A major backer of Ken Cuccinelli is being probed in several states for running a charity that a lengthy newspaper investigation suggests may be an elaborate and long-running fraud.
There’s no evidence that Cuccinelli, now the attorney general of Virginia, was aware there was anything untoward about Bobby Thompson or his charity, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association (USNVA), which says it offers assistance to navy veterans. Still, the news has forced the ambitious AG — whose reputation for rectitude is a key part of his appeal to conservatives — to answer some awkward questions. And the full story of what happened in Virginia suggests how easily one state government may have been taken in by a noble-sounding cause and a some well-timed campaign contributions.
In 2009, Thompson gave $55,000 to Cuccinelli, making him the second largest individual contributor to the future AG, according to the St. Petersburg Times*. A $50,000 contribution came after Cuccinelli directly solicited him by phone last August. Cuccinelli told the Roanoke Times last week that Thompson, who lived until recently near Tampa, Florida, was interested in “making sure veterans were taken care of” — an issue the candidate had been raising in his campaign — and that “there was nothing that raised a red flag.”
Aside from a shared staunch conservatism, it’s not clear exactly why Thompson contributed so much to an out-of-state candidate for attorney general. But he did have a legislative priority he was interested in. Earlier this year, USNVA, with the help of a veteran GOP lobbyist, convinced a state lawmaker, Democrat Patsy Ticer, to introduce a bill that would exempt veterans’ charities from having to formally register with the state before raising money. USNVA, which has been around since 1999, raises almost all its money through telephone solicitations — a task which is contracted to a Michigan-based phone-banking firm. The bill quickly passed.
But a few weeks later, the St. Petersburg Times produced a lengthy and detailed two-part series of investigative reports on Thompson and USNVA. We’ll get to just what the stories revealed. But first it’s worth following what happened in Virginia.
When Ticer — who herself had received a $1000 contribution from Thompson — read the stories, she quickly contacted the office of Governor Bob McDonnell to urge him not to sign the bill that she herself had introduced. But aides to the governor — who also got $5000 last year from Thompson — say Ticer raised the alarm too late. By the time they went back to flag the bill, it had already been signed. (McDonnell’s office said the bill could still help legitimate charities — but on the list of such charities that they gave to the Roanoke Times, all of them were already able to solicit donations in Virginia.)
That means that come July, USNVA can start soliciting money in Virginia, despite not having registered.
So just what did the St. Petersburg Times discover? It’s worth reading the full series yourself to get the complete picture, but here are some details:
• USNVA says in IRS filings that it consists of 85 volunteer officers, over 66,000 members, and 41 state chapters. But the paper searched long and hard for all 85 officers, and could find no record whatsoever for 84 of them. Among that group was the man listed on USNVA’s rudimentary-looking website as its CEO, Jack L. Nimitz, whose bio says he’s a lifelong Texas resident, retired naval reservist and now private investment banker.
• USNVA also says a five-member executive board and 12 key officers work out of the group’s national headquarters on M Street in Washington, D.C. But that address turns out to be a mailbox at a UPS shipping store.
• The paper reports: “In the end, the searches for people and documents all came back to one man, the association’s director of development, Bobby Thompson, and one place, his $1,200-a-month rented duplex across from the Cuesta-Rey cigar factory in Ybor City … After the Times started asking questions … Thompson, who had lived in the duplex for a decade, cleared out. His landlord said he left no forwarding address.”
• Nor could the paper find any evidence for the existence of either of the two auditors who USVNA says have conducted audits of its finances.
• The paper adds: “The group reported $4.58 million in income from its Florida chapter in 2008 and $17.82 million from its other chapters. It said it donated about 1 percent to needy beneficiaries and said the other 99 percent went for administrative costs, educational materials and “direct assistance” to veterans and their families.” USNVA told the Times it had “tens of thousands” of records detailing its expenditures, but declined to make them available. It has accused the paper of conducting “McCarthy-like witch hunts” against it.
You get the picture.
The paper has reported that authorities in New Mexico, Florida, and Missouri are now investigating USNVA, and New Mexico has suspended fundraising by the group.
Cuccinelli’s political director last week told the Roanoke Times: “If Mr. Thompson was convicted of wrongdoing relative to the misappropriation of funds, and contributions to our campaign came from money that was supposed to go to active duty military or veterans, we would donate those contributions to military support organizations here in Virginia.”
But come July, when USNVA may begin soliciting Virginians for contributions, it seems to us that there would be ample evidence for the AG to use his own office to start looking into the man who provided almost 3 percent of his total campaign haul last year. Cuccinelli could even free up some resources by easing off on the investigation of climate science he’s currently focused on. So, Mr. Attorney General, how about it?
* This sentence has been corrected from an earlier version.