RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A Florida man who called himself Bobby Thompson said he was a retired Navy commander. He set up a nonprofit organization called the U.S. Navy Veterans Association and then began collecting donations - lots of them. Until Jeff Testerman, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, investigated the group and found that virtually everything about it was a fiction.
We reached him at his home.
What was supposedly the U.S. Navy Veterans Association? What did people think they were giving to?
Mr. JEFF TESTERMAN (Reporter, St. Petersburg Times): Well, they thought this was a nationwide charity that had state chapters in 41 states, and a reputation for giving millions of dollars a year to our troops overseas and to veterans, and to the families of both groups.
MONTAGNE: So who in fact was Bobby Thompson and what actually was going on here?
Mr. TESTERMAN: Well, Bobby Thompson is a man who stole the identity from a real Bobby Thompson. We dont know his real name. We know that he established a charity called the U.S. Veterans Association. We know that the charity was bringing in a lot of money. The Navy veterans' group, we believe now was an elaborate hoax. Exactly how much came in and exactly where it went, no one is quite sure yet.
MONTAGNE: Did nobody notice there were no real people - nobody, including donors? Were there big donors or just, you know, individuals out there in the world sending in $10, $15, $20, $100?
Mr. TESTERMAN: We think the donors, by and large, were small donors. A lot of these did a little a homework; saw tax returns and they saw that there was a board listed. They saw that there was an address. And it all looked pretty authentic.
MONTAGNE: What about the IRS? Did they not check on whether or not a nonprofit or a charity is legitimate? I mean could I, Renee Montagne, set up, you know, the Renee Montagne Childrens Society?
Mr. TESTERMAN: Well, I believe you could. Bobby Thompson used his name, which was stolen. He used a rented mailbox. He used the names of two fictional officers and his cell phone, and he filed an application for tax exemption in 2002. And the IRS rubberstamped it and gave his group a tax exempt status 33 days later.
MONTAGNE: Describe this guy who called himself Lieutenant Commander Bobby Thompson, U.S. Navy. Because, as you described in your articles, he didnt really fit the part.
Mr. TESTERMAN: Lieutenant Commander Bobby Thompson, I met one time in August of 2009. I had driven to his address to talk to him, most innocently, about a campaign contribution his group - the Navy Veterans - had given to a local commissioner. I encountered a man that, frankly, did not come across as a retired Navy commander who was the leader of a 66,000-member charity.
He was a scruffy-looking fellow but talked well, and spoke in Navy jargon about his group. And I came back to the office and I said something doesnt feel right about that guy.
MONTAGNE: What about now? I gather there are federal agencies in several states investigating the group at this point in time.
Mr. TESTERMAN: Thats right. Bobby Thompson, whatever his real name is, is somewhere on the lam with indictments against him ranging from identity theft to racketeering to money laundering. No one knows his name so far in law enforcement and no one knows his whereabouts.
MONTAGNE: Jeff Testerman is an investigative reporter with the St. Petersburg Times. He spoke to us from his home outside Tampa.
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