COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio attorney general's multi-state case against a man accused of fraud after collecting as much as $100 million in the name of Navy veterans doesn't address the man's donations to a who's who of mostly Republican politicians, including the attorney general himself.
The political donations tied to the man who calls himself Bobby Thompson, and to the United States Navy Veterans Association, his Tampa-based charity, are "kind of a sidebar to the scam," Attorney General Mike DeWine said. Recipients included George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and other high-profile politicians.
"That's not really an essential part of proving the elements of the crime of him taking this money," DeWine said.
But investigating the political side of Thompson's case would seem "pretty basic due diligence," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks the use of political donations.
"Here's really serious fraud and potential corruption," she said. "Who knows what could surface in an investigation, but you wonder with somebody who is willing to break the rules so egregiously whether he had help and whether he had elicited any promises in exchange for his support."
Thompson — whom authorities have identified as Harvard-trained lawyer and former military intelligence officer John Donald Cody — sits in a Cleveland jail awaiting trial this month. DeWine's latest annual report dubs it "one of the highest-profile cases in the history of the Ohio Attorney General's Office."
Under the heading "Lifetime fugitive meets his match," the write-up stresses the "vast amounts of information from law enforcement and public sources" collected and the "financial records, account statements, and tax returns" analyzed.
Nowhere does DeWine mention that hundreds of thousands of dollars in Thompson's cash was donated personally and through his Navy Vets charity or its political action committee, NAVPAC, to more than 50 mostly Republican candidates in 16 states.
Among the beneficiaries, campaign finance filings show, were Bush; presidential contenders Romney, Bachmann, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani; former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and former North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole; former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist; and New York Assemblyman James Tedisco.
"It's almost a Hall of Fame of politicians in the news today," said Jeff Testerman, a retired Tampa Bay Times reporter who broke stories on Thompson that led to Ohio's pursuit of the case.
When they learned of allegations against Thompson, many recipients passed the contributions on to charities.
Testerman, whose newspaper is challenging his being called as a journalist witness, said delving into Thompson's political giving could help explain what motivated his alleged fraud.
"It should become a political sideshow," Testerman said. "Because, as everyone who's looked into this knows, Thompson greased the palms of every politician that he felt like at the time, going back a number of years to Mr. DeWine."
Thompson disappeared for almost two years after his 2010 indictment on theft, money laundering and other charges. He was tracked and dramatically arrested last year in Portland, Ore., where agents and deputy marshals found him with fake IDs and a suitcase containing $980,000 in cash.
DeWine said the crimes of which Thompson is accused can be proved without delving deeply into his political giving — though he says he's allowing investigators to take the case wherever it leads. He would not comment on whether politicians, political fundraisers or telemarketers who dealt with Thompson were being questioned, but court filings indicate they have not been.
DeWine said he believes photos Thompson had taken with high-profile Republicans such as Bush, House Speaker John Boehner and GOP strategist Karl Rove were used to soften up potential donors.
"He's the ultimate flimflam artist and, if he can give himself some credibility by having a picture with the President of the United States, I'm sure that's what he was doing," he said. "He did the same thing by making up names to put on his board."
A message seeking comment was left with Thompson's attorney.
Thompson had a number of connections to Ohio. Besides Boehner, he gave to almost every member of the state's GOP congressional delegation, and to former state Attorneys General Jim Petro and Betty Montgomery. He also got himself an Ohio-based lawyer, Montgomery's law partner Helen Mac Murray. Records show Navy Vets paid their firm more than $277,000 in legal fees.
DeWine picked Montgomery for his transition team in 2010. That was at a point after Mac Murray had discussed her concerns about Thompson with the Ohio attorney general's office and after Montgomery herself had met and represented Thompson in an Internal Revenue Service audit in Connecticut.
DeWine said he was unaware of Montgomery's contact with Thompson at that time, and Montgomery said information about the state's case against Thompson wasn't shared with her during DeWine's transition.
"I did not discuss details of the 'Bobby Thompson' case with AG DeWine or his staff because 'Bobby Thompson' was not my client and I wasn't working on anything except helping respond to an IRS audit," she said in an email.
Thompson and his entities also gave to current and former attorneys general in Virginia, Florida and Washington, records show.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a candidate for governor, received the largest single known sum from Thompson, $55,500 — money he ultimately donated to legitimate veterans' charities.
Former Virginia state Sen. Patsy Ticer, a Democrat, received $1,000 in 2009. One of the few non-Republicans to get Thompson's money, Ticer introduced legislation to exempt his and similar veterans organizations from state regulatory oversight. The bill was passed and signed before reports questioning the validity of Thompson's charity. The legislation was later repealed.
DeWine received $1,000 from Thompson during his unsuccessful U.S. Senate re-election bid in 2006. That same year, Thompson also gave at least $8,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which helps elect GOP senators.
DeWine says he wasn't aware of the contribution at the time. He said he never returned his contribution because his Senate campaign was not functioning at the time of Thompson's indictment.
Cuccinelli recently reached a settlement with a fundraising company employed by Thompson's fraudulent charity. If approved, it will require Associated Community Services Inc. to pay more than $65,000 in refunds and penalties. ACS admits no wrongdoing.