TAMPA — The story of Cmdr. Howard Bonifacio and the missing officers of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association has taken a new twist.
After a search for Bonifacio and other officials of the charity turned up nothing but "dirt and mesquite" last month, the New Mexico attorney general declared that the officers appeared to be fictional and ordered the Navy Veterans to cease all fundraising in that state.
That might have put the matter to rest, except the Navy Veterans chose to write the office of New Mexico Attorney General Gary King to explain the confusion about Bonifacio's address.
Now the attorney general has opened a formal investigation. A spokesman said he could not divulge details until "something becomes public, such as an indictment or a lawsuit."
On Navy Veterans tax returns, Bonifacio listed his home address at what turns out to be a vacant lot in Las Cruces, N.M.
A response explaining Bonifacio's incorrect address was sent to the attorney general April 20 and signed by Patsy Mii, listed on tax documents as the Navy Veterans joint compliance committee chair. Mii is one of 84 Navy Veterans officers the St. Petersburg Times tried to but could not find during a six-month search.
Mii's letter to New Mexico authorities said the Navy Veterans had convened a special inquiry at the group's national headquarters in Washington and determined Bonifacio "did not intend to defraud anyone."
To satisfy questions about whether Bonifacio exists, the Navy Veterans might have simply sent him in to see Elizabeth Korsmo, the assistant attorney general heading the investigation.
Bonifacio and the other officers "do exist,'' Mii's letter to Korsmo said. But they are "very much afraid of persons such as yourself."
Instead, the Navy Veterans said, the New Mexico chapter voted to shut down because of another fear: that the attorney general might file a lawsuit that could bankrupt the nonprofit.
Founded in Tampa and granted tax-exempt status in 2002, the Navy Veterans says that its national chapter and 41 state affiliates have nearly 67,000 members and income in excess of $22 million a year. But where the members are and where the money goes is a mystery.
In the months-long search for 85 Navy Veterans officers, the Times found just one: founder Bobby Thompson, who lived in an Ybor City duplex for a decade before clearing out when the Times began asking questions.
It was Thompson to whom the attorney general sent its questions about Bonifacio. The response, signed by Mii, said Bonifacio was a Navy veteran from the Korean War era who was "in his upper 70s and recently suffered a partial stroke."
It described him as a homeless veteran who was sleeping on the grounds of a church at 370 Boutz Road when the chapter was formed, who mistakenly gave organizers the address of 388 Boutz. The latter address was repeated on tax forms.
All the data on the tax returns was accurate, and Bonifacio signed them for four years, but he "did not review the address block for himself," the response from Mii said.
Asked to comment for this story, the association's general counsel, Helen Mac Murray, wrote: "My client requested that I respond by indicating that they grow weary over your continued attempts to create a story where none exists.
"The USNVA's position has not changed in that they believe that the responsibility and choice of what address to list is each individual officer's personal decision. If the officer chooses to list an office address of one of their business partnerships or a hotel they happen to be sleeping in that night, the USNVA does not believe that is an illegitimate address and no law prohibits such a choice."
Tax papers show the Navy Veterans took in $571,096 in New Mexico from 2005 through 2008. Bonifacio's chapter decided to go out of business, according to Mii's letter, because with just $8,102.89 in the bank, it faced "a potential legal liability" exceeding its current or future cash reserves.
The resolution dissolving the chapter said the remaining cash would be used to purchase "care kits" for troops from New Mexico stationed in Iraq. The chapter promised to send a care kit to Korsmo, too, but with this caveat:
"Please also note the actual kit the Chapter is providing you was meant for a needy New Mexican in our Armed Forces; it is provided because of your exorbitant requests for evidence of activities, and it is not meant for your personal use or enjoyment."
Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.org. John Martin can be reached at (813) 226-3372 or email@example.com