When Lt. Commander Bobby Thompson surfaced in Tampa in 1998, it was as if he had fallen from the sky, providing no hint of his past life. Eleven years later, St. Petersburg Times investigative reporter Jeff Testerman visited the rundown duplex Thompson used as his home and the epicenter of his 60,000-member charity, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. But something was amiss. Thompson’s charity’s addresses were just maildrops, his members nonexistent and his past a black hole. Yet, somehow, the Commander had stood for photos with President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain, and other political luminaries. The USNVA, it turned out, was a phony charity where Thompson used pricey telemarketers, savvy lawyers, and political allies to swindle tens of millions from well-meaning donors.
After Testerman’s story revealed that the nonprofit was a sham, the Commander went on the run. U.S. Marshals took up the hunt in 2011 and found themselves searching for an unnamed identity thief who they likened to a real-life Jason Bourne. When finally captured in 2012, Thompson was carrying multiple IDs and a key to a locker that held nearly $1 million in cash. But, who was he? Eventually, investigators discovered he was John Donald Cody, a Harvard Law School graduate and former U.S. Army intelligence officer who had been wanted since the 1980s on theft charges and for questioning in an espionage probe.
As Cody’s decades as a fugitive came to an end, he claimed his charity was run at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency. After reporting on the story for CNBC’s American Greed in 2014, Daniel Freed dug into Cody’s backstory–uncovering new information about his intelligence background and the evolution of his con.
By the summer of 2015, Peter P. Strzok II had spent most of his adult life protecting the United States from foreign adversaries. Following four years with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Strzok devoted the next twenty-two years of his life to protecting U.S. national security as an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. During his time with the FBI, he became the deputy assistant director of the Counterintelligence Division. He was, in the words of a CNN reporter, “one of the bureau’s top experts on Russia.” Among the cases Strzok worked was Operation Ghost Stories—a multiyear investigation of ten highly trained Russian spies sent to the United States to operate without the benefit of diplomatic cover. Members of the group shed their true identities and lived in cities across the United States under good-old American names like Patricia, Tracey, Richard, and Donald. In New York and New Jersey, Boston and Seattle, these highly trained operatives assumed outwardly normal lives, secured jobs, and raised families. Meanwhile, they secretly worked to recruit sources within influential policy circles who could provide information to be delivered in coded messages back to Moscow Center. Strzok was a lead agent on the FBI team that brought down the spy ring in 2010.
In the years to come, he would lead the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails and would work, for a time, for Robert Mueller as he looked into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Eventually, he would be removed from that post when it was determined he had sent anti-Trump text messages to his girlfriend, an FBI lawyer named Lisa Page. Strzok was a man who often found himself at the center of history, a man whose top-secret work made him privy to the world’s darkest secrets, a real-life character in stories that most people encountered only in spy novels. On June 16, 2015, the same day Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, and just weeks before Strzok was tasked with leading the Clinton probe, the agent received a brief email forward about one such tale. It was about a man who called himself the Commander.
Like other cases Strzok had worked, this one spanned the continent and crossed decades. It touched on national security, espionage, money, politics, lobbying, election meddling, assumed identities, elusive truths, and brazen lies. Having spent his career in the world of counterintelligence, the so-called Wilderness of Mirrors—where up was down, and black was white—Strzok knew about the Commander and thought someone else would like to hear his story too. Minutes after receiving the message that day in June, he forwarded it to Page.
“Really interesting background on this,” he told her. “I will regale you over lunch one day if I haven’t already told you . . . "
“Please do,” she responded.
Dr. Patrick Bray, an Ohio physician and Navy veteran, was one of thousands of Americans who got a call in 2007 from a phone solicitor for a charity called the United States Navy Veterans Association. Bray had never heard of this particular charity. But the telemarketer on the line was courteous and knowledgeable, and the pitch was smooth. The phone solicitor talked about a “new respect for veterans” and how donations helped finance personal care packages being shipped to troops abroad. As a Navy submarine and diving medical officer once separated from his wife by six-month deployments in places like Guam and Okinawa, Bray knew firsthand the psychological and material needs of service members at war and of veterans adjusting to life back home. He promptly sent a check for $150 to the Navy Veterans. A year later he sent another one for $300.
