TAMPA — Lt. Cmdr. Bobby Thompson was under the gun.
A newspaper was about to report that his charity, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, which reported annual income of $22 million and tens of thousands of members, appeared to consist of just one person — him.
Thompson said the group's members are real and doing good deeds.
To show that, he could draw on what was supposed to be a coast-to-coast network of volunteers: 66,939 association members, 41 state chapters and dozens of officers, spending millions upon millions for gifts to veterans, military men and their families.
But rather than use any of them to demonstrate the group's good deeds, Thompson looked for stand-ins. He found them at the office of Donald E. Phillips, a Tampa developer and political power broker.
Phillips, a native of Raleigh, N.C., relocated the headquarters of Phillips Development & Realty from North Carolina to Tampa seven years ago. He gave generously to campaigns, established a committee to screen and endorse candidates and made himself a go-to guy for conservative politicians.
Phillips' own political point man was his company's governmental affairs director, Michael Ciftci. The 26-year-old handled political legwork, including pickup and delivery of checks to favored candidates.
Ciftci said that he met Thompson at a 2008 Tampa fundraiser for John McCain and that they have talked regularly since. Late last year Thompson asked for some recruits to attend some political events the Navy Veterans group was involved in. Ciftci said he gave Thompson the names of two friends: Ciftci's old roommate and a colleague at Phillips Development.
Soon, photos of Ciftci and the two friends began finding their way to prominent positions on the website of the Navy Veterans Association. The captions did not identify them by name. Instead, here was "an Association member'' presenting a van to a U.S. Army sergeant wounded in Afghanistan, there were "Association representatives" meeting with the prime minister of Haiti. Navy Veterans "members" were shown meeting with a congressman, with foreign dignitaries and with a candidate for Florida attorney general.
The no-name stand-ins helped lend the appearance of an influential, hard-working organization.
In March, the St. Petersburg Times published "Under the radar,'' stories that asked why a months-long search for the 85 Navy Veterans officers listed on federal tax returns turned up only one: Thompson.
After the newspaper started asking questions, Thompson cleared out of the duplex he had lived in for 10 years. He left his landlord no forwarding address.
Now Florida and other states have opened investigations into Thompson's group. And Phillips, who introduced Thompson around at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota two years ago, is second-guessing his alliance with "the commander."
"In politics, it's a tricky thing when you put your arm around someone,'' Phillips said. "When something like this happens, what a sick feeling you get. It really crushes you."
The Navy Veterans Association declined to comment. Via e-mail, general counsel Helen Mac Murray said her client wanted to note that the Times' requests for comment "continue to be laced with your usual, but highly unusual for a legitimate reporter, substantial amounts of falsehoods and sheer editorialized argumentation masquerading as a factual presentation. Thank You."
Hunting big game
Phillips is a college dropout who at age 44 owns a development company that boasts projects valued at $500-million. Among them are a SportsPlex in Charlotte, luxury apartments near International Plaza in Tampa and the Mosaic high-rise in Houston, which sought bankruptcy protection last year.
He made a 2009 list of Tampa Bay's "most stylish men." His tastes run to aviation, big-game hunting and fine cigars. He paid $2 million for a three-story home in South Tampa's Westshore Yacht Club neighborhood. He also owns the Golf Club at Bridgewater in Lakeland.
Thompson lived across town and a world away in Ybor City, in a $600-a-month duplex across from the back of a cigar factory.
Thompson founded the nonprofit U.S. Navy Veterans Association in 2002 and, three years earlier, a political action committee called U.S. Navy Veterans for Good Government. Renamed NAVPAC, it raised $146,228 and gave mostly to conservative Republicans. The PAC and the nonprofit shared office space in the other unit of Thompson's duplex.
Phillips said he met Thompson at a fundraiser about three years ago. His Navy Veterans group seemed to have a long reach, Phillips said, and Thompson appeared well-connected. His Christmas card pictured him shaking hands with President George W. Bush with the greeting, "Best wishes from your friends, Bobby and George."
Phillips established himself in Florida politics. Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority in 2007 and to the board of Enterprise Florida last year.
He started Alliance for Florida, dedicated to supporting the "brightest leaders and best business policy for the Tampa Bay community." The committee raised almost $84,000, and paid Ciftci $26,451 to run it.
Phillips, the young developer on the rise, and Thompson, the ponytailed, 64-year-old leader of the Navy Veterans nonprofit, were in synch politically.
Since coming to Tampa, Phillips made at least $191,572 in personal contributions. In the same period, Thompson contributed at least $181,959, and to many of the same candidates, including U.S. Rep. Connie Mack and Sens. McCain, Elizabeth Dole and Norm Coleman.
Phillips and Thompson connected at the GOP convention in Minnesota and other political events. "Commander Thompson had quite a command,'' Phillips said. "He was always cheerful and charitable, and we saw him as a very credible supporter of causes we believe in."
After questions from the Times in October, NAVPAC was shut down, and the Navy Veterans group said Thompson resigned as director. A few weeks later, Ciftci said, Thompson called, looking for the stand-ins.
Ciftci suggested Josh Berger, a 29-year-old who worked for Phillips' development company and helped out at political events.
