Second of two parts
It's an important rule of thumb for organizations the IRS has certified as tax-exempt nonprofits: They should be nonpartisan and refrain from interfering in political contests.
Bobby Thompson, the voice of the IRS-certified, nonprofit U.S. Navy Veterans Association, made clear he knows it: "It's simple,'' he said in an interview. "We do not make endorsements or political contributions."
But Thompson has mixed his nonprofit with his personal politics, which are passionately held and backed by cash.
He contributed his own money three times to the campaigns of Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White. In September, Thompson wrote to Les Miller, who is running against White. Sent under the letterhead of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, the letter convinced Miller he was being asked to drop his campaign and back White.
More than 10 years ago, Thompson helped organize U.S. Navy Veterans for Good Government, later called NAVPAC. That group contributed to dozens of politicians around the country.
The Federal Elections Commission requires that a PAC disclose the name of anybody who contributes $50 or more. In the last seven years, NAVPAC reported raising $146,228 but never disclosed a single donor other than Thompson. He was listed as contributing $1,455 worth of office space.
In an e-mailed response on behalf of NAVPAC, the Navy Veterans Association said NAVPAC has 16,000 members, so its funding "could easily have been accomplished with an average contribution a year of $25 by 1,000 members" since starting.
For six years, the PAC shared the office side of a duplex in Ybor City with the nonprofit Navy Veterans Association, a $600-a-month rental paid for by Thompson that adjoined his apartment.
On FEC documents from 1999 through 2005, Thompson's name, his address or his phone number was listed as NAVPAC's.
The PAC has supported candidates across America, and Thompson has opened his personal checkbook to at least 10 of the same politicians, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman's campaign for state Senate and the winning Virginia gubernatorial candidate in 2009, Bob McDonnell.
In an e-mail from an attorney for the Navy Veterans Association, the group said: "Mr. Thompson's political contributions came from nowhere other than his personal funds."
NAVPAC had been in existence since 1999 when the St. Petersburg Times began asking questions about the Navy Veterans Association and the PAC. Two months after the first questions, NAVPAC shut down and the balance of its cash, $16,595.35, was sent to the nonprofit Navy Veterans Association. Also, on the association's Web site, Thompson's name was taken off the board of directors.
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The Navy Veterans Association said Thompson has met personally with political figures ranging from Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio to Gov. Charlie Crist to former President George W. Bush. Two Christmases ago, he sent friends pictures of himself next to Bush.
A photo of Thompson with Iorio was tacked to the front of the unpretentious duplex in Ybor City where Thompson lived and worked. Half of the duplex was his home, the other half was an office that did double-duty for NAVPAC and for the Navy Veterans nonprofit. Thompson helped found both organizations.
He was NAVPAC's first treasurer. The PAC has reported contributing $96,114 to the campaigns of at least 32 candidates, including Bush, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami and former U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina.
In the past five years, Thompson has made personal contributions of at least $181,950. Local recipients included White and Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee. National recipients included Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain, all former presidential candidates.
Thompson gave $78,375 last year, including three checks totaling $55,500 to Kenneth Cuccinelli, who was elected Virginia attorney general in November. (Virginia does not limit campaign contributions.) Thompson was the second-highest individual contributor to Cuccinelli, a Republican who said while campaigning that he questioned whether President Barack Obama had been born in the United States. After Cuccinelli was elected, he said his office would sue the federal government if an Obama-backed health care overhaul is enacted.
Thompson, who says he received no compensation as a key officer of the nonprofit Navy Veterans Association, was asked about his donations to politicians and where his funds came from.
Per his directions, this question and all others were put in writing and sent through the group's general counsel, Helen Mac Murray, in Ohio.
The association's e-mailed reply mentioned that Thompson had investments, none of which he would identify except Media General, which owns the Tampa Tribune.
In 2007, after seven years of using Thompson's address, NAVPAC changed its address to a rented mailbox on Dale Mabry Highway and listed a new treasurer, Bill Meyers.
If there were other money questions about the PAC, the Navy Veterans advised, Meyers was the one to contact.
Several calls to Meyers at the NAVPAC number in Tampa, telephone number (813) 274-4970, got this recorded message: "Due to the high volume of calls, no one is available right now to take your call."
Messages left were not returned, and Meyers' e-mail address on NAVPAC's Web site is a closed account. He didn't answer a letter sent to the PAC's mailbox.
Other than Thompson, the Times could not find anyone associated with NAVPAC.
The PAC shut down Oct. 12.
The Times posed a series of questions about NAVPAC, but never received any response from the political action committee. Instead, the Navy Veterans supplied responses.
In a letter to the Times, the association offered an explanation for why NAVPAC went out of business.
"NAVPAC dissolved, by the way, we believe, because it was unsuccessful over time, and long before they ever heard of you, in raising funds. We are informed, however, that NAVPAC's former Board did believe that your newest attack on them would have chilled further their ability to raise funds."
NAVPAC's Web site went dark, taking with it a political message describing President Obama as "the voice of fascism, taken directly from the likes of Mussolini and Castro."
NAVPAC's recording remains, saying no one is available "due to the high volume of calls."
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In late December, after the Times started asking questions, Thompson cleared out of the Ybor City duplex he had lived in for a decade and, according to his landlord, left no forwarding address.
Wherever he is, he continues to contribute. On Jan. 6, he gave $1,000 to Steve Hunt, a Navy veteran running for the state Senate in Virginia.
Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Researcher John Martin can be reached at (813) 226-3372 or email@example.com.