* By Jeff Testerman and John Martin St. Petersburg Times *
TAMPA — Lt. Cmdr. Bobby Thompson was under the gun.
A newspaper was about to report that his charity, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, which reported annual income of $22 million and tens of thousands of members, appeared to consist of just one person — him.
Thompson said the group’s members are real and doing good deeds.
To show that, he could draw on what was supposed to be a coast-to-coast network of volunteers: 66,939 association members, 41 state chapters and dozens of officers, spending millions upon millions for gifts to veterans, military men and their families.
But rather than use any of them to demonstrate the group’s good deeds, Thompson looked for stand-ins. He found them at the office of Donald E. Phillips, a Tampa developer and political power broker.
Phillips, a native of Raleigh, N.C., relocated the headquarters of Phillips Development & Realty from North Carolina to Tampa seven years ago. He gave generously to campaigns, established a committee to screen and endorse candidates and made himself a go-to guy for conservative politicians.
Phillips’ own political point man was his company’s governmental affairs director, Michael Ciftci. The 26-year-old handled political legwork, including pickup and delivery of checks to favored candidates.
Ciftci said that he met Thompson at a 2008 Tampa fundraiser for John McCain and that they have talked regularly since. Late last year Thompson asked for some recruits to attend some political events the Navy Veterans group was involved in. Ciftci said he gave Thompson the names of two friends: Ciftci’s old roommate and a colleague at Phillips Development.
Soon, photos of Ciftci and the two friends began finding their way to prominent positions on the website of the Navy Veterans Association. The captions did not identify them by name. Instead, here was “an Association member” presenting a van to a U.S. Army sergeant wounded in Afghanistan, there were “Association representatives” meeting with the prime minister of Haiti. Navy Veterans “members” were shown meeting with a congressman, with foreign dignitaries and with a candidate for Florida attorney general.
The no-name stand-ins helped lend the appearance of an influential, hard-working organization.
In March, the St. Petersburg Times published “Under the radar,” stories that asked why a months-long search for the 85 Navy Veterans officers listed on federal tax returns turned up only one: Thompson.
Read more at St. Petersburg Times
Read the full series: U.S. Navy Veterans Association: Under the radar