Of all the charities out there, surely the ones dedicated to helping veterans pull at our heartstrings the strongest. We all want to help those people who serve our country, particularly if they’ve been wounded in the line of duty.
Unfortunately, our innate sense of generosity attracts the merchants of greed. Last year, I wrote about the Wounded Warriors Project, that started out admirably but then succumbed to empire building and avarice. The project, however, always had some legitimate programs and appears to have cleaned up its act after the New York Times and CBS News conducted an investigation.
The U.S. Navy Veterans Association, however, was a complete fraud, as shown by this highly informative article by Daniel Fromson in Washingtonian. According to prosecutors, the organization bilked donors out of as much as $100 million and did little or nothing to help veterans.
A man who said he was a retired naval commander and who called himself “Bobby Charles Thompson” headed the organization, which claimed to be “the fourth oldest private naval veterans league in the United States,” “Commander Thompson” liked giving five-figure donations to Republican politicians and to Republican political action committees. He had photos of himself with Karl Rove, Speaker of the House John Boehner, and President George W. Bush. He even sent the photo of him with President Bush as a Christmas card, with a caption, “Best wishes from your friends Bobby and George.” (There’s no evidence that any of these politicians knew that “Thompson” was a con man.)
Fromson reports the fraud began to unravel in 2009. The Navy Veterans Association was headquartered in Tampa. One day Jeff Testerman, a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) “was working on a story about a county official he believed had lied about his military record.” The official had gotten a campaign contribution from the Navy Veterans Association, and Testerman decided to visit “Thompson’s” condo for a quote.
“Thompson, he recalls, had been drinking,” Fromson writes. “He grew suspiciously agitated by Testerman’s questions.”
So Testerman decided to investigate. He found no evidence that “Thompson” had been in the military, and no one from the association would return his calls. There were 85 people listed on documents the association filed with the IRS, and only “Bobby Thompson” seemed to exist. Most of the group’s state chapters operated out of mailbox rental stores. The group’s Washington office was at a UPS store.
In March 2010, Testerman and researcher John Martin published their expose. The telemarketers the association hired cut off relations. State attorneys general began to investigate. One of them, Ohio’s Rob Cordray, learned that to rent a mailbox in Columbus, “Thompson” used “the credentials of a Choctaw Indian living outside Seattle”—the real Bobby Thompson. Cordray announced that the man under investigation “is not Bobby Thompson” and the investigation continued.
People began speaking up, including Grace Glatstein, who said “Thompson,” arranged a White House visit for her in 2007—“and when she and Thompson posed for a photo with President George W. Bush, Thompson playfully punched the President in the arm. No one intervened.” Investigators believe “Thompson” obtained White House access because he had the real Bobby Thompson’s Social Security number.
Investigators ultimately traced “Thompson” to Portland where he was hiding out under another alias. But they didn’t know his real name. Then investigator Pete Elliott turned to Google and found an article from Business Insider on the 10 most intriguing white-collar fugitives. Number two was John Donald Cody. Elliott found that Cody’s fingerprints were identical to Thompson’s and the hoax was revealed.
Cody was an Army Reserve intelligence officer who ended up practicing law in Arizona, but after newspapers accused him of stealing from the estates of dead clients, he disappeared—until resurfacing as “Thompson."
Cody was tried in Ohio in 2013. His defense claimed that he had set up the Navy Veterans Association as a “non-official cover” for intelligence activities and that the spies also had hypnotized him and forced him to take psychotropic drugs. A jury was not persuaded and he is currently serving a 28-year sentence.
Because Cody was prosecuted by the state of Ohio, we only know how much money he bilked out of residents of that state. But Fromson believes that $100 million is a reliable estimate, of which 90 percent probably went to telemarketers.
Fromson wrote to Cody in prison, and got a long written diatribe which claimed that the CIA encouraged him to set up the Navy Veterans Association in order to show America’s allies that ordinary Americans supported the military. This excuse falls under the category, “I don’t think so.”
What Fromson’s story reminds us is to be very wary of any organization that solicits money through telemarketers. I believe the law now says that any telemarketer has to say over the phone that he or she is being paid to solicit donations. If you get unsolicited calls from nonprofits you’ve never heard of, it’s likely that most of the money won’t go to charity.
There are many worthy veterans associations out there who deserve your support. But the best way to find them is to do your homework and call them rather than have people call you. That’s the best way to make sure that your money supports causes you prefer.