As the scandal over the U.S. Navy Veterans Association grows, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will have to reform its overly trusting approach to promoting groups that claim to help veterans. Some obviously aren't what they purport to be.
Navy Veterans is a prime example of a group trading on the VA's gullibility. Until this week it was listed as a veterans service organization on the department's website, even as investigations into the group's legitimacy are underway in Florida, New Mexico, Missouri and Hawaii. Those inquiries arose only after a six-month investigation by St. Petersburg Times staff writers Jeff Testerman and John Martin. The pair found only one of the 85 officers listed on the group's federal tax returns, Bobby Thompson. After questions were raised, Thompson hightailed it out of his Ybor City duplex and left no forwarding address.
Proof of Navy Veterans' legitimacy is hard to find. The group was founded in Tampa in 2002 and claims it maintains a membership of over 66,000 members and gives tens of millions of dollars in assistance to veterans and their families through its dozens of state chapters. But the Times was able to locate only two members and recently discovered Thompson recruited stand-ins from a Tampa developer's office for pictures he posted on the group's website. The small bit of charity work the Times did confirm is a mere fraction of the unaccounted millions the charity claims to raise annually.
But it wasn't until Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia complained that the VA took the group off its list of veterans service organizations and promised to conduct a review of the procedures used to put organizations on its site.
In responding to Webb's letter, the VA said a listing on its website does not imply an endorsement of the group. That's a weak excuse from an organization founded to serve veterans. The public is going to presume that a VA-advertised service group has been duly screened.
Indeed, Navy Veterans used the VA's laxness to boost its own credibility. On its website the group touted itself as "a nationally recognized U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Service Organization, one of only 147 nationwide so recognized."
There are plenty of examples of defrauders using people's goodwill toward veterans to raise money to enrich themselves. The VA should be on the lookout for these kinds of scams and vouch for the legitimacy of any group it lists.