TAMPA — An Ohio grand jury has returned corruption, theft and money laundering indictments against Bobby Thompson, the man who masqueraded as a retired lieutenant commander and ran the multimillion-dollar U.S. Navy Veterans Association from an Ybor City duplex for nearly a decade.
The indictments made public Friday accuse Thompson and Tampa associate Blanca Contreras of "engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity," money laundering and the theft of more than $1 million from Ohio residents through the Navy Veterans charity.
Thompson founded the nonprofit in Tampa in 2002 and used a national organization and a network of state chapters to collect a reported $99.6 million, much of it via professional telemarketers. That income, according to the charity's mission statement and tax returns, was used to assist veterans, active-duty personnel and their families.
But Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said Friday the Navy Veterans was "a sham charity" that took money from an unsuspecting public and illegally funneled it into the pockets of politicians.
"The reason we have pursued this group is that it has stolen $1.9 million from the citizens of Ohio who thought they were giving to a legitimate veterans charity,'' Cordray said in a telephone interview. "What we have found instead is that the money went not to veterans causes but was instead diverted to political campaigns.''
Cordray said his office's examination of bank records revealed that contributions were made in money orders that used fictitious names for the contributor.
"This is bigger than we thought,'' he said. "And the more we look at it, the more it stinks."
A St. Petersburg Times investigation of Thompson and the Navy Veterans published in March sparked criminal inquiries by nine states, the IRS and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In Ohio, Thompson and Contreras now stand accused of three felonies that carry a maximum total penalty of 25 years in prison.
Thompson is a fugitive who abandoned his Tampa home and office last fall and vanished in June. His whereabouts and true identity are unknown.
Ohio investigators discovered that the Navy Veterans director had stolen the name "Bobby Thompson" from a Washington state man years earlier. They issued a nationwide warrant Aug. 5 charging "Thompson" with identity theft.
Blanca Contreras, 38, a former citrus processing plant employee, assisted Thompson with various duties, including appearing at check presentations for the Navy Veterans. She was taken into custody Friday at the airport in Charlotte, N.C., having flown from Tampa to visit relatives.
In recent months, Contreras signed as an officer of the Navy Veterans on registration papers to keep the nonprofit in business in Washington state, Connecticut, Massachusetts and West Virginia.
"She held herself out as an officer of this organization,'' Cordray said. "We want to see what she knows."
Cordray said Friday that "Thompson" had stolen a second identity, that of the leader of a small chapter of disabled veterans in New Mexico.
The man who called himself "Commander Thompson" in Florida also had an ID card for years from the state of Indiana in the name of Ronnie D. Brittain.
Reached at his home in Gallup, N.M., the real Ronnie Brittain said a local police detective knocked on his door about three weeks ago and informed him that his identity had been stolen.
"They said (Thompson) had been using my information for over 10 years," Brittain said. "He got my name, my date of birth, and my Social Security number."
Brittain, 54, served 11 years in the Army and has been a member of the Disabled American Veterans for nearly 25 years, first in his native Oklahoma, now at the chapter in Gallup. He said he had never heard of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.
"I've been bothered by this the last few weeks," Brittain said. "I'm disabled, and I can't work. He could've got me in trouble and I'd be on the street."
To expand the effort to track down "Commander Thompson," Cordray's office on Friday released several pictures of the Navy Veterans founder taken at political fundraisers.
The photos show a smiling Thompson posing with elected officials, including President George W. Bush, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and Florida Rep. Adam H. Putnam, who is running for commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — which oversees charities like the Navy Veterans Association.
In another photo, Thompson and Contreras are flanked by Arizona senator and former GOP presidential candidate John McCain and his wife, Cindy.
Thompson espoused conservative causes on the Navy Veterans website and used a political action committee and his own checkbook to support mostly conservative, Republican candidates.
Thompson operated a political action committee called NAVPAC out of his Ybor City duplex and wrote more than $200,000 in checks under his stolen name to political campaigns.
The contributions from Thompson that were publicly recorded ranged from $500 to Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White to $10,000 to Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and $55,500 to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
A federal investigation parallels the inquiry ongoing in Ohio.
In July, agents from the IRS and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs raided a Clair-Mel home at 2062 Balfour Circle, which is linked to Contreras and her daughter, Nancy. Agents seized computer records and boxes of documents — some already shredded — that were whisked away in an unmarked van.
Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia sought the investigation after news reports showed the Navy Veterans poured cash into Virginia in a successful effort to pass a law that waived registration requirements for veterans groups.
The Navy Veterans boasted a membership roll topping 66,000, offices in 41 states and as much as $22.4 million a year in income.
The Times investigation found the state office addresses were rented mailboxes, that its charitable gifts were all but unverifiable and that its members and officers were nowhere to be found. There was no trace of 84 of the 85 Navy Veterans officers listed nationwide.
The only officer found was Thompson, who moved to Tampa in the late 1990s, obtained tax-exempt status for his Navy Veterans group in 2002 and gave several versions of his service in the U.S. Navy. When the Times discovered there was no record of military service for Thompson, he said he had taken the identity of another to enlist under-age.
Though he donned formal attire to attend balls in Washington, D.C., and sent Christmas cards showing himself posed with President George W. Bush, Thompson kept to himself, had no driver's license and lived in a $600-a-month Ybor City duplex across the street from a cigar factory.
After questions mounted last year, Thompson cleared out of his duplex, left his landlord no forwarding address and disappeared.
Jeff Testerman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3422. Researcher John Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3372.