Top law enforcement officials in Ohio are spending this Veterans Day hunting for the man they believe exploited the good name of America's warriors to abscond with more than $100 million.
The eccentric looking Florida man went by the name Bobby Thompson. As detailed in a report airing on World News with Diane Sawyer tonight, Thompson called his charity the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, and for eight years he raised money for the group, mostly through phone solicitations. He told donors the group was assisting needy veterans, and garnished this pitch with dollops of credibility by donating small amounts to legitimate veterans' groups.
Federal election records show he invested far more money -- more than $200,000 -- in campaign contributions to top Republican politicians, including President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. John McCain, and the presumptive incoming Speaker of the House, John Boehner. In exchange, he received grip-and-grin snapshots with American political leaders -- the sort of photo that may be commonplace on office walls in Washington, DC, but looked to outsiders like evidence of an important man with heavy-duty connections.
Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray told ABC News that as much as $100 million donated to the charity over eight years cannot be accounted for, and Thompson was using a stolen identity. He has been indicted in Ohio and is now considered a fugitive.
"There is a national man hunt for the so-called Bobby Thompson," Cordray said. "This is in the charitable sphere what Bernie Madoff did in the investment sphere. It's shocking, and it's discouraging and it's depressing to think so many people wanted to give to veterans and in fact they were giving to this man and his sham organization."
Veterans groups and charity workers have called the case distressing. Paul Sullivan, of Veterans for Common Sense, called it an outrage that there might be scams taking advantage of the generosity many Americans feel toward veterans, and that fraud hurts the efforts of genuine veterans' groups.
"If he were truly in the Navy, we would keelhaul him," said Sullivan.
An added dimension to the case is the ease with which this alleged con man used political contributions to get up close to some of the nation's most powerful leaders.
Sheila Krumholz, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, monitors the role of money in politics. She told ABC News she found the case deeply troubling.
"At some point over the years, one would have expected that somebody would have looked up the donor and said, 'Hey I can't find any evidence that this person exists,'" she said.
Election lawyers told ABC News that, now that authorities believe Bobby Thompson was not the real name of the man doling out all the campaign checks, this may become one of the largest cases of illegal contributions in recent memory. Brett Kappel, a D.C. election lawyer, called it perhaps "the most audacious campaign finance fraud in the past decade."
Dozens of politicians, nearly all of them Republicans, initially accepted money from Thompson, or from a political action committee he started called NAVPAC. He routed more donations to candidates by sending money orders and cashier's checks in the names of allegedly fictitious donors. Most officials have since returned the money or donated it to genuine charitable groups. But few would agree to talk about the lapses that allowed an alleged con man so much access.
Boehner brushed past an ABC News reporter Wednesday when asked about the photo he took with Thompson. His spokesman, Michael Steel, said only: "The congressman didn't know this guy was a fraud."
A spokesman for Rove emailed a statement. "Karl does not know this individual. He knows several individuals named 'Robert Thompson' but none of them are the same as the person in this photo. Anyone who would use the cause of our military veterans to conduct fraud deserves the full scrutiny of the law."
Some of the politicians continued to take donations even after irregularities with the charity were first exposed in March in detailed reports by the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R.-Minnesota, accepted contributions totaling $14,800 in April and May, according to records compiled by the Ohio Attorney General's Office.
"Once the Congresswoman learned of the allegations against Mr. Thompson she promptly gave his donation to a local charity," her spokesman Sergio Gor told ABC News. "Congresswoman Bachmann receives hundreds of thousands of donations each year and takes thousands of pictures with individuals; she has not and does have any connection to Mr. Thompson."
"We firmly believe that Mr. Thompson should be held accountable for his unlawful actions," Gor added.
Other political figures declined to comment on the case, including McCain and Bush.
Cordray, a Democrat who will leave office at the end of this year, said he considers it critical that the public be alerted to the "elaborate sham" that he believes was operating in at least 30 states.
"Nationally it appears to be tens of millions of dollars," he said. "It appears they took a lot of people for a ride. And we want to call him to account."
Cordray's successor will be Republican Mike DeWine, a former U.S. Senator who in 2006 received $500 from NAVPAC. DeWine told ABC News that, while he has yet to receive a formal briefing on the case, that donation will in no way slow down the efforts to bring the man posing as Bobby Thompson to justice.
"This is something we want to stay after," DeWine said. "I have said during the campaign, we will go after corruption no matter where we find it. You go after corruption, you go after criminals, you don't worry about what party they're from. If this is true, it's disgusting and reprehensible and should be severely punished. Just a horrible, horrible thing."