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Florida to Navy Veterans: Cease and desist or see you in court

TAMPA — State regulators, after failing to find any office or officer of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association anywhere in Florida, filed an administrative complaint Wednesday declaring the charity to be unlawfully registered.

The complaint by Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson offers to settle the issue if the group agrees to the revocation of its license to solicit contributions in the state.

"We believe this group ought to be stripped of their license to operate,'' said Terence McElroy, a spokesman for Bronson. "Our investigation is ongoing, but our first step is to put these people out of the fundraising business."

The complaint gives the Navy Veterans 21 days to request a hearing.

Beyond Wednesday's civil action, investigators continue to examine how the Navy Veterans charity "was set up, what activities it's been involved in and what it's been doing with its proceeds," McElroy said.

The St. Petersburg Times sought comment on the Florida administrative complaint from Helen Mac Murray, the Ohio lawyer who is general counsel for the Navy Veterans. She replied: "My client will not comment on pending adjudicatory matters. They choose not to try these matters in the press.''

Founded in Tampa and granted tax-exempt status in 2002, the Navy Veterans says it has grown to nearly 67,000 members, has a national headquarters and 41 state chapters and uses income of more than $22 million a year for public education and assistance to veterans and active-duty military personnel.

But a Times investigation revealed that the group's officers, directors and auditors were nowhere to be found, its addresses were rented mailboxes or nonexistent places, and its charitable gifts were mostly undisclosed or unverifiable.

Investigators in Bronson's office said they came up empty in their search for the three Florida state chapter officers the group listed. The complaint filed Wednesday said:

• Bill Abrams, commander of the Navy Veterans Florida chapter, was listed at 1601 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami. That's the address of a Hilton Hotel, but no room number was provided for Abrams. The Times found no one by that name registered there.

• Vice Commander Rob Ray was listed at 20 W Lucerne Way, a high-rise condo in Orlando. But a check of the location "revealed that Mr. Ray does not currently reside there nor did he ever officially reside there," the state's complaint said.

• Vice President Dale West was shown living at 3266 Lake Pine Way E in Tarpon Springs, but the state's summary said "this physical address does not exist."

The state listed two other violations of Florida's registration requirements. The Navy Veterans said it had a "suite" as its principal place of business at 301 W Platt St. in Tampa, but that is a rented mailbox at a UPS store.

Consumer affairs investigators also found that the Navy Veterans provided no address for Abrams, the officer listed as having custody of charitable contributions and the responsibility for the final distribution of the money.

If the Navy Veterans refuses to relinquish its license and does not prevail in an administrative hearing, McElroy said, it faces a fine of $1,000 on each of the five counts.

The group's Florida chapter reported to the state that it brought in $4.58 million in 2008, relying for most of its income on a Michigan telemarketer, Associated Community Services. The state's copy of the fundraising contract, signed by Ray and Navy Veterans founder Bobby Thompson, shows the telemarketing company keeps 60 percent of every dollar collected in Florida.

Thompson, 64, was the only one of 85 officers of the charity the Times was able to locate in a six-month search. Thompson represented that he was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves, later saying he used a relative's name to enlist in the Navy at age 15 and served in Vietnam.

After the Times began asking questions, Thompson cleared out of the Ybor City duplex where he had lived for a decade and left his landlord no forwarding address.

Records show Thompson poured more than $181,000 into political contributions in his own name, including $500 to Bronson, and he helped operate a political action committee called NAVPAC that was shut down after the Times began its investigation.

New Mexico, Hawaii and Ohio have shut down the Navy Veterans on registration violations in their states; Virginia, Missouri and Oregon have ongoing investigations. Also, U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a Vietnam veteran who served as secretary of the Navy, has asked the Department of Veterans Affairs and the IRS to investigate.

Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3422. John Martin can be reached at jmartin@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3372.

Florida to Navy Veterans: Cease and desist or see you in court 06/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 11:30pm]
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