Was the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, which operated as a tax-exempt charity from a Tampa duplex, really a front that siphoned cash donated by the public and pumped it into the campaigns of politicians?
The evidence compiled by investigators fanning out across the country in search of the Navy Vets' fugitive founder, "Commander Bobby Thompson,'' suggests the answer is yes.
In Ohio, the Attorney General's Office has uncovered a series of money orders sent to political campaigns from individuals who don't exist. The contributions, to the campaigns of presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani and Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, list phony donors with addresses that turned out to be mailboxes rented by the Navy Veterans group.
In St. Petersburg, political blogger Peter Schorsch says he witnessed Thompson stuff $2,000 to $3,000 in cash into an envelope to be delivered to a Tampa Bay area politician. Schorsch says he told his story to agents from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation last month. He said he doesn't know which politician was to get the illegal cash.
In Tampa, Thompson set up a political action committee called U.S. Navy Veterans for Good Government, or NAVPAC. It reported receiving $146,228 and sent contributions to the campaigns of Giuliani, George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole and other conservative office-seekers.
Federal Election Commission records show the only donor to NAVPAC was Thompson, who investigators say stole his identity from a Washington state man named Bobby Thompson.
Using the man's name, Social Security number and date of birth, "Thompson'' made political donations at a rate that steadily increased after he established the Navy Veterans charity and hired telemarketing firms to finance its operation. By April 2010, Thompson's name had been used to make contributions totaling $208,829.
That included $55,500 to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in 2009, and $14,800 this year to Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, head of the tea party caucus — contributions made after a St. Petersburg Times investigation exposed the Navy Veterans charity.
How much money Thompson gave to politicians by using phony names and how much he funneled to campaigns in unreported cash are questions investigators are still trying to answer.
Armed with subpoenas for Tampa bank records, Ohio agents recently discovered that Thompson assistant Blanca Contreras, a former citrus-processing plant worker, received $416,000 from a Navy Veterans account in cash.
Her modest Clair-Mel home, raided by IRS agents in July, shows no sign of extravagant spending that the Navy Vets cash might have provided.
Thompson and Contreras have been indicted in Ohio on charges of racketeering, money laundering and theft of more than $1 million — money reportedly taken from Ohio residents by the fraudulent charity. Thompson is being sought on a nationwide warrant, his real name and whereabouts a mystery. Contreras, extradited to Ohio, is being held, with bail set at $2 million.
Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray has called the Navy Veterans a "sham charity" and "an elaborate hoax." He estimates Thompson's organizations collected more than $2.1 million in Ohio alone and defrauded as many as 100,000 Ohioans. Cordray says lots of cash — just how much is uncertain — went "not to veterans causes but was instead diverted to political campaigns."
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Cordray's office has released photographs of "Commander Thompson" snapped at political gatherings that show several of the nation's most powerful politicians standing beside the man with the phony identity who ran the phony Navy Veterans charity.
The photos show a smiling Thompson posing with President George W. Bush, Republican kingmaker Karl Rove, House Minority Leader John Boehner and then-presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.
One photo shows Bush flanked by Thompson and Barry S. Edwards, a political consultant who most recently worked on the re-election campaign of Darryl Rouson, a Pinellas attorney who's also the District 55 state representative. Rouson's firm worked as local counsel for the Navy Veterans group three years ago.
Edwards, like Schorsch, was interviewed last month by Ohio investigators who came to the Tampa Bay area to arrest Contreras and try to pick up Thompson's trail.
Edwards says he had visited Thompson's Ybor City duplex to pick up contribution checks for local candidates and had seen Thompson at perhaps 20 political fundraisers. He said the photo of him and Thompson with Bush was taken at a GOP fundraiser in Washington D.C. in 2008
Why did Thompson have access to the president?
"At the time, everybody thought he was a generous guy, a big donor,'' Edwards said. "It looked like he ran a huge enterprise for veterans."
Of news reports about Thompson's smoke-and-mirrors charity, Edwards said: "It's numbing. It's unbelievable that he concocted this whole thing, that people of prominence embraced him the way they did. It's just stunning."
Edwards said he had not seen the picture of Thompson with Rove, and when told about it, reacted with surprise: "Rove? Oh my God. He's a strategist. That would put the commander in a different category as someone who was not just some donor.''
A spokeswoman for Rove responded by e-mail to a question about the Navy Veterans and "Bobby Thompson'' pictured with the Republican strategist: "Karl is not familiar with the group or the individual. He knows several individuals named 'Robert Thompson,' but doesn't believe any of them are the same person you're referring to."
Schorsch, like Edwards, said he mingled with Thompson at political rallies, visited him at his duplex in Ybor City and saw the photos on his wall of Thompson standing with political luminaries, from the president to Gov. Charlie Crist to Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.
"I've seen the Rove picture,'' said Schorsch. "He had pictures of everybody.''
Agents from Ohio contacted Schorsch after reading on his blog that he knew where Thompson was hiding. Schorsch said after Thompson cleared out of his rented Tampa duplex last fall, Thompson called him from New York City, where he could get out of the country in an hour.
The New York location was on the money, according to Darryl Jones, a law professor at Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando. Jones is a former law partner of Rouson and a consultant the Navy Veterans hired at least twice.
Jones said he flew to New York in June, about the time a grand jury was looking into the Navy Veterans, and met Thompson at a hotel in the financial district.
"We met downstairs in the lobby where I was staying for two or three hours and had a drink,'' said Jones, who was interviewed recently by Ohio investigators. "He did appear to be worried.''
Thompson wanted Jones to produce a report that would fire back at the Times reports, which found that 84 of the 85 Navy Veterans officers listed on IRS tax forms did not appear to exist. Thompson was the only officer who could be found. He abandoned his Ybor City duplex after the newspaper raised questions suggesting the charity's officers and supposed 66,000 members were nonexistent.
Jones said that when they met in New York, Thompson assured him his nonprofit and its directors were legitimate.
Jones' response? "I told him that his engaging in political activity is not a problem," and that he should "fight back" against those questioning the integrity of his charity.
Now, in the wake of the Ohio indictments, Jones says, "I thought his name was Bobby Thompson. I thought he was some sort of a zealot, a flag waver. I was naive."
Nine states have begun inquiries into the Navy Veterans, but Ohio's Cordray has pursued the investigation with the most vigor.
Last Tuesday, Cordray lost his attorney general's job to Mike DeWine, a former U.S. senator who lost his congressional position in 2006.
In that campaign, DeWine received a $500 contribution from NAVPAC, the now-defunct committee set up by the man who called himself Bobby Thompson.