TAMPA — The final months of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association were marked by frantic attempts to fend off reporters and investigators who suspected the charity was a fraud.
Though it had reported raising nearly $100 million to assist veterans, the nonprofit's directors were nonexistent, its headquarters nothing more than mail drops. Run out of a dilapidated duplex in Ybor City but soliciting donations nationwide, the group sent much of its money to politicians, not needy veterans.
Under scrutiny in the spring of 2010, the Navy Veterans stonewalled subpoenas and scrambled to survive.
But as spring turned to summer, the group's leader, a scruffy 60-something who called himself Commander Bobby Thompson, vanished from view. The last two board members resigned. The group's tricked-out pickup was sold. Private investigators and a PR person were hired.
Those and other details about the waning days of the Navy Veterans are contained in documents released as part of ongoing investigations into the group, which so far have sent a Hillsborough County woman to prison and made Thompson a wanted fugitive.
Also detailed in the documents: how by July 2010, even the Navy Veterans' long-time lawyer had severed her relationship with the group and gone to the authorities with serious accusations of wrongdoing.
But Florida and federal officials took nearly a month to act on that tip. By the time authorities seized documents from the Clair-Mel home of one of Thompson's associates, some records already had been shredded.
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Regulators in several states reacted to the St. Petersburg Times' expose of the Navy Veterans in March 2010 with a volley of inquiries and court orders. They demanded addresses and phone numbers of officers and members. Thompson and his attorneys responded by writing letters and filing motions saying members had a constitutional right to privacy.
At the same time, Thompson mounted a multipronged offensive intended to rally support and lash back at the Times and its nonprofit owner, the Poynter Institute, according to public records and documents filed in court cases in Florida and Ohio.
• "Brian Reagan," the purported head of the Navy Veterans who proved to be fictitious, filed complaints against Poynter in at least three states, including Florida, saying it was soliciting contributions without being properly registered. No states acted on the complaint.
• The group hired Christopher Szechenyi, a freelance journalist, paying him $24,000 between April and June 2010, according to records. Szechenyi, an adjunct professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston, drafted letters to the editor on behalf of a Polk County man who received $1,700 from the Navy Veterans for a barbecue at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in 2009. Although the letters were submitted, there is no evidence they were published in either the Times or the Tampa Tribune.
Szechenyi, who previously worked for the Church of Scientology on an unpublished investigation into the St. Petersburg Times, did not return a call and e-mail seeking comment.
• Using another fake name and an accomplice's mailing address, Thompson created a new organization, U.S. Navy Veterans Support Group Inc. According the Navy Veterans website, the "private, for-profit" corporation would take responsibility for the group's online publications. The inaugural column was a lengthy attack on the St. Petersburg Times.
When Florida officials demanded that Thompson's new entity either reply to subpoenas or face fines of $1,000 a day, the group was dissolved.
• In the second week of June, Thompson met in New York City with one of the Navy Veterans' professional fundraisers. His mission, according to Ohio investigators, was to persuade the company to continue soliciting in the face of negative publicity. Despite a strong financial incentive — fundraisers kept 85 to 90 percent of all donations to the nonprofit — Thompson's pleas were rejected.
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For more than six months, Helen Mac Murray, the Navy Veterans' general counsel, had been fielding queries from the Times, including one seemingly easy request: Prove that dozens of directors and officers exist. Of 85 officers listed for the group, the Times was only able to find one: Thompson.
Mac Murray, who once headed consumer protection for the Ohio Attorney General's Office, said Thompson assured her all officers and members were real. Though she represented the group for four years, Mac Murray later said she only met a few volunteers and never met or spoke to any officials but Thompson.
A few weeks before the Times' first story, Mac Murray hired a private investigator in Ohio, according to an invoice in court files in a case involving the Navy Veterans in Hernando County. The subject: Bobby Charles Thompson.
In a report labeled "Confidential . . . for requester's eye's only," the investigator revealed what he had learned when he tracked a Social Security number that "was supplied as possibly belonging to Bobby Thompson."
It belonged instead to a Louisiana man who never appeared to have lived in Florida, the investigator found.
Mac Murray recently denied that Thompson had claimed the Social Security number as his own.
"It was merely an assumption on (the investigator's) part," she said. But Mac Murray acknowledged that Thompson's response to the investigator's report raised concerns.
In a four-page "confidential" memo to Mac Murray, Thompson laid out a mind-boggling scenario in which "A, B and C," three male cousins "with similar sounding or even identical names" swapped identities. "A," supposedly Thompson, used "C's" identity to join the Navy underage. "B" stole "A's" identity after getting in trouble with the law as a juvenile. "C" died.
"I was growing increasingly concerned," Mac Murray said recently. "I was significantly worried about Thompson's mental stability due to the rambling nature of the memo."
