Sunday, October 3, 2010

Minnesota Attorney General's Office confirms investigation underway into U.S. Navy Veterans Association

AG joins seven other states, IRS and VA looking into shady nonprofit and its commander-on-the-lam, who donated thousands to Minnesota Republican politicians and Minnesota GOP

By Karl Bremer

The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office has confirmed to Ripple in Stillwater that it is now investigating the allegedly fraudulent U.S. Navy Veterans Association (USNVA), whose Minnesota chapter raised over $1.56 million in Minnesota from 2004-2009 using nothing more than a St. Paul UPS drop box for an address. The group’s Minnesota chapter folded mysteriously in May in the wake of growing investigations nationwide, citing pending legal problems for the organization.

The investigations were sparked by a year-long investigation of the USNVA by the St. Petersburg (FL) Times.

Although the extent of the Minnesota AG’s investigation into the group and its alleged identity-stealing leader is not known at this point, Ben Wogsland, spokesperson for Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, told Ripple in Stillwater last Friday that “we are looking into this.”

A nationwide arrest warrant for identity fraud was issued in August by an Ohio court for a suspect formerly known as “Bobby Charles Thompson,” commander of the shady USNVA. “Thompson,” the only officer among dozens listed for the organization whose existence has ever been confirmed, was listed as commander of the Minnesota chapter of the USNVA until 2009, but has disappeared since he and his group have come under fire.

The group ran largely under the radar in Minnesota until a series of investigative reports I wrote beginning July 6 revealed that “Thompson” had donated $10,000 to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Stillwater on April 7, the same day as a Minneapolis fundraiser featuring former half-term governor Sarah Palin. One of the last known public appearances by Thompson may have been at the Bachmann-Palin event. “Thompson’s” $10,000 donation to Bachmann’s congressional campaign, which was shared with the Republican Party of Minnesota, would have qualified him for a table for 10 at the fundraiser, as well as a photo shoot with the two Tea Party queens. However, Bachmann’s campaign has refused to confirm or deny whether “Thompson” actually attended her big-buck affair.

After considerable negative publicity over her connection to the alleged fraudster, Bachmann’s campaign reportedly gave her $4,800 portion of the proceeds to other veterans’ groups. The Republican Party of Minnesota claimed it was going to donate its remaining portion of the dirty money to charity as well.

“Thompson,” a former Florida resident, for unknown reasons took a shine to Minnesota Republican politicians and the Republican Party of Minnesota. Besides the $10,000 he gave to Bachmann, he made the following donations to other Minnesota Republicans and GOP entities:

• $21,500 to Republican Norm Coleman’s Senate re-election campaign from 2006-2008
• $7,000 to the Minnesota House Republican Campaign Committee in 2008-2009
• $10,400 to the Republican Party of Minnesota from 2008-2010
• $500 to former Rep. Marty Seifert’s Seifert for Governor Campaign in 2009
• $500 to Republican David J. Carlson’s Citizens for David Carlson committee in House District 67B in 2008.

In addition, the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board is investigating a different—and potentially fraudulent—$500 campaign contribution to former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert in 2009 that’s linked to the USNVA.

“Thompson “ also has ties to Stillwater lobbyist Edwin E. Cain, a close friend of Bachmann's. Cain, who was hired as a consultant by the USNVA to lobby for the group in Virginia last year, and a Mary Cain from the same Stillwater address, also a lobbyist, donated $500 each to David Carlson’s House campaign on the same day as Thompson’s donation was recorded. Thompson and the Cains represented three of the top six individual donors to Carlson’s campaign that year.

While Bachmann and the Republican Party of Minnesota reportedly gave away the $10,000 they took from “Thompson” at the April 7 Bachmann-Palin shindig, there is no indication that other recipients of “Thompson’s” largesse intend to dispense of their allegedly ill-gotten gains. Minnesota is at least the eighth state to be looking into the USNVA. Other states investigating the alleged fraudulent operations of the group include Hawaii, New Mexico, Oregon, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and Florida. Attorneys general in several states have shut their operations down and in Ohio, a judge has frozen the organization’s bank accounts.

IRS, Veterans Administration, and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services agents seized computer records and documents—some already shredded—from the Tampa-area offices of associates of “Bobby Thompson” this summer. The seizures were made in connection with investigations into the organization by the three agencies.

The USNVA operated for over five years in Minnesota out of a UPS drop box on Grand Avenue in St. Paul in apparent violation of state charities laws.

State law requires charitable organizations like the USNVA to register with the Attorney General's Office and file annual reports listing both a “mailing address” and a “physical address.” Yet since it started soliciting funds in Minnesota in 2005, the USNVA never registered any physical address at all with the Attorney General's Office or the IRS—a clear violation of that requirement. Every address listed in the group's state or federal filings leads to drop boxes at UPS stores in St. Paul, Washington, DC, and Tampa, FL.

Even though the Minnesota Chapter of the USNVA officially dissolved in May, its St. Paul-area phone number listed with the Attorney General’s Charities Division—651.645.4570—still carried a message as of Oct. 3, 2010, that says “we are away from our desk” and suggests the group is still operating here.

Out of more than $1.14 million the U.S. Navy Veterans Association Minnesota Chapter claims to have spent on charitable programs and services in Minnesota since 2004, only $26,300 can be positively accounted for: two $10,000 donations to a St. Paul Veterans Center in 2007 and one $6,300 donation to Twin Cities Public Television in 2008

The rest of the money from the organization that went to benefit individuals was allegedly spent to provide such generic things as
“direct cash assistance,” food, clothing, publications, “care packages” for service members, and “psychological counseling and comfort” for survivors of veterans. But there is little evidence or documentation of those services in records filed with the state or IRS. Furthermore, the officers for the Minnesota Chapter of the USNVA cannot be found, nor can any address for the group other than UPS drop boxes in St. Paul and several other states be located.

The Ohio arrest warrant was issued by Hamilton County Municipal Court and orders “Thompson” to appear on charges of identity fraud. A detective’s affidavit accompanying the arrest warrant alleges that “Thompson” fraudulently used the Florida identification card of a Bobby Charles Thompson now living in Washington to open a UPS post office box in Cincinnati in April 2003. It also alleges that “Thompson” fraudulently solicited charitable contributions in excess of $100,000 in Ohio from 2003-2010; fraudulently filed annual reports with the state; and falsely stated that the UPS drop box was the organization’s primary Ohio office.

“Our investigators have determined that this individual stole the identity of someone else and used that as the centerpiece of an apparent scam that has continued for seven years and involved tens of millions of dollars,” Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said. “The real Bobby Thompson, whose identity was stolen, including his Social Security number and date of birth, has absolutely no connection to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. We don't know who this individual is yet, but we do know that he is not Bobby Thompson.”

Cordray suggested that money collected under the guise of the USNVA may have been used to finance political contributions made by “Thompson.” An August 5 press release from Cordray’s office states:

“There appears to be very little evidence that the organization spent money actually helping veterans or their families. Yet public records do show hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to various candidates made by “Bobby Thompson” personally or through the political action committee he created and to which he was the sole contributor, NAVPAC.”

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, another Republican officeholder, recently announced that he was finally giving away $55,700 in campaign contributions he received from “Thompson,” but it took a firestorm of public protest for him to do it.

Anyone who saw “Bobby Thompson” at the April 7 Bachmann-Palin fundraiser, or has seen him anywhere else, is urged to contact the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation at 740.845.2224 or 800.282.3784. More information on “Thompson” can be found here.


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