TAMPA — Armed with a search warrant, federal and state agents on Friday seized documents and computer records from the Clair-Mel home of residents who served as assistants to Bobby Thompson, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association director who vanished last month.
Criminal investigators from the IRS, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services arrived at the home at 2062 Balfour Circle on Friday morning and seized boxes of documents — some already shredded — and loaded them into an unmarked van.
The residence is listed as the home of 20-year-old Nancy Contreras. She and her mother, Blanca Contreras, 38, a former citrus processing plant employee, have been associates of Thompson and recently signed as Navy Veterans officers on registration papers in several states.
Kim Pennington, an IRS spokeswoman, confirmed that agents for the IRS, the VA and Florida Consumer Services obtained a warrant to search the home but said she could not comment on the investigation.
In May, following news reports of phantom officers and millions in donations that could not be accounted for, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia asked the IRS and the VA to investigate the Navy Veterans, a charity founded in Tampa in 2002 that has since reported receiving $99.6 million in tax-exempt income.
In June, Florida Consumer Services issued an emergency order to shut down all fundraising by the group in the state after finding the charity's officers were listed at phony or nonexistent addresses. An investigator for the office's law enforcement agency began asking around Tampa about individuals connected to the Navy Veterans.
That included Nancy and Blanca Contreras, who are described as volunteers for the Navy Veterans on the group's website. They started signing as officers of the Navy Veterans' state chapters several months ago, about the time the group's leader, Thompson, abandoned his Tampa home.
• On Nov. 12, Blanca Contreras signed papers to register the Navy Veterans in Washington state, listing herself as acting secretary of the state chapter.
• On Dec. 31, Blanca Contreras signed as acting secretary for the Connecticut chapter of the Navy Veterans, attesting to a resolution purportedly approved by directors in Hartford to dissolve the chapter because of declining membership.
• On Jan. 21, Blanca Contreras signed as acting vice president and Nancy Contreras as acting secretary on registration papers in Massachusetts.
• On Feb. 18, the notarized signatures of Blanca Contreras, as chief financial officer, and Nancy Contreras, as acting vice president and using her married name, were affixed to Navy Veterans papers in West Virginia.
The federal search warrant served in Tampa on Friday comes just 11 days after attorneys for the Navy Veterans received permission to withdraw from representing the charity after reporting that Thompson was the sole remaining director and could no longer be found. Thompson disappeared about June 20, according to attorneys at the Ohio law firm Mac Murray, Petersen & Shuster.
Officials in Florida, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia, Hawaii, Missouri, Oregon and New Hampshire are investigating the charity, which was set up and run from an Ybor City duplex rented by Thompson.
The Navy Veterans boasted that it took in $22.4 million a year, had a network of state offices nationwide and a slate of 85 directors and officers. But a Times investigation found that the office addresses were rented mailboxes, most of the charity's gifts could not be confirmed, and 84 of its 85 officers were nowhere to be found.
The 85th was Thompson, 64, who advanced various stories about his military service as a lieutenant commander with the U.S. Navy — none of which could be confirmed. After the Times started asking questions last year, Thompson cleared out of his duplex and left his landlord no forwarding address.
On the Navy Veterans website, the Contrerases are shown in ceremonial photographs, presenting checks and laying a wreath at a Navy memorial. They were described as association members but were never identified by name.
In January, Nancy Contreras was dispatched to a political reception to deliver a message from Thompson to Pam Bondi, the former Hillsborough County prosecutor now running for Florida attorney general, according to Patrick Thacker, a stand-in recruited by the Navy Veterans.
"Nancy was sent with a message from Cmdr. Thompson to give to Pam Bondi," Thacker told the Times, "that if there was anything the Navy Veterans could do for her, just to let Thompson know."
Before the Times published its stories on the Navy Veterans in March, the newspaper tried to reach Nancy Contreras and left a message on her cell phone. A day later, Navy Veterans attorney Helen Mac Murray wrote a Times attorney to complain that Contreras was "substantially distressed" by the message. Mac Murray warned that any future attempt to contact Contreras might constitute criminal "stalking."