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For the next four months, Mac Murray continued to defend the Navy Veterans, responding to reporters' questions, discussing the complaint against Poynter with Florida officials and preparing a motion to block a subpoena from Florida's then-Attorney General Bill McCollum.
Then things started spiraling out of control.
During Mac Murray's last face-to-face meeting with Thompson in early June, he appeared "distraught and had been drinking," the lawyer later told officials. After June 20, Thompson became unreachable, "which is very unusual based on my past experience," she said.
On June 28, 2010, Mac Murray flew to Tampa and demanded to see the group's records, which were being stored at the home of one of Thompson's volunteers, Blanca Contreras.
Contreras, who had worked with Thompson for three years, running errands and cashing about $500,000 in checks, refused to let Mac Murray see the financial records, telling her "Bobby said nobody can see them without his permission," Mac Murray said.
The documents Mac Murray was permitted to see made her uneasy. She "felt that they were sanitized, that anything other than a public record had been removed from the files," Mac Murray later told Ohio officials in a deposition. "And that concerned me that that was being hidden from legal counsel."
Another tip that something was wrong: Several state registration forms had a piece of what appeared to be tracing paper on top, with the officer's signature written on it. During her deposition, Mac Murray said it looked like "it was evidence of what I would put together in trying to create a forged type of document and want to be consistent."
After leaving Contreras' home, Mac Murray met with the Navy Veterans' sole remaining board member, Tom O'Daniel, who ran a group that sold donated vehicles and gave the proceeds to charities, and Karmika Rubin, a local lawyer who was the group's special counsel and had recently resigned from the board.
At some point during her stay in the area, Mac Murray also met with the IRS and FBI, according to her deposition. By 7:30 a.m. on June 30, Mac Murray was back in her office outside Columbus. During a meeting with her partners, she presented what she had learned in Tampa. Their decision: ask law enforcement for help.
Mac Murray immediately returned to Tampa for a meeting at the Attorney General's Office. By week's end, she had signed a startling two-page affidavit.
"I contacted the Florida Attorney General at my client's (Navy Veterans) request and on the belief that possible financial crimes may be occurring," said Mac Murray, who also provided detailed information about six of the group's bank accounts.
Though she told officials that Rubin and O'Daniel agreed to the disclosure, O'Daniel later told investigators that wasn't the case. "I think she had her own agenda," said O'Daniel, who resigned from the board when he learned Mac Murray was talking to Florida officials. "She is not defending us by throwing us under the bus."
In his deposition to Ohio officials, O'Daniel also suggested that Contreras was trying to protect the group's remaining assets by hiding the financial records from its lawyer.
"She (Mac Murray) was charging them so much money she thought she was just going to come in, look at the balance and that was going to be her bill," he said. "I think it was Blanca's opinion that she just wanted to find out how much we had and take the rest of it."
Mac Murray recently called O'Daniel's allegations "patently untrue."
"At that time, in fact, the USNVA (Navy Veterans) owed my firm thousands of dollars," she said in an e-mail. "Even though I knew the likelihood of my firm ever being paid for our past or future work was minimal, I continued to represent the association and work to protect its funds vigorously."
From March 4, the date of the private investigator's report to Mac Murray, through June 29, 2010, her firm was paid $133,420.38 by the Navy Veterans. Total legal fees paid to Mac Murray's firm from October 2007 through the Navy Veterans' collapse was $277,102.97, according to Ohio court records.
Mac Murray said she shared the investigator's report as well as Thompson's response with Rubin and Sam Wright, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who also did work for the Navy Veterans. Rubin declined to comment.
Wright recently said he had no memory of either document.
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In her affidavit to Florida officials, Mac Murray urged quick action to secure the Navy Veterans' documents at Contreras' home.
"I have reason to believe these records (are in) jeopardy or in imminent danger of being moved and destroyed," she said.
Yet it wasn't until four weeks later that Florida and federal officials acted on Mac Murray's warning and descended on the home, hauling away boxes full of documents. By then some records had been shredded, according to Ohio's prosecutor.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Attorney General's Office said it had no control over the timing of the raid, which included criminal investigators from the IRS, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Florida's criminal investigation into the Navy Veterans is ongoing, but its civil action has been closed. With Thompson a fugitive, state officials say, there is no one to sue.
Ohio officials, who estimate their state's residents were bilked for more than $2 million by the Navy Veterans, have been the most aggressive in their prosecution of the case. Last month, Contreras was sentenced to five years in an Ohio prison after pleading guilty to aggravated theft and money laundering. In a separate civil action, Ohio investigators continue to hunt for clues that could lead to Thompson, who was last seen at an ATM in New York City on June 16, 2010.
This summer, an Ohio judge granted a motion to give authorities access to three e-mail accounts whose owners are believed to have a relationship with Thompson. Investigators said they "may have information pertaining to his whereabouts."
Kris Hundley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996. John Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3372.