By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; B01
RICHMOND -- Democrats called on Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) on Monday to give away more than $55,000 in campaign contributions he received from a man who served as director of a charitable organization that is now under scrutiny by officials in three states and that led an effort to loosen laws governing charity registration in Virginia this year.
The Democrats' calls came on the day that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said he would give an established veterans charity a $5,000 contribution he had received from Bobby Thompson, who until last fall was director of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.
Virginia state Sen. Patricia S. Ticer (D-Alexandria) said she would also give away a $1,000 donation she had received from Thompson. As first reported by the Roanoke Times, Ticer sponsored a bill this year at the request of a Washington lawyer and a Virginia lobbyist representing the association that would allow veterans organizations, unlike other charities, to solicit donations without annually registering with the Virginia consumer affairs department or filing financial reports with the state agency.
After the General Assembly unanimously passed the bill, Ticer said, she became suspicious of the group when she was forwarded a report by the St. Petersburg Times. After a six-month investigation, the newspaper reported in March that it had been unable to locate 84 of the 85 national and state directors listed for the organization, despite extensive searches of public records.
The newspaper found that most of the millions raised each year by the group had been solicited by professional call centers that retain up to 60 percent of their collections. The only director the newspaper could find was Thompson, who moved from his Tampa duplex shortly after he was interviewed and left no forwarding address.
Alarmed, Ticer contacted McDonnell's office and asked that her bill be vetoed. Her call came too late, and the governor signed the bill into law.
Helen Mac Murray, an Ohio lawyer representing the association, said Monday that it is a legitimate charity with 66,000 members nationwide that has helped many veterans, including by sending care packages and making cash donations to the homeless. She said it has been the victim of unfair media coverage.
Thompson could not be reached Monday. Mac Murray said Thompson stepped down as director of development for the group in the fall.
The association is under review by authorities in New Mexico, Florida and Missouri, according to news reports.
Noah Wall, Cuccinelli's political director, said Monday that Cuccinelli had received donations from Thompson personally, not from the group. He said Cuccinelli would consider returning the $55,500 he received from Thompson if Thompson is convicted of a crime. Thompson has not been charged with any crime.
"Unless we found out the donation was made illegally, I really don't see what we're talking about," Wall said.
Thompson was Cuccinelli's second-largest individual donor before the November election. Cuccinelli declined to be interviewed but told the Roanoke Times last week that he had called Thompson and requested a donation after receiving two unsolicited contributions from him that totaled $5,500. Thompson gave Cuccinelli $50,000 on Aug. 31. Cuccinelli said Thompson never asked for anything for his donation. "There was nothing that raised a red flag," Cuccinelli said.
Dave Mills, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said that an unsolicited out-of-state donation of that size should have raised "all kinds of flags."
"The fact that the attorney general is not running down the street with a check for $50,000 to give to an actual charity is really disturbing," Mills said.
Thompson gave to several other Virginia Republicans last year. An aide to House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who received $2,000, said that Howell plans to donate the contribution to another veterans organization.
Mac Murray said it's not surprising that the group's officers and directors can't be found through public records because they have worked to maintain a low public profile, particularly given statements made on the group's Web site opposing terrorism.
"They don't want to be out there. They don't want to be found," she said.
Mac Murray promised to relay a message from The Washington Post to Thompson and the organization's chairman, listed on association documents as Jack Nimitz of Texas. Nimitz could not be located Monday.
Mac Murray said the group had been active in Virginia after receiving an exemption from annual registration with the state in 2004. Last year, she said, the group was told it no longer qualified for an exemption after state law was reinterpreted by then- Attorney General William Mims (R). She said that when the new state law goes into effect July 1, the group will again seek exemption from state reporting requirements and begin soliciting donations in Virginia.
Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said that to receive the exemption, the group will need to file documents, including a list of board members with addresses, articles of incorporation and bylaws.
Eric Finkbeiner, McDonnell's policy director, said that if concerns had been raised about the bill well before it was signed into law, McDonnell might have vetoed or amended it. He said that the consumer agency is equipped to investigate the group and that other veterans groups will benefit from the legal change.
But Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said he discourages states from making special rules for veterans groups.
"Veterans groups in particular need to be accountable," he said. "People get very emotional when it comes to veterans, and they're more likely to give."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.