CINCINNATI - He calls himself Commander Bobby Thompson. He says his U.S. Navy Veterans Association has 66,000 members in 41 states. Americans are contributing millions of dollars to his charity to help veterans.
He just won’t provide evidence any of it is true.
For more than a month, the I-Team’s been investigating a charity first brought to light by the St. Petersburg Times. The charity’s Ohio headquarters lead to a Cincinnati address that turns out to be a mail drop at a UPS store.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg to what turns out to be a national fund raising arm Ohio’s top prosecutor says could be diverting millions of dollars contributed by Ohioans and residents in other states to fund one man’s political agenda.
The phone rings. The caller says he represents the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. He’s asking for a contribution to help veterans around the country.
The call comes from a telemarketing firm, and it’s been quite effective, raising $1.9 million in Ohio alone between July 2003 and July 2009. Around the country, it’s been substantially more successful. The charity reported on its 2008 tax returns that it made $22.4 million that year alone.
Its website showcases a series of names and photos of executive board members and officers, on up to a CEO with a very naval name, Jack Nimitz. The I-Team conducted extensive public records searches and couldn’t find Nimitz or any of the officers, nor any mention of any of them quoted in any newspaper in America despite the group’s claims of widespread aid to veterans.
Veterans’ activists in Ohio also hadn’t heard of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. John Guinn is an Army veteran who runs the Thank You Foundation, which among other activities, sends thank you cards in care packages to currently deployed service members.
“The military veteran community is pretty tight-knit. We all kind of know each other,” he says. “I’ve never met anyone that I recall from that organization.”
To operate as a charity in Ohio, a group has to register with the state Attorney General’s office. The U.S Navy Veterans Association filed its paperwork listing Richard Platt and Donald Gillespie as the officers running the Ohio chapter out of an address that looked like an office on Vine Street in downtown Cincinnati.
The address actually leads to mail drop at a UPS store. Extensive public records searches found no evidence Richard Platt and Donald Gillespie exist. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office couldn’t find them either.
Attorney General Richard Cordray says, "We think it's disgusting. We think it's outrageous." As the I-Team was investigating, Cordray’s office issued a court order to seize the checks coming into the Cincinnati drop box and one other in Ohio so that they wouldn’t forward to the U.S. Navy Vet’s bank accounts.
While the group claims to spend most of the contributions it receives on veterans’ services, the I-Team could only find records of a few tens of thousands here and there. Cordray says those expenditures were a “fig leaf.” He says, "This appears to have been an elaborate, fraudulent organization trading outrageously on the names of our veterans."
A check of some of the other state chapters shows most of them also lead to mail drops, as does the group’s national headquarters address on M Street in Washington D.C. A call to the national phone number listed on the association’s website leads to a long recording of a patriotic message but no opportunity to leave a voicemail, so no one can call you back.
The I-Team couldn’t confirm the group ever operated from Washington D.C. at all. Instead, it ran for at least some years from a rundown duplex in Ybor City, a neighborhood in Tampa, Florida. The U.S Navy Veterans Association rented one half of the building. Commander Bobby Thompson rented the other half. Both have since vacated.
There aren’t many records on Thompson either, but there are a few photos including a Christmas card he sent with a photo of himself standing next to President George W. Bush. How did he get access to the president? It might have something to do with the other group he ran from that duplex, a political action committee called NAVPAC that donated almost $100,000, mostly to conservative Republicans across the country. Thompson himself wrote checks for another $190,000.
Cordray says, "He was actually financing a nationwide political operation through taking money from charitable contributions from Ohioans and others."
Thompson and his PAC funded federal and state candidates in Ohio. He contributed to Senator George Voinovich, former Senator Mike DeWine, who’s running against Cordray for Ohio Attorney General this fall, as well as former U.S. Representative Steve Chabot and current Congresswoman Jean Schmidt. There is no evidence any of these candidates knew Thompson or NAVPAC, as politicians don't track the source of every contribution. But Cordray says Thompson clearly funded his