TAMPA — The U.S. Navy Veterans Association, now being investigated by two Florida agencies, placed a quarter-page ad in the Tampa Tribune Thursday urging veterans to continue donations to the group and making assurances that its fundraising is beyond reproach.
Though the nonprofit already has been shut down in one state, the ad says the Navy Veterans group continues to conduct activities for veterans across the United States. The ad features a color photograph showing a patient at James A. Haley VA Medical Center who benefited from a charitable gift last year. The patient is surrounded by 14 people, some of whom are described as members and officers of the Navy Veterans group who "really exist." None are identified.
The ad takes a slap at the St. Petersburg Times for stories published in March that revealed the nonprofit's members and officers are nowhere to be found and millions of dollars in charitable gifts are mostly undisclosed and unverifiable.
"A recent newspaper series attempted to poke holes in our operation," the ad says. "We want to assure you that we meet every standard in our fundraising efforts and the administration of the Association.
"This is America and our supporters know that character assassination is not the American way."
The ad says that all donations are "completely tax deductible" and provides a toll-free number for Charity Support Service, a Volusia County fundraiser that liquidates donated vehicles to provide funds for the Navy veterans.
That fundraiser is not currently registered with the state. Charity Support Service's president, Richard T. O'Daniel, registered in 2008, records show, but the registration expired in March of last year and has not been renewed as required by Florida's charitable solicitations law.
O'Daniel hung up on a reporter who called him Thursday.
Helen Mac Murray, general counsel for the Navy Veterans Association, did not immediately respond to e-mailed questions seeking comment.
Little money from the vehicle donation service has gone to the charity. Tax returns for 2008 show Charity Support Service kept $16,096 of the $18,656 it brought in that year, or 86 percent. Only $2,560 went to the veterans group.
Formed in Tampa and granted tax-exempt status in 2002, the Navy Veterans says it has grown from a handful of members to more than 66,000, maintains chapters in some 40 states and oversees annual income in excess of $22 million.
But in a six-month investigation, the Times was able to locate just one of 85 Navy Veterans officers or directors nationwide: Bobby Thompson, who helped found the group. When the newspaper began asking questions, Thompson cleared out of his Ybor City duplex and left his landlord no forwarding address.
After the stories were published, the New Mexico attorney general shut down the Navy Veterans chapter there, and the Florida attorney general and consumer services division opened their own investigations of the nonprofit.
Thompson, 64, has described himself as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, retired, and he has personally contributed more than $181,000 to political candidates around the country.
The Times reported that it was unable to document Thompson's military service, despite enlisting the help of the POW Network, a nonprofit veterans rights group expert at verifying military records.
A new posting on the Navy Veterans Web site provides a different version of Thompson's military service, saying that in the 1960s he "had to use a relative's ID" in order to join the U.S. Navy underage.
"While he did join for patriotic reasons, the fact is he did that, and it's done," the Web posting says. "Thompson does not regret joining; he does regret the fact that he may have broken the law to do so, and apologizes to any family member who might hold it against him."
Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.org. John Martin can be reached at (813) 226-3372 or email@example.com.