Under the radar: Full Times coverage of U.S. Navy Veterans nonprofit
The U.S. Navy Veterans Association says it spends millions to send care packages to America's fighting troops overseas, and as proof, the group has posted to its website thank-you letters from soldiers and sailors like Gina Pronzati.
"Everyone in the unit who received a package from you wants to thank you so much,'' reads the letter on navyvets.org from Pronzati, who served with a U.S. Navy K-9 unit in Afghanistan.
But Pronzati says she and her unit never got a care package from the Navy Veterans, and she never wrote the group a thank-you.
Founded in Tampa and granted tax-exempt status in 2002, the Navy Veterans Association said in tax papers that it has chapters in 41 states, nearly 67,000 members and income in excess of $22 million a year — much of it used to send packages to troops overseas.
But a six-month examination by the Times discovered that the charity's officers were nowhere to be found, its offices nothing but a network of rented mailboxes and its donations mostly undisclosed.
Of 85 Navy Veterans officers listed on tax returns, the Times found only one: Lt. Cmdr. Bobby Thompson, the charity's founder. Thompson says he fought in Vietnam but says no military records exist to confirm his service because he took a relative's name to enlist in the Navy at age 15. After the newspaper started asking Thompson questions, he cleared out of the Ybor City duplex he had lived in for a decade and left his landlord no forwarding address.
State attorneys general in New Mexico, Hawaii and Ohio have since shut down the organization in their states, and Florida, Missouri and Virginia are investigating.
Photo: Gina Pronzati, with her partner Ronny, served with a U.S. Navy K-9 unit in Afghanistan. She left the military last week and plans to study veterinary medicine. When she saw how her thank-you note to anysoldier.com was altered to look like she was thanking the Navy Veterans Association, she says, “I knew it was some sort of scam.’’