The hundreds of telemarketers calling on behalf of the Navy Veterans group were experts in coaxing potential contributors to open their checkbooks. If would-be donors explained they were senior citizens or retired or living on a fixed income, they were advised that the charity wasn’t asking for a lot. “After all,” the telemarketers explained, “a lot of our vets died in combat so that the two of us could be free today.”
With patriotic passion gripping the nation following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Americans were easily moved by the cause of its soldiers at war and veterans coming home. Donations for the Navy Veterans charity poured in. Most were small, ten or twenty dollars each. But they added up in a hurry. In 2007, the year Dr. Bray wrote his first check, the biggest telemarketing firm working for the Navy Veterans—a Michigan company named Associated Community Services—raised almost $7.4 million for the charity. Telemarketing services weren’t cheap. But the Navy Veterans still did very well. In its tax returns the charity reported receiving income of more than $100 million in just a few years.
To an American public ready to believe they were lending a hand in the great fight of their generation, it all looked aboveboard and legitimate. Anyone who got a telemarketer’s call could check out the charity a dozen different ways, beginning by scrolling through the association’s extensive website. Right up front was a listing of the executive board, including a photo of CEO Jack Nimitz in a blazer and striped tie, described as a no-nonsense Navy man who was now a private investment banker from Texas. Nimitz. The head man actually shared a name with the famous fleet admiral from World War II. It sounded impressive. Nimitz and the rest of the board worked out of an office suite with an address on M Street in Washington DC, just a couple of miles from the U.S. Capitol. Dial the toll-free number to reach the board, and a pleasant-sounding receptionist answered the phone. Yes, this was Nimitz’s office, she’d say, though he and most of the board, as volunteer directors, were hard to catch. But a caller could get the association’s director of development and chief spokesperson on the phone. He was an officer from Florida who preferred being called “Commander,” and he knew more about the Navy Veterans history and mission than anyone.
Anybody who plumbed the depths of the Navy Veterans website would soon see that the group had outstanding legal representation: a general counsel who had been deputy attorney general in charge of consumer protection in Ohio, and a special counsel who was a Navy captain and well-published legal advocate for veterans rights. The charity had the recognition of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and was certified as a nonprofit, offering veterans services right on their website. And what about the telemarketers, like Associated Community Services? Anyone curious enough to check might notice that the firm had hit a couple of regulatory bumps, like a lot of companies do. But they could also see the company had a director of compliance who had specialized in investigating charities and nonprofits for the Minnesota attorney general for more than two decades. No surprise then, that checking filings with the forty-one states where the Navy Veterans did business, or with the IRS, where the charity filed its tax returns, revealed that all the paperwork was in order, all the i’s dotted, all the t’s crossed, all the signatures by officers like Nimitz and Bobby Thompson properly notarized. The Navy Veterans had even earned a premium listing on GuideStar, a website that gathers and publishes information about nonprofits for the average consumer, in part because it had an internal auditor on staff and an outside CPA who performed special audits.
But what of the Navy Veterans charitable good works? Again, the group’s accomplishments were described in page after page on the association’s website, and anyone could look it up. When Lon Henke, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, suffered a stroke while visiting South Florida, the Navy Veterans paid $5,000 for an air ambulance to transport him back to his home in Illinois. Henke’s wife, Sherry, said the gift added “a ray of sunshine to the bleakest days in our lives.” The Navy Veterans bought a new van for another veteran paralyzed in Afghanistan, presenting the gift on Christmas Eve. It sent checks to veterans groups around the country. It donated $20,000 to a food bank called Tampa Bay Harvest, not far from where the Commander was headquartered, and another $20,000 to a group called Sew Much Comfort, which delivered custom clothing to the disabled. Every bit of this could be verified.
