A KATU On Your Side Investigation into pseudo-charities looking to profit off patriotism turned personal for Investigator Thom Jensen when he found out a member of his own family was a target.
The arrest of an alleged charity scam operator this past May in Portland shined a spotlight on the scope of this problem. Navy Veterans Association founder Bobby Thompson is accused by federal authorities of pocketing tens of millions of dollars in charitable donations.
KATU wanted to know what other kind of fake fundraising is out there, wrapped in the flag.
That’s when Thom Jensen found out that his step-father had been targeted by scammers just as determined as Thompson is alleged to have been at profiting off soldiers’ patriotism.
Now awaiting trial in Ohio, we found out earlier this month that Thompson’s real name is John Donald Cody. It’s an identity he tried to hide, going so far to sign the booking sheet with an ‘X’ after his arrest here.
A few more details filtered out, including that he had formerly gone to the University of Virginia and Harvard, there earning a law degree, and worked in military intelligence.
But there’s more – much more – to his life in between that service and the scandal that made national headlines.
The Crying Game
When he entered private practice in Sierra Vista, Arizona, after his discharge in the 1980s, Cody immediately stood out, and not just because of his Harvard diploma on the wall. Cody told people around town that his tear ducts were damaged in the military by radiation. So mid conversation or court presentation, without missing a beat, he'd squirt drops in his eyes until it looked like he was crying.
In interviews with the Tampa Bay Times, acquaintances also remarked on his bizarre personal appearance – his clothes were throwbacks to the '70s, wide-legged bell bottoms and wild ties – and Cody’s hair was “an orangey-brown pompadour that everybody swore was a wig.”
Legal associates the newspaper talked to said Cody proclaimed himself an anarchist, and would spend nights talking into a tape recorder of conspiracy theories and in one case threatening to shoot methamphetamine into the district attorney’s brain.
And then one day he just vanished. He told his assistant he had an emergency meeting in Tucson but never returned. It turns out he had the law on his tail, even then. Local police were ready to charge him with stealing $100,000 from clients’ bank accounts.
Preying on Patriots
From there, we know that Cody adopted a new identity, Bobby Thompson, and founded his U.S. Veterans Association, taking in thousands of charitable donations worth millions of dollars.
Federal investigators say the swindle started out of an office in Florida but spread to 40 states, and only ended when law enforcers arrested him after he was spotted in a Portland bar. He was positively identified as Cody in part because of his still-strange hair style, which a police officer recognized from a wanted poster back in Arizona.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick way to recognize appeals from fake veterans groups when they arrive in the mail or on your computer.
That’s what happened to Thom Jensen’s step-father. He survived combat as a pilot in World War II and Korea, only to find himself under attack by fly-by-night pseudo-charities and outright phony operations. And there were not just a few appeals, but hundreds.
Hero Becomes a Target
Harold ‘Gib’ Gibson doesn’t like to brag about his service to his country. The retired lieutenant colonel first flew fighter planes in World War II, then later served as a fighter group commander in Korea to pilots including future Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn. His 94-years haven’t dulled his sense of duty: he’s always been happy to help other veterans and give to causes that help them.
But consumer watchdogs say that same patriotism and loyalty can easily turn veterans into victims, or at the very least, expose them to unrelenting solicitations.
That’s what happened to Lt. Col. Gibson.
For months, his mailbox was stuffed with flyers, form letters and patriotic pamphlets, all with a hand out for money.
Concerned about the sheer volume of solicitations, and suspicious about more than a few of them, he kept a list if the groups that contacted him and the number of times they requested his money.
"I didn't start making this list for any big publicity or any investigation like that,” Gibson says. “It was just out of my own curiosity."
But in talking to his step-son Thom Jensen, curiosity turned to concern: over the course of a year, he was approached by 220 organizations, and asked to donate money 1,045 times. Certainly, raising money in the name of needy veterans is big business – nearly $2 billion a year, according to the American Institute of Philanthropy. But in light of the Bobby Thompson story, how could Gibson, and thousands of other good-hearted Americans, be sure their money was really going to help our men and women in uniform?
KATU’s On Your Side Investigators started to check the names on Gibson’s list against IRS records and information on Charity Navigator – a free online resource that anyone can use to evaluate non-profits based on factors like percent of money spent on overhead and financial transparency. What we found was alarming: 79 of the 220 groups that solicited money from Gibson were no good.
They were either not a charity at all, or rated so low by Charity Navigator that no one who knew their histories would want to donate to them.
Nonetheless, consumer watchdogs say these groups – with names Army Emergency Relief and Thompson’s Navy Veterans Association - still rake in the cash, because the victims are blinded by the same ‘brothers-in-arms’ mentality that bound them together on the battlefield.
What’s in a Name?
Their names lend an aura of legitimacy, like Army Emergency Relief, Air Force Aid Society, and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. Together they have combined fund balances of $638 million. But the American Institute of Philanthropy gave them an ‘F’ grade because they only spent $59 million on soldiers’ needs.
The name game can hurt donations to legitimate veterans’ charities. Officials KATU spoke with at Disabled American Veterans – since World War I, the voice of the wounded soldier – say the their donation downturn was due in part to a scandal surrounding the similarly named Disabled Veterans National Foundation.
That group has raised nearly $60 million since its founding in 2007, but IRS documents show very little of that money ever made its way to soldiers.
A Congressional panel has been convened to investigate DVNF’s finances, but the damage has already been done.
“When one charity gets a bad rap, it really affects the rest of us," said Don Smith, executive director of DAV’s Portland chapter. "We struggle, because there's only a finite amount of resources and that probably gets slivered up thinner and thinner with the more of these that show up."
To Defend and Serve
Adding insult to injury, the Better Business Bureau says soldier-themed scams are most likely to be mailed out now, right around Veterans’ Day, when feelings of patriotism are at their strongest.
So how can you protect yourself from these scammers and get your name off all these annoying mailing lists? We turned to Portland’s Elders In Action for answers.
“We really encourage people, if they want to give to a charity, that they initiate the contact, that they go to the agency website or they call the agency to make a donation,” said Executive Director Leslie Foren. “If you have never heard of them, and never had any contact with them, how did they get your name in the first place?"
Foren says good charities don’t sell mailing lists. Where possible, donors should always check a non-profit’s bona fides using the on-line tools we’ve provided in this article: