Phantom Charity Takes Flight
Leaves Veterans Stranded
The United States Navy Veterans Association (USNVA) certainly looked like a legitimate organization on the surface. This multi-million dollar charity, operating since 1927, was registered with the IRS, run by ex-military men, and had dozens of chapters and 66,000 members nationwide. Legitimate, that is, until media investigations revealed that the charity was not in operation until 2002, had only one member or charity official that could be located, was run out of an individual's duplex in Florida, and appears to have consisted of one man using a fake name for whom no record of U.S. military service could be found.
A man we will refer to as "John Doe" stole the name, social security number, and birth date of another man, Bobby Thompson, according to an August 2010 article in the Roanoke Times. He then used this fake identity to set up a sham charity and bilk donors out of nearly $100 million over a seven year period. Authorities have since charged him with identity fraud and issued a nationwide warrant for his arrest. "The real Bobby Thompson, whose identity was stolen…has absolutely no connection to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association," according to a news release on Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray's website. While John Doe abandoned his former residence and has yet to be located by authorities, he will not soon be forgotten by the donors, government lobbyists, politicians, and fundraisers he had dealings with, or by his former lawyers and cohorts he left behind.
Trouble started for John Doe when the St. Petersburg Times (SP Times) began a six-month investigation into USNVA in late 2009. When attempting to locate the charity's national headquarters using the same address the group filed on its tax form and listed on its web site, only a "rented mailbox…at a UPS shipping store" was found, according to the paper. The SP Times had no better luck when trying to locate many of the charity's chapters throughout the country, or any of the officers and directors reported on the charity's tax return and state registration documents. It found that "most state chapter addresses…also are rented mailboxes," and that "none of the three officers listed in Florida registration papers could be found." One officer's address was non-existent, one was the address for the Hilton hotel in Miami, and the last was the address of a condo owned by someone with a different name. Among other searches, the paper looked for the physical address of the commander of the New Mexico chapter, Howard Bonifacio, but found the address did not exist. If it did, it "would sit on a parking lot adjacent to a car dealership," reported the SP Times. For six months the paper conducted "hundreds of searches of directories, online public records databases and newspaper and broadcast stories going back more than 25 years" and reported it was unable to locate 84 of the 85 officers or directors named in the charity's IRS filings.
The only charity representative the paper could locate was John Doe, who apparently ran the charity's operations out of his Florida duplex, but he was not a big fan of transparency. "We are a great charity," he told the SP Times, citing the paper's "character assassination" and "McCarthy-like witch hunts" as an explanation for why the USNVA's state officers and executive board did not want to disclose their whereabouts or respond to the reporter's inquiries. Searches for the charity's internal auditor, Deborah Johns, were also unfruitful. The paper reported in its March 20th, 2010, article that when it asked USNVA for Johns' contact information, John Doe said the charity would release a copy of her audit when "pigs fly."
USNVA was registered with the IRS under a special section of the tax code that exempted it from some of the public disclosure requirements most public charities must follow. For example, USNVA had to report its total expenses each year but did not have to publicly disclose how much it was spending on its programs vs. fundraising and other overhead. For John Doe, however, even this level of transparency was too much for his taste. When asked by the SP Times to supply copies of USNVA's tax returns and IRS exempt status application, which it is required to do within 30 days under IRS rules, John Doe falsely claimed that his charity was exempt from this rule.
If you do not like the rules, change them. This seemed to be John Doe's attitude when he hired attorney Samuel F. Wright to lobby Senator Patsy Ticer of Virginia. The state of Virginia has a large military presence, making it a key fundraising area for veterans and military charities. The vast majority of U.S. states, including Virginia, require charities to register financial and other information with oversight agencies as a condition of being allowed to solicit contributions from residents in their state. Ticer reported to the SP Times that Wright showed up at her office with another Northern Virginia lobbyist whom she knew and that Wright asked her to sponsor legislation that would exempt certain veterans groups like USNVA from registration. She agreed to sponsor the bill, and it passed the state Senate and House unanimously in February and March 2010, respectively. By the time Ticer became aware of the serious problems at USNVA and wanted to squash her bill, it was too late to prevent Governor Robert McDonnell from signing it.
USNVA "has never made a contribution to any candidate for office, ever," John Doe told the SP Times, according to the paper's March 20th, 2010, article. Contributions were definitely made by John Doe to various politicians and officeholders in Virginia, but with so little accountability over the charity's finances, it is difficult to confirm whether he used the charity's funds or his own. Among campaign donations to politicians in that state, $1,000 went to Senator Ticer; $5,000 went to Governor McDonell; $2,000 went to House Speaker Bill Howell, and the largest donation, $55,500, went to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Once major issues at USNVA were brought to light, most quickly agreed to donate the contributions they received to other veterans charities, except for Cuccinelli, who held out for about two months before publicly stating he would do the same.
The information on USNVA's web site, navyvets.org, made the group seem impressive, even if its low quality design could have clued donors in that something was amiss. In addition to boasting of its 66,000 members and dozens of state chapters throughout the U.S., it also cited substantial contributions from several foundations, and claimed to have received an award for international news reporting. According to the SP Times, USNVA "refused to provide addresses or phone numbers for the foundations." The paper could not locate any "tax records, web sites, or news stories" about the Irene T. Boyar Foundation, the John F. Kearney Foundation, or the Deborah & Charles Pissot Foundation, nor could it find them listed "in major reference directories of U.S. foundations." As for the Jill Dando Award the charity claimed to have received in 2003, an official from this institution told the SP Times it had "no record of giving any award to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association."
Perhaps most disturbing are the countless thank-you notes and other praise the charity posted on its web site from soldiers who had supposedly received care packages from the group. Disturbing because the SP Times confirmed that many of the notes of praise were substantively copied without permission from the web site of anysoldier.com, an organization that helps Americans connect with active duty soldiers and send them care packages. "Everyone in the unit who received a package from you wants to thank you so much. And for your [web] site," reads a thank you letter on USNVA's web site from Gina Pronzati, U.S. Navy, Afghanistan. The paper reported finding seven thank-you letters on USNVA's web site that "were near duplicates of messages written to anysoldier.com or anysailor.com." According to a June 2010 article in the SP Times, Pronzati told the paper that she never received a package from USNVA, and never wrote the group a thank-you. "I knew immediately it was some sort of scam, because it was exactly what I posted on anysailor.com. It's a pretty horrible thing for someone to do," said Pronzati.
Throughout the SP Times' investigation, USNVA communicated with the paper primarily through its attorney, Helen MacMurray, who also happens to be former Chief of the Consumer Protection Section of the Ohio Attorney General's Office, the department that oversees charity regulation in that state. In response to the paper's allegations that USNVA lifted soldiers' thank-you notes from other web sites, the charity responded through MacMurray that "sometimes out of haste, negligence or simply a belief that charity is its own reward," they did not always include something in the care packages that would identify them as coming from USNVA. For this reason, the group claims that when it saw a thank-you note posted on anysoldier.com from care package recipients, it "felt justified in changing some language and advertising that thank-you message as its own," reported the SP Times.
USNVA made efforts to legitimize the organization in the eyes of donors by associating itself with all things veterans and military related. For example, until recent events compelled the Department of Veterans Affairs to remove the charity from its list, USNVA was listed on the Department's web site as a resource for veterans. John Doe referred to himself as "Commander Bobby Thompson" on the charity's web site and told the SP Times he was a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserves. Assisted by the nonprofit veterans rights group, the POW Network, the paper searched for Bobby Thompson's military service records but could find none. The charity's tax records listed "Jack Nimitz" as the group's "Director & CEO," who shares a familiar last name with Chester William Nimitz, a well-known five-star admiral in the U.S. Navy during World War II for whom the famous USS Nimitz ship was named. According to the SP Times, the charity "would not say" if Jack Nimitz was related to Admiral Nimitz, and "provided no help locating him…" when the paper requested to speak with him directly.
