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Florida to Navy Veterans charity: Cease fundraising immediately

TAMPA — The activities of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association "constitute immediate, serious dangers to the public welfare," the state of Florida says in a new order, and the same order says the group must cease operations immediately.

Last week the state gave the nonprofit 21 days to appeal its order to cease operations, but on Tuesday the state filed an emergency order that said it cannot wait.

"We have cited quite a lot of misrepresentation by this group. We think consumers would be hurt if this group continues to be allowed to solicit funds," said Terence McElroy, a spokesman for Charles Bronson, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The emergency order immediately suspends the Navy Veterans' registration to solicit charitable donations in Florida. The order said the group has continued to solicit contributions under a registration "obtained by knowingly providing false or misleading information."

Bronson's emergency order was sent to officers of the Navy Veterans association never located by investigators, as well as to the group's general counsel and to three professional fund-raisers: Associated Community Services of Michigan, Community Support of Wisconsin and Charity Support Services.

The three companies keep 60 to 90 percent of every dollar collected and account for most of the $4.58 million the Navy Veterans Florida chapter said it brought in during 2008.

Helen Mac Murray, the Ohio attorney representing the Navy Veterans, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Bronson's original complaint came after state investigators tried to find Bill Abrams, commander of the Navy Veterans Florida chapter, Rob Ray, the chapter vice commander, and Dale West, the chapter vice president.

Abrams' address turned out to be a Hilton Hotel in Miami where no one by that name was registered. Ray's address was an Orlando condominium where no one by that name ever resided. West's address was a nonexistent address in Tarpon Springs.

Where the Navy Veterans officers are and what happened to all the money the charity collected remain the focus of an investigation by Florida consumer services officials.

Similar investigations sparked by a six-month investigation by the St. Petersburg Times are under way in New Mexico, Ohio, Hawaii, Virginia, Missouri and Oregon. U.S. Sen. Jim Webb has asked the Department of Veterans Affairs and the IRS to investigate.

Granted tax-exempt status when it was founded in Tampa in 2002, the group recently claimed nearly 67,000 members, dozens of officers in 41 state chapters, and income in excess of $22 million a year.

But its state offices are rented mailboxes and its multimillion-dollar expenses are mostly unaccounted for. The Times found a single officer, Bobby Thompson.

Thompson, who founded the organization, has represented himself as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve and as a sailor who served in Vietnam after taking someone else's identity to enlist in the Navy at age 15. No records have been found to corroborate his military service.

Thompson, 64, has contributed more than $181,000 in his own name to candidates around the country while living in a $600-a-month duplex in Ybor City. He lived there 10 years, but after the Times began asking questions, he moved out and left his landlord no forwarding address.

The Navy Veterans reported in the fall that Thompson had resigned his post as director of development. But this week, an expert on nonprofit tax matters that the Navy Veterans hired said Thompson continues to run it.

"That's fair to say, that he is in charge of the organization,'' said Darryll K. Jones, who said he previously assisted the Navy Veterans with an audit in a state chapter.

Jones said he could not disclose Thompson's location because Thompson had instructed him to keep it a secret.

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 charity: Cease fundraising immediately 06/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 23, 2010 10:56pm]
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