TAMPA — Florida consumer services officials confirmed Wednesday that they are investigating the state chapter of the United States Navy Veterans Association, a charity whose registered officers aren't where they say they are.
"We opened an investigation earlier this month largely based on your reporting on this organization," Terence McElroy, a spokesman for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Charles Bronson, told the St. Petersburg Times. "We will begin by going through their paperwork, looking at their financials and paying a visit to one or more of their principals. And we'll see where it takes us.''
The Times published stories last month on the Navy Veterans Association, a nonprofit organization formed in Tampa and granted tax-exempt status in 2002. The group says it has nearly 66,000 members and raises $22.4 million annually nationwide.
But the Times investigation revealed that its officers, directors and auditors were nowhere to be found, its addresses were either rented mailboxes or nonexistent places, and its charitable gifts were mostly undisclosed and unverifiable.
McElroy said that if consumer services officials find fraud or deception involving the Navy Veterans' Florida chapter, the matter could be referred for a criminal investigation.
The group, through its general counsel, Ohio lawyer Helen Mac Murray, said it had not heard from Bronson's office and maintained there was no truth to any of the allegations raised by the Times.
"My client has not been contacted to date by the Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services but will respond fully to the Commissioner if in fact such contact is made,'' Mac Murray wrote in an e-mailed response to the Times. "My client's position remains unchanged that all of the allegations made in all of the Times' articles on the Association and its local chapters are false."
Florida registration papers for the Navy Veterans list four officers, but the newspaper could not find any of them:
• Bill Abrams, Florida chapter commander, of 1601 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami. The address is for the Hilton Hotel in downtown Miami. Abrams is not a registered guest there.
• Dale West, Florida chapter vice president, of 3266 Lake Pine Way E in Tarpon Springs. The address is for vacant land next to a Tarpon Springs condo.
• Rob Ray, Florida chapter vice commander, of 20 W Lucerne Circle in Orlando. The address is for a high-rise condo. There is no owner by that name at the condominium.
• Bob Thompson, Florida chapter chief financial officer, of 1626 E 17th Ave. in Tampa. Thompson, a founder of the Navy Veterans, lived at the duplex at this address in Ybor City for about 10 years and was interviewed in person by a Times reporter once. After the newspaper started asking questions about his charity, he cleared out of the duplex and left his landlord no forwarding address.
Thompson used one-half of his rented duplex as offices for the Navy Veterans and an associated political action committee called NAVPAC. It's not clear what happened to the charity's records after he moved out late last year.
Every charity registered in Florida is required to keep accurate records of its activities for three years. The state's charitable solicitation law requires that those records be made available to regulators, without subpoena, within 10 working days of a request by consumer services officials.
The Florida chapter of the Navy Veterans brought in $4.58 million in 2008, according to state records, and relied on a Michigan telemarketing company, Associated Community Services, for much of its income. The state's copy of the contract shows signatures by Thompson and Ray and says the professional fundraiser was to receive 60 percent of each dollar collected.
Thompson helped form NAVPAC and was the only disclosed donor to the committee, which shut down in October. In his own name, Thompson made political contributions of at least $181,000, including $500 to Bronson in 2006 and $500 in 2009 to Adam Putnam, a Republican congressman from Bartow now running for Florida commissioner of agriculture and consumer services.
The New Mexico attorney general, which regulates charities in that state, this month ordered the Navy Veterans chapter there to cease all fundraising activities and operations after finding that addresses for the nonprofit's officers there were "fictional."
Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.org.