Florida officials need to quickly complete their investigation of the so-called U.S. Navy Veterans Association, because the list of outrages committed by this dubious organization is growing by the week. Several other states have banned the association, but for some inexplicable reason it still operates with impunity in the Sunshine State.
The latest offense: To prove that it sends care packages to American troops overseas, the association posts soldiers' thank-you letters on its website. But at least some of those thank-you notes were copied from the website of another organization and were altered to appear as though they were written to the Navy Veterans Association.
St. Petersburg Times staff writers Jeff Testerman and John Martin have been digging into the Navy Veterans Association, and since March they have reported that:
• The association claims to have 85 officers and more than 66,000 members, but in months of searching, the Times could find only one, association founder Bobby Thompson, who moved out of his rented Ybor City duplex and disappeared after the Times began asking questions.
• The association claims to operate chapters in 41 states, but the Times discovered the addresses for chapter offices were rented mailboxes, including the "national headquarters" in Washington.
• The tax-exempt association, which reaches donors through telemarketing, reports an annual income of more than $22 million and claims that in 2008, it spent more than $8 million on care packages. But the association will not provide documentation, just points to the thank-you letters on its website, navyvets.org.
The Times reported Wednesday that some of those letters were nearly identical to letters posted earlier on the websites anysoldier.com and anysailor.com, which connect soldiers and sailors with Americans who want to write to troops or send them packages. When the newspaper contacted some of those letter writers, they confirmed they never wrote letters to the Navy Veterans Association, never got packages from them, and their letters were changed to look like they were written to the Navy Veterans Association.
The copying and altering of letters appears to be a cynical ploy to make the group seem legitimate to potential donors. Too much about the Navy Veterans Association reeks of potential fraud, which prompts the question: Why is the group still allowed to operate and collect donations in Florida?
Following the Times reports, the attorneys general of New Mexico, Hawaii and Ohio barred the group from their states, and Missouri and Virginia are investigating. Former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, now a U.S. senator from Virginia, is urging the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs to investigate Thompson's group.
Florida also is checking out the group but appears to be moving slowly. An aggressive approach is warranted because Thompson, wherever he is, and his association, if it even exists, are continuing to grab donations from compassionate people led to believe their money is going for a good cause. By every indication, that is not the case.