The woman who once vigorously defended the U.S. Navy veterans charity run by an Ohio fugitive who is alleged to have swindled millions of dollars now concedes she, too, was fooled.
Helen MacMurray told ABC News that she has begun working with investigators to help them locate the man, who went by the name Bobby Thompson, but whose real identity remains a mystery. She believes he may have fled overseas to the Middle East or Eastern Europe.
"My understanding is that he had a lot of connections out of the country," she said. "He bragged about that."
Top law enforcement officials in Ohio have spent months 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 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 some of the money -- more than $200,000 -- in campaign contributions to top Republican politicians, including President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. John McCain, and the 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, D.C., but looked to outsiders like evidence of an important man with heavy-duty connections.
When the Florida newspaper the St. Petersburg Times first wrote articles raising questions about the legitimacy of Thompson's charity, he hired MacMurray -- a former head of Ohio's consumer protection unit -- to defend the charity from the swirling allegations.
MacMurray said that despite her own background in consumer affairs, she now believes she was tricked.
"I didn't even know until I read it in the newspaper that his name wasn't Bobby Thompson. I was pretty shocked by that," she told ABC News. "I just found it hard to believe that this man who seemed to have spent his life helping veterans did the opposite."
MacMurray Assisting Ohio Investigators
MacMurray said she recently sought and received a judge's permission to break the bond of attorney-client privilege and assist state investigators as they pursue the man she knew as Thompson. She first broke her silence on the case Dec. 16, in an interview with WCPO-TV, the ABC-affiliated television station in Cincinnati, telling the station that Thompson's "lies were pervasive and long-standing."
The lawyer now believes she was one of the last people to see Thompson before he fled from investigators. In May Ohio authorities ordered the supposed charity to stop contacting Ohio residents for contributions. MacMurray and Thompson met in early June at the Helmsley Hotel in New York City, and she says she grilled him with questions.
"I didn't get very good answers to them," she said.
In early August, Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray announced an arrest warrant for Thompson, who remains a fugitive. "Our investigation remains active," a spokesman for Cordray told ABC News, "and we look forward to eventually bringing this person, 'Bobby Thompson,' to justice."
MacMurray said she is doing her best to help investigators identify and locate Thompson, and to track down the millions in donations that were made to the charity in the name of American veterans.
"We have been constantly responding to any kind of help that the [attorney general] has sought in terms of all our documents, all of our email from him. We've even hunted around our office for items that might have his fingerprints on them."
While she says she recognizes now the gravity of the allegations against Thompson, she still holds out hope that he intended to help veterans all along.
"I still believe there's some story there somewhere that none of us knows," she said. "I really do hope that it comes to light. Maybe the money is being put to good use but he simply didn't want to follow our rules? I can only hope that that's the case."
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