As bad press drew more and more negative attention to the group, pressure mounted and USNVA scrambled to show that it was doing something charitable. It recruited several acquaintances to pose for photos to be posted on the charity's web site to show that real people were involved with the organization, and rushed out a handful of grants to various charities. While these grants were likely appreciated by the charities that received them, they are surely of little comfort to the donors who contributed millions to the group and for whom little evidence exists that much of what they gave was ever used for the charitable purposes they intended. The charity reports in its 2008 tax return that its national office spent over $2.6 million of its $4.2 million budget on "grants and other assistance to individuals in the U.S." When the SP Times could find no evidence that such assistance was actually provided, it asked the charity for backup. USNVA responded that it can account for the funds, but was not willing to share any of the documentation with the SP Times.
USNVA's last-ditch efforts to provide charity were too late for some state regulators, who by that time had launched their own investigations into the charity or had barred it from soliciting in their respective states. Florida ordered USNVA to cease operations in its state, and launched an investigation into its "potentially unfair and deceptive trade practices." Hawaii began an investigation to find out whether the association fabricated its chapter officials and deceived the public. New Mexico ordered the charity to cease and desist operations in its state after finding that the addresses the association provided in its registration documents are fictional. In May 2010 Senator Jim Webb of Virginia made a request to the IRS that it launch a federal level investigation which would look into USNVA's activities nationwide.
Things began to unravel quickly from here. USNVA's attorneys, MacMurray, Petersen & Shuster LLP, told the SP Times that John Doe "disappeared" around June 20th, 2010, and shortly thereafter the law firm broke ties with the group. The charity's professional fundraisers soon followed suit. On July 30th, 2010, federal and state agents seized documents and computer records from a Florida mother and daughter who were associates of John Doe, according to a SP Times article of the same date. Nancy Contreras and her mother, Blanca Contreras, a former citrus processing plant employee, had signed registration papers in several states claiming to hold official positions at USNVA ranging from acting vice president, to chief financial officer, to acting secretary, according to the SP Times. They had also been described as association members and were featured in photographs on the charity's web site. Months earlier the SP Times had attempted to contact one of the associates, Nancy Contreras, 20, and was warned by USNVA's then attorney, Helen MacMurray, that any future attempt on the paper's part to contact her might "constitute criminal 'stalking'," according to the paper.
Of the nine states currently investigating USNVA, Ohio has arguably been the most aggressive, freezing the charity's bank accounts and shutting down its fundraising in the state. Its investigation into the charity uncovered that John Doe, in addition to stealing the identity of "Bobby Thompson," also stole the identity of a leader of another veterans charity in New Mexico. On October 15th, 2010, an Ohio grand jury indicted both John Doe and Blanca Contreras on corruption, theft, and money laundering charges, according to a SP Times article of the same date. Contreras was arrested in a Charlotte, North Carolina airport, according to the paper, and booked into jail there on an Ohio warrant. John Doe has yet to be located by authorities as of the date this article was published.
The story of John Doe and the U.S. Navy Veterans Association is an unfortunate example of how easily the public can be duped out of millions of charitable dollars by failing to properly research a charity before deciding to give. Many donors automatically assume that a charity is "legitimate" if it is registered with the IRS and are too often impressed by the claims made by a charity in its solicitations, on its web site, or in self-reported tax filings. It is tragic that a large portion of the donations USNVA collected over the years will unlikely be recovered and used to help deserving veterans.
Leaves Veterans Stranded
This is one of the reasons you seldom see me mentioning any veterans charity organizations, and the grades some of the well known organizations make many veterans question how well their donations are being used even by the so called "good ones"
I always recommend going to any "watch sites" and learn about the group or charity you are donating to BEFORE you write the check
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Phantom Charity Takes Flight