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UNDER THE RADAR: Click for full coverage of the U.S. Navy Veterans scam

Lawyers offer vastly different portraits of Bobby Thompson during Navy Vets trial

CLEVELAND — In hindsight, maybe Bobby Thompson's lawyer should have seen the red flags.

Helen MacMurray represented the United States Navy Veterans Association for nearly three years but was never allowed to meet or speak with any of the charity's dozen directors, more than 80 officers or 60,000 members. Her sole contact was with "Commander" Thompson.

He told MacMurray, Ohio's former top charity regulator, he didn't solicit in certain states because they required his charity to submit financial audits, something Thompson refused to do.

And when a Times story accused Navy Veterans of having offices that were no more than mail drops, Thompson sent his lawyer a photo to prove otherwise: of a UPS store in Tampa with a Navy Veterans' logo taped to the wall.

Now Thompson, 66, is on trial on charges of fraud, money laundering and theft. His charity raised more than $100 million nationwide but gave little assistance to veterans. Even Thompson's identity was discovered to be stolen.

On Monday, his former lawyer spent 90 minutes describing her unusual relationship to the organization and the only real person behind it, Bobby Thompson.

"Every time I suggested I should meet with someone else from the organization, it was never granted," said MacMurray, who has a law firm in the Columbus area.

From October 2007 through the end of her contract with the charity group in July 2010, MacMurray received more than $275,000 in legal fees.

Thompson, who faces up to 40 years in prison on the state charges, listened quietly during the first day of testimony in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. Looking pale and gaunt in a baggy black suit, he jotted notes to his court-appointed attorney Joseph Patituce. Black binders were stacked in a 2-foot pile across the defense table and onto the floor like cordwood.

During MacMurray's testimony, the prosecutor's reference to an exhibit would send Patituce rummaging through the binders. Though Thompson has been in jail awaiting trial since May 2012, he initially insisted on representing himself, only turning the case over to Patituce in late August.

During opening statements earlier in the day, the prosecutor had told the jury that "patriotism, deception and greed" led to the charges and that Thompson was "simply a thief who could not tell the truth."

Thompson vanished after the Times expose of his charity, using fake IDs to evade authorities for nearly two years. When he was caught by U.S. Marshals in Portland, Ore., he had the key to a storage unit with nearly $1 million cash and dozens of stolen identities.

Following the Times series, several states began investigating the charity. The most aggressive was Ohio, which pursued criminal charges against Thompson. Ohio residents had donated more than $3 million to Navy Veterans.

Ohio prosecutor Brad Tammaro said the defendant's life initially came apart in the mid 1980s when the U.S. Army refused twice to promote him to the rank of major and he was honorably discharged. Thompson, a Harvard-trained lawyer whose real name is John Donald Cody, then opened a law firm in Sierra Vista, Ariz. He abandoned the business and disappeared in 1985; he was later charged with stealing nearly $100,000 from a client's account and was put on the FBI's most wanted list.

He reappeared in 1998 as Bobby Thompson, the man on trial for running Navy Veterans from a rundown duplex in Tampa.

But Thompson's defense attorney told the jury that his client's military records show he had top secret clearance and that if he was able to hide from authorities, it was only because he had high-level connections.

Patituce also showed jurors enlarged photos of the Navy Veterans' founder with former President George W. Bush, saying Thompson was well known to people in the White House.

"If a man is in as much trouble with the government, how does he get that close to the president, at least six times?" he asked.

Far from stealing Navy Veterans' donations, Patituce said, his client gave more than $300,000 to mostly Republican political candidates.

There was also a reason Thompson had checks from the charity's accounts made out to cash, his lawyer said. "Have you ever tried to give a homeless veteran a check?" he asked.

Before the jury heard from Navy Veterans' lawyer, the prosecutor called the man he referred to as the "bump in the road" that led to the charity's collapse: Jeff Testerman, the retired Times reporter who exposed the group in a series of stories in March 2010.

Testerman said he and Times researcher John Martin had used numerous databases to try to track down dozens of purported officers and directors of the charity, only to come up empty-handed.

"How many names were you able to attach a real person to?" the prosecutor asked Testerman.

"One," Testerman replied. "Comm. Thompson."

"And do you see that person in this court?"

"Yes," Testerman said, pointing to the defendant, who raised his hand in a slight wave.

Testerman, a longtime investigative reporter for the Times, was ordered to testify over the newspaper's legal objections to his subpoena.

On cross-examination, Patituce attacked Testerman's expertise, noting he was not trained as a forensic accountant and suggesting a "confidential source" tipped him off to Navy Veterans.

"You want this jury to believe you just happened to stop by Thompson's office?" Patituce asked, referring to the only meeting between his client and the reporter, which took place in August 2009.

"I had no confidential source," Testerman said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at khundley@tampabay.com.

Lawyers offer vastly different portraits of Bobby Thompson during Navy Vets trial 10/07/13 [Last modified: Monday, October 7, 2013 11:51pm]

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