New Mexico deserves credit for moving quickly against the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, a shadowy charity formed in Tampa whose membership and spending remain a mystery. The nonprofit halted operations in the Western state last month after the attorney general there started asking unsettling questions, like: Who runs this organization? Where are its offices? And how does it spend donors' money? Officials from Florida and other states where the group solicits money need those answers, too.
New Mexico acted after a six-month investigation by the St. Petersburg Times' Jeff Testerman and John Martin raised serious doubts about the organization's credibility. For a group claiming 66,000 members and an annual budget of $22 million, the Times could not find members, officers or auditors of the organization. New Mexico ordered the group to "cease and desist" operations after finding that the address for a state officer was nothing but a plot of "dirt and mesquite."
The organization insisted it had a legitimate presence in New Mexico. But rather than contest the suspension of its activities, the group informed New Mexico it would shut down. It blamed a host of discrepancies on a state chapter commander who was homeless at the time and who, now "in his upper 70s," had suffered a stroke.
This dog-ate-the-homework defense, coming only now after the state attorney general started asking questions, is no surprise. The Times was unable to find any record of 84 of the 85 officers listed on the charity's federal tax returns. The sole officer located by the Times, Bobby Thompson, founded the group in Tampa. But he cleared out of an Ybor City duplex after the newspaper began asking questions.
Regulators in the 41 states where the group has affiliates should investigate the so-called support organization. Florida has a special responsibility. The group was founded here and it apparently flourished operating under the radar. Both agencies in Florida that regulate charities have opened investigations. The giving public deserves to know whether the group is legitimate. Public confidence in charitable giving is at stake.