, who asked to remain anonymous, concurred with Dexter, saying K9s was “a horrible place to work.” 

“It was a messy thing to make rescued dogs into service dogs,” the trainer told the Trident. “It put ridiculous stress on the Warriors, dogs and trainers. And Rory Diamond was preying on the inherent loyalty of veterans.” 

Living high on the dogs 

While the charity’s list of problems was growing, so was Diamond’s media presence. 

Diamond testifies before Congress.

He appeared regularly on Jacksonville’s First Coast News and the nonprofit was featured nationally on Fox News several times. Then-Gov. Rick Scott toured K9s for Warriors and attended one of the organization’s fundraising events in March 2018 and again as a U.S. senator in August 2022. Gov. Ron DeSantis promoted the charity in a Veterans Day speech in 2021.

Diamond’s political career also thrived after joining K9s. He lost his campaign for a seat on the Neptune Beach City Council prior to joining K9s For Warriors but prevailed in 2016. Three years later he was elected to a seat on the Jacksonville City Council, to which he was re-elected in March. 

And his nonprofit salary kept growing. In 2018, the K9’s 990 tax forms show he was paid a total of $256,532 with $170,142 in compensation from K9s for Warriors, $63,000 from the K9s Research Institute and an additional $23,390 as “other compensation” from “related organizations.” That same year, Diamond purchased a large home on the ocean for $1.7 million. 

The Florida Trident independently obtained copies of Diamond’s expense reports and charges he made on his K9s for Warriors’ American Express credit card from January through October 2019. A review of those documents suggests the conservative politician spent the charity’s funds quite liberally. 

The records reveal that Diamond charged over $30,000 to his corporate credit card during the nine-month period, routinely billing K9s for gas for his personal vehicle,  several meals at local restaurants where he was noted as the only attendee for   “business” meals and for Uber rides in and around Jacksonville (some of them in the early morning hours).  

Also on K9s for Warriors’ dime were charges for stays at plush hotels, expensive dinners and annual dues for his law licenses, cellphones, magazines and what he listed as office supplies purchased at a surf shop. 

In July 2019, K9s for Warriors paid for Diamond to attend the 10th Annual Unconditional Love Gala in South Hampton, New York, a benefit for an animal shelter. Hotel charges for one night were $1,600. The next day Diamond rented a car at a cost of $446.33 to drive back to Jacksonville. 

In a text obtained by the Trident , Diamond told an assistant he wanted to find a way for the charity to fund his participation in the Boston Triathlon. K9s paid for lodgings, meals and numerous Uber rides while Diamond was in Boston for the event on July 27.  The charity also paid $775.69 for Diamond to drive a rental car from Boston to Jacksonville. 

After he became a City Council member, records show Diamond attended a Maverick PAC (MavPac) meeting in New York City. Although MavPac is a political committee aimed at supporting and electing Republicans, Diamond billed K9s for Warriors for his $923.26 room at the Dream Downtown hotel.

In October of the same year, Diamond fired Dexter from K9s For Warriors, telling him he’d heard that Dexter had instructed employees to sue the charity. It wasn’t true, said Dexter, who never signed an NDA or took a payout. 

“Honestly, I was relieved,” Dexter said of the firing. “The mission that K9s promotes is all a façade. And Rory Diamond used our plight of suffering from PTSD as a way to further his political ambitions and to line his pockets.” 

‘Must clean house’

Founder Shari Duval died of cancer on Feb. 4, 2021. Shortly after her death, Diamond fired Shari’s son, Brett Simon, and hired Cricco, a public relations consultant from New York who is now CEO.  

While working initially as K9s’ marketing director, 990 tax filings show that Cricco was paid a salary of $147,897, with a $25,000 bonus and an additional $15,816 in benefits, bringing the total to $188,713. 

Diamond also hired a friend, Nick Howland, as executive director of K9s For Warriors at a salary of $128,900. Howland was then “loaned” to another derivative K9s-financed organization, The Fire Watch, which paid Howland an additional $25,800.

With Diamond’s political support, Howland ran for and was elected to a seat on the Jacksonville City Council last year. 

Dexter, now a teacher, continues to keep tabs on K9s for Warriors and said he’s watched as the charity has lost employees and volunteers. In an interoffice memo written on Jan. 5 of this year, new CEO Cricco revealed that he had laid off approximately 21 employees. 

Dexter said he still believes in K9’s For Warriors’ original mission and views Diamond’s departure as an opportunity to regain it. 

He’s not alone. Veterans, volunteers and employees tell the Trident  they still believe K9s For Warriors can turn things around. But they aren’t holding out hope with upper management  still in place who appeared to have facilitated Diamond’s errant spending habits and a board of directors who failed to properly oversee the nonprofit and did nothing to rein in Diamond. 

Attempts to interview board members, including Chairman Daniel Bean, were met with blanket refusals. 

Dexter has two simple suggestions for the board: “First, they must clean house of the top executives at K9s,” he said. “Then they must hire someone worthy of running the charity.”

Susan Clark Armstrong is a veteran investigative reporter and former Florida Times-Union columnist who lives in the Jacksonville area.