Three months after questions were first raised about the validity of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, Florida's commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Charles Bronson, is poised to ban the shady enterprise from raising money here. Now the state needs to pursue criminal charges against the group that began in Tampa. Millions of dollars reportedly raised from well-meaning Americans to help veterans is still unaccounted for and there's ample evidence the group has repeatedly misled the public to believe it performed good works.
Bronson filed an administrative complaint Wednesday that gives the so-called charity 21 days to respond to his allegations that it is unlawfully registered since his investigators could find no office or officer of the association in Florida. His office also said it was continuing the investigation. Attorney General Bill McCollum is also investigating.
Criminal charges can't come soon enough for a group that preyed on the best in Americans — loyalty to veterans — to raise untold sums of money. A six-month investigation by St. Petersburg Times writers Jeff Testerman and John Martin revealed in March that the group, despite reporting millions in fundraising to the IRS and claiming 66,000 members and chapters in 41 states, appeared to be a sham. The Times found only one of an alleged 85 officers, Bobby Thompson, who moved out of his rented duplex in Ybor City before the story ran.
Evidence of the group's duplicity has only grown since then as Testerman and Martin have discovered repeated contradictions between the group's claims and reality, from fake publicity photos to potentially fraudulent voter registration.
The latest insult to donors who forked over their hard-earned cash in the belief it would help veterans or active service members: The group posted supposed thank-you letters from soldiers and children on its website that had been lifted from other websites and altered.
Florida is behind other states — New Mexico, Hawaii and Ohio — that have already barred the group. Virginia, Missouri or Oregon are also investigating. U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary, has urged federal investigations by the IRS and Veteran's Affairs Department. But it's only fitting that Florida, where the group began and where so many veterans retire, should take the lead in finally bringing this group to account.