Bobby Thompson was getting nervous.
A reporter was asking questions about the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, the multimillion-dollar charity he had founded in Tampa. Thompson, who passed himself off as a retired naval intelligence officer, knew the whole organization was an elaborate scam that would crumble under too much scrutiny. It was time for evasive action.
The man who called himself "Commander" sent an e-mail to his attorneys in October 2009, saying he was stepping down as director to divert attention and save the Navy Veterans. In his absence, Thompson gave "plenipotentiary powers" to make operational and legal decisions to one person: his assistant Karmika V. Rubin of Hernando County.
Today, Rubin's former boss is on the run, charged with engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, money laundering and theft, both of donations and his very identity as "Bobby Thompson." His real name is unknown, his title of "Commander" a fake.
Rubin's colleague at the Tampa nonprofit, Blanca Contreras, was sentenced to five years in an Ohio prison last week after admitting her role in perpetuating the hoax, which bilked the public and provided few services to veterans while funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians.
Meanwhile, Rubin, who during her association with the Navy Veterans helped with everything from an IRS audit to lobbying efforts, is building a law practice in the Tampa Bay area.
On her website, Rubin, 38, mentions her background as a teenage mother, her law degree from Stetson University College of Law and her work as office administrator for state Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg.
She does not mention the years she worked for U.S. Navy Veterans, first as an executive assistant, then as special counsel.
But Rubin's involvement has not gone unnoticed. Late last year, Ohio's attorney general filed a lawsuit in Hernando County to force Rubin, a resident of Weeki Wachee, to answer questions and turn over documents in connection with that state's investigation into the Navy Veterans. Though three other attorneys retained by Navy Vets agreed to be deposed, Rubin cited attorney-client privilege. In February, a Hernando County judge ordered her to comply.
Rubin has not been charged with any wrongdoing in the Ohio investigation, which is ongoing. Through her secretary, Rubin said she did not want to talk about her work for the Navy Veterans. But court documents in Florida and Ohio offer insight into Rubin's role with the organization down to the very end.
She posed with oversized checks for veterans' groups as scrutiny of the group mounted. She attended an inaugural party for Virginia's attorney general, who received $55,500 in campaign contributions from Thompson. And in the nonprofit's waning days, she accepted a seat on its board, previously populated by fictitious characters.
In an organization that claimed to have nearly 67,000 dues-paying members, none of whom have ever been found, Rubin was one of a handful of real people.
When did she figure out the Navy Veterans was a sham?
• • •
Rubin was raised in St. Petersburg's Jordan Park and had a son when she was 14. Yet by age 30 she had achieved a law degree and done a year of advanced studies at Stetson. Married to a minister at Word of Life Fellowship Church in St. Petersburg, Rubin also has degrees in theology from Life Christian University in Lutz.
Tamara Felton, who shared a law practice with Rouson before he became a state legislator, went to church with Rubin. She hired her in 2002 while Rubin was still at Stetson.
"Karmika worked as a law clerk, then we hired her as an administrator," Felton said. "We worked closely, and I thought she did a good job as administrator."
Though she won awards for community service at Stetson, Rubin repeatedly failed the bar exam. In a recent interview, Rouson said, "We sat through her unfortunate experience of not passing the bar. It was our intention to give her support, but she didn't do legal work for us. Her job was handling the (postage) meter, dealing with sales people and personnel issues."
While working for the law firm, Rubin got to know a premier client, Bobby Thompson. In early March 2007, Rouson and a third partner, Darryll Jones, responded to an ad for general counsel for Navy Veterans. The post was a "retained" position meaning the client would pay up front. Within weeks, Rouson's firm won the job.
"I thought this was huge for a minority-owned law firm to be general counsel for the Navy Vets," said Rouson, whose partner Jones had expertise on nonprofits. "Bobby Thompson came in and said he liked our community service, leadership and legal skills. I was drinking the Kool-Aid."
Rouson said most of his work for the Navy Veterans was responding to complaints from people on "Do Not Call" lists who received unsolicited calls from the group's professional fundraisers. In response letters, Rouson noted that veterans groups were exempt from "Do Not Call" rules but agreed to remove the person from its lists.
Rouson said Rubin handled clerical work for the client, typing up letters and filling out registration forms for the Navy Veterans in several states. After he disbanded his practice to take office in 2008, Rouson said "the Commander picked her up."
Though his former partner Felton said she was wary of Thompson — "He was very scruffy and dirty, he didn't match the part" —Rouson thought he was the genuine article.
"He appeared knowledgeable and compassionate," said Rouson, who received $1,500 from Thompson for his 2008 campaign. "I just wish it had been valid."
Rouson, who answered questions as part of the Ohio investigation last year, said he was duped like everyone else.
"One day maybe Bobby Thompson will have an opportunity to explain and defend himself," he said.
• • •
Documents filed in court cases show that Rubin acted as Thompson's jack-of-all trades. When the St. Petersburg Times started asking for proof of the Navy Veterans charitable works, Rubin, along with Contreras and her daughter Nancy, were photographed holding a giant $20,000 check for a Tampa group that sewed clothes for wounded vets.
