WASHINGTON — BY all outward indications, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association was a leader in the charitable community. Founded in 2002 to provide support to Navy veterans in need, the charity recorded astonishing financial success. In its first eight years, it raised around $100 million in charitable contributions, almost all of it through a direct marketing campaign. The organization, headed by Jack L. Nimitz, boasted of 41 state chapters and some 66,000 members.
This would be a great story of charitable success, except for the fact that virtually everything about the association turned out to be false: no state chapters, no members, no leader with the name redolent of naval history. Instead, there was one guy: a man calling himself Bobby Thompson who worked from a duplex across the street from the Cuesta-Rey cigar factory in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa.
But the money raised was real enough, generated by a series of for-profit telemarketers. The victims, by and large, were unsuspecting small-money donors who received urgent solicitations asking for support for needy naval veterans. Most of the money raised stayed with the fund-raisers, though plenty apparently dripped through to Mr. Thompson and a succession of Republican lawmakers who received generous contributions from the association’s political arm. But little ever made it to the intended beneficiaries. In 2010, the scheme was unwound by two reporters for what is now The Tampa Bay Times, but not before Mr. Thompson had fled the state of Florida.
From June 2010, Mr. Thompson was on the run, the search for him hamstrung by the fact that no one had any real idea of who he was. Finally, on April 30, 2012, federal marshals tracked him down in Portland, Ore., finding him with a card to a storage unit containing $981,650 in cash and almost two dozen fake identity cards.
Earlier this month in Ohio, where the charity’s registration documents had been filed, the man arrested as Bobby Thompson was convicted on 23 felony counts, including fraud, theft and money laundering. Authorities have identified him as John Donald Cody, a former Army intelligence officer and Harvard Law graduate. Given its sensational facts, the case has drawn more attention than your average matter in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. But the story is worth paying attention to for a more important reason, if we want to prevent more Bobby Thompsons in our future.
The most outrageous aspect of the case is that much of what Mr. Cody did was probably legal, or at least not specifically illegal. The principal beneficiaries were always the association’s for-profit fund-raisers. During the trial, one of them, Thomas Berkenbush of Community Support Inc., testified, apparently without fear of legal repercussions, that his company had kept 90 percent of the donations as a fund-raising charge.
That, in and of itself, isn’t criminal. The alleged fraud was not that very, very little money ever went to Navy veterans. In fact, the fund-raising explicitly stated that a large portion of donations would go to cover telemarketing and other costs. Mr. Cody ran afoul of the law because he filed registration documents that contained false statements, because he stole the identity of the real Bobby Thompson, and because he pulled money from organizational accounts for his personal use. The irony is that he could have accomplished virtually his entire enrichment scheme without ever violating the law — and others have figured that out.
The I.R.S.’s Exempt Organizations Division, which is responsible for supervising the charitable sector, is chronically understaffed. It can’t do much more than process the routine and voluminous reporting of the more than 1.5 million American nonprofits, and keep up with the tens of thousands of applications filed each year to start new charities.
State and local authorities are in no better shape. Joel L. Fleishman, a professor of public policy at Duke, estimates that there are fewer than 100 full-time state charity regulators, far too few to exercise any real oversight.
In the Navy Veterans case, amazingly, the I.R.S. did undertake one of its rare field audits. And yet, despite the fact that the main office was a trailer, its state offices were empty lots or postal drops, and its board of directors and C.E.O. a total fiction, the I.R.S. in 2008 gave the association a “clean bill of health.” It wasn’t until the two reporters came sniffing — first curious about the political contributions and subsequently intrigued by Mr. Thompson’s obvious dissembling — that the real story began to emerge.
When it comes to frauds like these, it is neither the law nor the regulators that are the best line of defense; it will always be the careful application of caveat emptor by potential donors. This isn’t easy: there are approximately 59,000 charities in this country with the word “veterans” in their names. Only a few people can claim the expertise to say which are the best, let alone which are trustworthy.
As we enter the annual giving season, donors should look to sources like the GiveWell website to find organizations with a track record of effectiveness. Seeking them out — instead of donating to charities that are first to call or that sound familiar or that we’ve heard are good — is the only way to ensure that money reaches those in need.
Ken Stern, a former chief executive of NPR, is the chief executive of Palisades Media and the author of “With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give.”
3 thoughts on “The Charity Swindle”
What all those additional IRS agents hired and they are short of staff? Oh yeah, they are doing Obamacare folks sorry.
I never give money to charity unless I can hand it to the person in need. After Katrina the humane society had some heart wrenching ads about the pets that were abandoned. The goal was to reunite the owners with the pets. The fact is most of the pets were euthanized and the MILLIONS of dollars raised were used mostly for lobbyists, ads and administrative costs.
Just another way to F$*k over the average good hearted citizen and transfer wealth. Most charities give less then 10 percent to the people that need it. Many give less then one percent. The Gov. doesn’t care or spend time making sure these “charaties” are legit. They make money off of them why would they try to stop this fraud? Going after this one charity is a joke and an insult to us and to all of the people in need.
I’m with you. I don’t give to charities as I know that most of the money never reaches those in need (have you heard what the CEO of the Red Cross “earns”?).
I give to people in my community, usually through a local drive for canned food, coats, toys, etc. No cash and no foreign intermediaries…