State regulators in Florida and New Mexico are smartly turning their attention to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, a Tampa-born charity of questionable background. New Mexico ordered the nonprofit last week to cease operations after authorities there called the shadowy group's legitimacy into question. Florida regulators announced Wednesday they also have launched an investigation. These states and others have a responsibility to determine how the charity served veterans and spent millions of dollars in contributions from the public.
New Mexico shut down the operation after authorities alleged that the addresses listed for two of the group's officers did not exist. The head of the unit that oversees charities for New Mexico's attorney general's office said one address was an empty field with "nothing but some dirt and some mesquite." A second address did not exist, either; the person listed as an officer of the nonprofit could only be traced to "a pecan farmer." New Mexico ordered the Navy Vets to "cease and desist" any fundraising in the state until the matter was resolved.
The organization's attorney said the group would respond but that it had "always operated lawfully" in New Mexico. The state's order follows a six-month investigation by St. Petersburg Times staff writers Jeff Testerman and John Martin that raises serious questions about who runs the group and how it spends donated money. For an organization that claims 66,000 members and an annual budget of $22 million, the Times could not find members, officers or auditors of the nonprofit. Its office addresses turned out to be rented mailboxes across the country. The newspaper found no record of 84 of the 85 officials listed on the charity's federal tax forms. The group also refused to allow the Times to inspect receipts for any of its expenses nationwide.
The state agency in Florida that regulates charitable groups, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, announced Wednesday that it also has opened an investigation. Florida should be taking a lead in coordinating investigations of the group's 41 state affiliates. The organization was formed in Tampa. The only officer the Times has found in six months of searching, Bobby Thompson, is a founder of the charity who used an Ybor City duplex for his home and offices. After the Times began asking questions about the Navy Vets, Thompson cleared out of his Ybor City address.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum needs to throw the weight of his office behind the state's investigation. He has the firepower to investigate how the nonprofit conducted business. Florida law also holds charities accountable by requiring that they retain their records and make them freely available to state investigators. McCollum should pick up the phone. Fighting fraud falls under the job description of the state's chief law enforcement officer. Anyone running for governor also should want to reinforce public confidence in charitable giving.