* By Jeff Testerman and John Martin St. Petersburg Times *
Suppertime on a Sunday evening, a phone rings in suburban Tampa. Some 1,200 miles away, in a call center in Michigan, a cheerful telemarketer starts his pitch for a donation to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.
Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan need your help, he says. Any donation, even $20, would help pay for care packages.
He says the Navy Vets group has a long history. “They have a main office right there in Tampa. They really are on the up and up.”
How much of the donation gets to the Navy veterans, the homeowner asks, and how much goes to the telemarketer?
“That’s a good question, I’m glad you asked. Hold the line and I’ll get a supervisor.”
The supervisor says 20 percent goes to the charity. When the homeowner presses for more details, the line goes dead.
Other questions about the nonprofit went unanswered as well. In a six-month investigation, the St. Petersburg Times could find only one officer in the entire organization, and the nonprofit declined to reveal where its millions of dollars of income went.
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On its Web site and in tax papers filed with the IRS, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association represents itself as having a rich heritage of charitable giving that annually provides millions of dollars in assistance to veterans, their families and America’s military troops at war. It says its all-volunteer staff and 85 officers run a national headquarters and state chapters across America.
Since 2002, when the group told the IRS that a handful of volunteers spent $6,703 for groceries and medical care for veterans, the association said it has grown to more than 66,000 members, with 41 state chapters and more than $22.4 million in annual income. It says its five-member executive board and 12 key officers work out of the national headquarters on M Street in Washington.
In the eight years since the IRS certified the group as a tax-exempt charity, there is little evidence that regulators ever questioned its governance, spending and stated accomplishments.
But try to find the group — its directors and its officers, its money and its records — they’re all but invisible.
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