Contreras, who admitted writing checks for nearly $500,000 from Navy Vet bank accounts, told her lawyers that Rubin also occasionally cashed the group's checks at Thompson's request, according to a recent court filing.
Rubin also fielded a question from a professional fundraiser who wanted to update the nonprofit's claim that it helped more than 240,000 veterans and their families. In an e-mail, Rubin, who described herself as "a volunteer, assisting Commander Thompson" promised to research the request and get back with "fresher numbers."
She acted as liaison with the group's general counsel, Samuel Wright in Washington, D.C., who had replaced Rouson's firm. In May 2009, Rubin e-mailed Wright a list of priorities per the Commander. First up: Lobby Virginia officials who insisted the group had to register despite an earlier exemption.
"Commander thinks (the Virginia agency regulating nonprofits) is cooking up something and the war room needs to be ready for an immediate response," Rubin wrote.
She also wanted Wright, a delegate to Virginia's Republican state nominating convention, to write a letter of introduction to the newly named Republican gubernatorial and attorney general candidates.
Thompson later donated $5,000 to Bob McDonnell, the successful candidate for governor. Thompson was the second-largest individual contributor to Ken Cuccinelli's campaign for attorney general. Rubin represented the Navy Veterans at a Cuccinelli fundraiser before his election and returned to Virginia to celebrate his inauguration.
• • •
In August 2009, the Navy Veterans organization was preparing for an IRS audit of its Connecticut chapter. Thompson sent his lawyers a pile of receipts and a letter from a Connecticut volunteer saying her car had been flooded during heavy rains a month earlier, destroying the chapter's bank statements and other documents.
Wright, the lawyer in Washington, said the sales slips were in disarray, with dates torn off and questionable expenditures on things like fast food and cheap beer. Or they came from stores in Tampa, rather than Connecticut.
"The receipts didn't make any sense," he said in an interview with the Times.
Despite Wright's objections, an e-mail Aug. 24 from Rubin's account signed by Bobby Thompson told the lawyers working on the audit that at least $40,000 of the receipts had been deemed "defensible" by Wright. About $38,000 of them were undated.
Wright recently said that he never described any of the receipts as "defensible." "I don't think I would have called an undated receipt 'defensible.' "
In their effort to force Rubin to testify, Ohio investigators included in the Hernando lawsuit copies of the receipts that accompanied the e-mail. Among the items the Navy Veterans said it bought to send to troops overseas: frozen burritos and Lean Cuisine dinners, two window air-conditioning units, Alpo chicken and rice cat food, Natural Ice beer, raw chicken quarters, 10 boxes of "Just for Men" hair dye and six tubes of Pinaud's mustache wax.
Though most of the receipts were from Tampa — including a $1 hot fudge sundae from McDonald's in Ybor — the papers attached to Rubin's e-mail purported to reflect some purchases in Connecticut. Five packages of rat poison were from a WalMart in "Waterberry," while other illegible receipts were from WalMart in "New Havin." Ohio investigators said it was unlikely Connecticut residents would misspell the cities' names.
Wright said he asked Thompson how he could defend the expenditures.
"He had lots of answers, but lots of them didn't add up," said Wright, who declined to join Thompson and two other attorneys at the audit.
After a daylong review by IRS agents, the Navy Veterans Connecticut chapter passed the audit.
• • •
In 2010, Rubin passed Florida's bar exam and in February was sworn in as an attorney. The following day she became "special retained counsel" to the Navy Veterans. When the Times series on the Navy Veterans began a month later, Helen MacMurray, the Ohio lawyer who was then the group's general counsel, fielded press inquiries. Rubin declined all requests for comment.
Just weeks before he vanished, Thompson had another job for Rubin. On May 30, 2010, the Navy Veterans issued a resolution saying all five board members — who authorities say never existed — had resigned. Thompson rejoined the board and tapped Rubin and Tom O'Daniel, an Orlando man who had arranged for the Navy Veterans to get a donated truck, to join him.
Within a month, as several states launched investigations into the group and Thompson disappeared from view, both O'Daniel and Rubin resigned their board posts. The Navy Veterans was effectively defunct.
Felton, Rubin's former boss, can't believe Rubin, whom she described as a "Christian lady," had any clue of the huge fraud Thompson is now accused of concocting.
"She was very excited about her job and the opportunities she was being given," said Felton, who hasn't spoken to Rubin since the group was exposed. "But she's a very trusting person. I can see the red flags not going up for her unless they're right there in her face."
The Navy Veterans' other two lawyers, Wright and MacMurray, formally severed ties with the group. Rubin simply moved on.
In November she opened a law office in Weeki Wachee, a few miles from the 4,000 square foot home she bought in 2007; she also has an office in Pinellas Park. Her website boasts that Rubin & Associates is "equipped with some of the Nation's brightest attorneys."
But when a visitor clicks on attorney bios, there is only one: Rubin's.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996.