Friday, November 24, 2017
News Roundup

Defense: Navy Vets didn't control all money raised, as its telemarketer had claimed

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CLEVELAND — The first week of the trial of Bobby Thompson elicited plenty of damaging testimony about the founder of the Tampa charity known as the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.

The jury saw dozens of fake IDs with Thompson's picture and other men's names.

They heard him described as a drinker who dressed like a homeless man and said he got funding from a secret CIA budget.

And they were told about the intricate games Thompson played — faking emails, signatures and addresses — to convince people the charity had other directors and offices, when none, in fact, existed.

But on Thursday, the defendant's attorney finally landed a blow when he forced one of the group's professional fundraisers to admit that his company, not Thompson, controlled the charity's donations and kept 90 percent of the money raised.

The jury and alternates of 11 women and four men suddenly stirred when the details emerged of the fundraising arrangements with Community Support Inc.

Earlier in the day, their attention had flagged when the prosecutor led the business's owner, Tom Berkenbush, through a series of complicated document reviews. Ohio prosecutor Brad Tammaro had been trying to establish that Thompson filed fraudulent documents with the state, where his charity raised nearly $3 million over eight years. The jurors' interest seemed to revive when Joseph Patituce, Thompson's attorney, tossed the exhibits on a table and questioned Berkenbush about their accuracy.

Berkenbush admitted the records showed his company was raising money for Navy Veterans for a year before it officially began soliciting, saying, "Those records have to be wrong."

Thompson, pale and gaunt in a black suit, leaned back in his chair and smiled broadly for the first time all week.

Thompson, 66, is accused of fraud, money laundering and theft in connection with the charity, which raised more than $100 million nationwide but gave little to veterans. The group collapsed after questions arose about its legitimacy in 2010. Thompson, who had been using a stolen identity, went on the run.

He was apprehended in April 2012; his real name is John Donald Cody and he is a Harvard-trained lawyer and former military intelligence officer who had been on the FBI's most wanted list since 1987 charged with fraud.

Thompson's trial is expected to take up to six weeks, with the defendant taking the stand.

The state's strategy was hammered home during the first four days of questioning of 10 witnesses. First up was Jeff Testerman, the retired Times reporter whose March 2010 stories led to Navy Vets' implosion and lawsuits by states including Ohio and Florida. Florida dropped its complaint when Thompson became a fugitive. Testerman was ordered to testify over the Times' legal objections.

During witness questioning, Tammaro focused on three themes: that Thompson was the sole puppetmaster behind the Navy Veterans' charade; that he used Navy Veterans' money on himself and things like expensive dental work and hair implants; and that he was an accomplished forger, creating fake IDs using other people's names. A suitcase full of phony documents seized when Thompson was arrested show he posed as a safety contractor for Boeing, a visiting scholar at two universities and a hunter in Massachusetts.

Patituce, Thompson's court-appointed attorney, is scrambling to keep up, just having been handed the case in late August. Until then, Thompson had told the court he intended to represent himself.

But on Thursday, Patituce elicited testimony that contradicted earlier testimony by one of the Navy Vets' professional solicitors, who said all money raised went directly into a bank account controlled by the charity, as required by Ohio law.

While donations initially were deposited into the charity's bank account, at the end of the day, every penny was swept into an account controlled by the for-profit fundraiser, according to an agreement between the parties.

"It was a way around the law, wasn't it?" Patituce asked Berkenbush, whose company raised about $145,795 for Navy Veterans over five years.

"Yes," Berkenbush said.

Navy Veterans then received 10 percent, or about $14,579, from the fundraiser as its share of the donations.

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