The man who once rubbed shoulders with GOP political luminaries is now wanted by Ohio state authorities who say the $100 million he raised in the name of a charity for U.S. Navy veterans cannot be located.
He went by the names Bobby Thompson and Ronnie Brittain, but authorities say both were stolen identities. His charity, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, ran its national headquarters in Washington, D.C., out of a post office box at a UPS store.
Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray charged that this alleged con artist had done "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."
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Thompson collected as much as $100 million over the past decade from donors who thought they were contributing to a legitimate veterans service organization, according to Cordray, and 99 percent of the funds are now unaccounted for. He donated more than $200,000 to prominent politicians, mostly Republicans.
Some, like President George W. Bush and the presumptive incoming House Speaker, John Boehner, posed for photographs with him. Others, including a former Ohio Attorney General, initially supported what they believed were his legitimate charitable efforts.
Darryl Rouson, a Florida legislator, initially helped represent the man he thought was Bobby Thompson after he first came under fire in reports by the St. Petersburg Times, the newspaper that first raised questions about the so-called veterans charity.
"He seemed to be a knowledgeable man about politics and community affairs," Rouson told ABC News. "He was engaging, jovial. I had no reason to suspect he was anything other than who he said he was."
Mike DeWine, a former U.S. Senator who is preparing to take over as Ohio Attorney General, was one of many Republicans who took donations from the man who called himself Bobby Thompson. He now says he expects to pursue the case against Thompson with the same vigor as his Democratic predecessor, Cordray.
He conceded in an interview with ABC News that the business of political fundraising is not always as intimate as people believe -- that candidates raise most of their money from people who are, essentially, total strangers.
"Some people who give you money, you just don't know them," DeWine said. "You don't know who they are. You're talking about thousands of people, you don't have a clue who they are. It can be pretty hard to sort all that out. You've got to try."
Now, authorities are trying to sort out Thompson's real identity. And his location.
The person calling himself Bobby Thompson and claiming to be a retired lieutenant commander in the Navy surfaced in Florida in 1998, according to a timeline compiled by the St. Petersburg Times, giving his age as 52 when he registered to vote in Hillsborough County. He formed a Navy veterans' political action committee the next year, and then launched the U.S. Navy Veterans Association as a non-profit veterans service organization in 2002, applying for tax-exempt status with the IRS.
After the St. Petersburg Times began investigating Thompson, a reporter from the newspaper was able to confront "Thompson" outside his Ybor City, Florida duplex in 2009 and conduct an interview with him. Thompson told the paper he was part Choctaw Indian and was from Mississippi. He also said he had a relative in the tribe named Bobby Thompson, "but I'm not him." He also claimed to have joined the Navy underage, but the Navy has no record of his service.
According to Ohio authorities, "Thompson" stole the identity of a man named Bobby Thompson from Washington state. He also had an identity card from the state of Indiana issued under the name of a man from New Mexico named Ronnie Brittain. The real Ronnie Brittain is the head of a veterans group in New Mexico.
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