On Christmas Eve, Berger stood for the photo of a van being presented to a disabled Army sergeant at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital. The photo was posted on the Navy Veterans website.
The caption did not identify Berger by name but as one of the "Association members" that presented the vehicle.
The Foxx reception
More pictures intended for posting to the Navy Veterans website were snapped at a reception at Phillips' new home on Jan. 15.
The guest of honor was U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who Phillips has known for years and "thinks the world of."
The reception was billed as an event "in support of American-Turkish diplomatic relations.'' Foxx's son-in-law is Turkish, as is Ciftci's family. Ciftci worked as a consultant in the 2007 Turkish parliamentary elections.
Among the 200 guests was 26-year-old Patrick Thacker, another of the stand-ins Ciftci had given Thompson. Thacker is Ciftci's former roommate.
His business card identified him as an intern for the Public Information Office of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. The M Street address on the card — the group's national headquarters in Washington, D.C. — is a mailbox at a UPS store.
Thacker said he was given the business cards and instructed to present one to Foxx on Thompson's behalf.
"It was sort of a friend-of-a-friend kind of favor" for Ciftci, Thacker said.
The business cards "gave it an air of officiality,'' Thacker said. "The work we got was to go to certain functions. I was given business cards and we were to take some pictures at the events and pass the pictures along to Mrs. Rubin."
Rubin is Karmika Rubin, a lawyer who has worked for Thompson.
Also attending the Foxx reception was Nancy Contreras, then 19. Her mother is Blanca Contreras, a former citrus processing plant employee who has appeared at several Navy Veterans check presentations.
According to Thacker, Thompson sent Nancy Contreras to the Foxx reception to deliver a message to Pam Bondi, the former Hillsborough prosecutor who was running for Florida attorney general.
The current attorney general, Bill McCollum, opened an investigation of the Navy Veterans Association after the Times stories. Bondi could inherit the case if she wins the race to replace him.
"Nancy was sent with a message from Commander Thompson to give to Pam Bondi,'' Thacker said, "that if there was anything the Navy Veterans could do for her, just to let Thompson know."
Bondi declined comment.
A few weeks after the Foxx reception, the Times left voice mail messages for Nancy Contreras and Karmika Rubin seeking comment on their work for Thompson's group. That brought a warning from the Navy Veterans general counsel. Mac Murray said the messages had caused both women "emotional distress" and further attempts to contact them might be regarded as criminal "stalking."
At the reception, Thacker got his photo taken standing next to Foxx. The picture made its way to the Navy Veterans website and was captioned: "Association members meet with U.S. Congresswoman."
Thacker told the Times he is not a member of the Navy Veterans Association, he was not paid for his work and he never met any Navy Veterans officers, including Thompson. He said he has moved to Virginia and "cut ties" with the group.
Mission to Haiti
After the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January, Ciftci and Berger joined a 100-person relief mission organized in Miami.
Ciftci announced the trip on the Phillips Development & Realty company website: "I feel strongly about using my personal time and resources to make a difference in Haiti."
"We are proud of Mr. Ciftci for his noble efforts,'' Phillips said in a press release.
Berger, who says he worked as a U.S. Navy intelligence collection specialist during four years in the service, wore a blue T-shirt with a Navy logo, and told others he was with the Navy Veterans.
Like Thacker, Berger said he was supplied with business cards that made him a public information office intern for the Navy Veterans Association. Also like Thacker, Berger said he reported to Rubin and to Blanca Contreras.
The relief effort was coordinated by Peter Groverman, a Villanova law student from Miami. Groverman said the Navy Veterans made a $1,000 donation via credit card to the Haiti mission and that Berger and Ciftci handed out food and water and helped with reconstruction around an orphanage.
The Navy Veterans website featured a news story and photos of the Haiti trip. A photo of Berger and Ciftci with the Haitian prime minister was captioned: "As part of its mission, Association representatives had the privilege of meeting and speaking with the prime minister of Haiti, Jean-Max Bellerive."
But Frank Amedia, a pastor who was part of the relief effort, said they had no such audience. "The prime minister came to the airport when we were there. It was a chance meeting,'' Amedia said. "We shook hands."
Pastor Amedia wrote an e-mail to Berger to confirm his participation in the mission and to provide a narrative of the work in Haiti. A portion of Amedia's correspondence was lifted word for word, put under the byline of a Navy Veterans news correspondent and posted on the group's website.
Ciftci said Thompson paid for Berger's trip to Haiti, but not Ciftci's. "Thompson didn't underwrite me,'' Ciftci said, adding he thought it was unfair to label him a Navy Veterans representative.
Berger was not comfortable talking about his work for the Navy Veterans.
"I handed in my resignation when the stories broke (in the Times)," Berger said. "I'd rather not speak about it now. I should have a lawyer. The bottom line, if you're taking money for veterans and using it (to help politicians), I can't be part of something like that."
The office of the New Mexico attorney general, unable to find a trace of the officers of the Navy Veterans chapter in that state, ordered the group to stop soliciting donations there. The attorney general offered to let the charity submit "any information" that would "support the legitimacy of your organization's activities here."
The Navy Veterans responded with just one exhibit: the story and photos from its website about the mission to Haiti.
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.