The state of Ohio is doing the public a service by following the money behind the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, a Tampa-based charity whose founder is being sought on corruption, theft and money laundering charges. Now Ohio investigators have unearthed evidence of fraudulent donations to political campaigns. Authorities need to determine whether the group committed organized election fraud. And Florida has a responsibility to take a lead role in the investigation. Florida not only hosted the nonprofit, some of its leaders' political campaigns received Navy Veterans' tainted donations.
Authorities across the country are exploring whether the tax-exempt charity, which raised money under the auspices of helping veterans, was actually a front. Ohio found money orders sent to political campaigns from people who don't exist, and the addresses for the phony donors turned out to be mailboxes rented by the Navy Veterans group. Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray has called the veterans group a "sham charity" and an "elaborate hoax." He estimated the group collected more than $2.1 million in Ohio alone and defrauded as many as 100,000 Ohioans.
St. Petersburg Times staff writers Jeff Testerman and John Martin, who exposed the veterans group in a series of articles this year, disclosed in a report Monday that the group's fugitive founder set up a political action committee that received and donated money to political campaigns. Federal election records show "Commander Bobby Thompson" was the only donor to the PAC. The donations steadily increased after Thompson hired telemarketing firms; by April, Thompson's name had been used to make contributions totaling $208,829.
Investigators say "Thompson" stole his identity from a man with that name in Washington state. He is being sought on a nationwide warrant. A former associate from Hillsborough County was extradited to Ohio to face corruption charges. Cordray said last month that his office's examination of bank records showed that the shipment of money to politicians was "bigger than we thought — and the more we look at it, the more it stinks."
Nine states have launched investigations into the veterans group, but none have pursued the organization as aggressively as Ohio. Florida needs to turn up the heat.
The group had its base in Ybor City, where under the state's somnolent watch, it raised a reported $99.6 million since 2002. Thompson contributed thousands of dollars to the Republican Party of Florida and the very state officials whose agencies oversee charitable operations. Attorney General Bill McCollum, who received $1,080, and state Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Charles Bronson, who received $500, both opened investigations into the group after published reports by the Times.
Now it's likely up to their successors, Attorney General-elect Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner-elect Adam Putnam (who received $1,000 in recent years for his congressional and agriculture commissioner campaigns), to signal they'll give this case the priority it demands on behalf of every duped Florida donor. The veterans group should never have been allowed to operate so far under the radar, and it is time for Florida to help clean up the mess.