The charity also assisted U.S. active-duty troops, the telemarketers stressed. Much of the money funneled from public donations to the Navy Veterans was spent shipping “care kits” of snacks, toiletries, and other personal care items to troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The association maintained receipts for the care-kit expenses in state chapter warehouses around the country, the Commander said, and sometimes, to save money, it shipped kits on U.S. Central Command transport planes headed for the Mideast theaters of war from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Those who read along far enough on the Navy Veterans website could find thank-you notes written by service members who received the care kits. “Everyone in the unit who received a package from you wants to thank you so much,” read one letter from Gina Pronzati, a real-life service member who served with a U.S. Navy K-9 unit in Afghanistan.
Just about anyone checking into the U.S. Navy Veterans Association would have to conclude that this charity was the real deal and that its contributions to veterans were remarkable. And if someone at home answered a telemarketer’s call and made a pledge, however small, they likely received a letter of thanks from Jack Nimitz himself, with the Navy Veterans logo of a blue eagle clutching a gold anchor in its talons at the top of the note and Nimitz’s picture at the bottom. The letter let donors know that the charity had helped more than 240,000 veterans and their families in the previous year with everything from food, clothing, and shelter to vocational training and financial aid and was now expanding into the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Panama. “In other words, we are succeeding like few before us, and that means real benefits to all veterans of every military branch,” Nimitz wrote, thanking those who made contributions. “YOU HAVE MANNED YOUR BATTLESTATION!”
But nothing was as it seemed. The Navy Veterans Association was actually a grand illusion, produced and directed by its most visible and voluble member: the enigmatic Commander. From a ramshackle Florida duplex, the Commander had created the charity out of his imagination, fine-tuning it through years of trial and error. It was his masterpiece, an intricately scripted play, filled with characters sometimes real but mostly fabricated; dressed up with charitable works that were occasionally genuine but mostly invented; and managed by legal and telemarketing stagehands who used their influence and persuasive power to prevent the curtain from dropping on the extravagant performance.
Playing the central character in the elaborate charade was the Commander himself. Appearing out of nowhere, he placed himself in the starring role of a show that used patriotism to pull the wool over the eyes of the country for years, leading some to call him the Bernie Madoff of charity fraud. He was the playwright of his grand work, the puppeteer pulling the strings of dozens of characters who existed only in his mind, and the soliloquist who attracted a wide audience with an irresistible message of flag-waving fervor.
In a performance on the stage he created, the Commander took his place in the lore and literature of the United States. He was the snake-oil salesperson, putting on a show for frontier settlers and pocketing their coins for a tonic that provided no cure. He was Meredith Willson’s Harold Hill in The Music Man, come to River City with promises to provide boys with band uniforms, instruments, and music lessons, though his intention was never to teach a song but to steal the townspeople’s money. He was Herman Melville’s con artist in the Confidence-Man, slipped aboard a steamship sailing down the Mississippi to New Orleans, conning the passengers aboard with an array of identities and entreaties. And, some would say, the Commander was like a U.S. president who used fabulism and a puffed-up business history to win the White House and the bounty that went with it.
So when Dr. Bray and countless other Americans heard a scripted spiel and wrote checks to a veterans charity, they became an unknowing audience to the Commander’s artifice, entering a realm where it seemed impossible to determine what was real and what was imaginary. Politicians, like regular citizens, also settled into their seats to enjoy the Commander’s show. They were enticed by his money and the political power they were sure he wielded with the sixty-six thousand members he said filled the rosters of his organization. But all the office holders—from mayors and senators to the president of the United States—were hoodwinked by a hoax constructed of stolen cash, contrived influence, phony campaign contributions, and even fraudulent votes. The politicians, no less than the citizenry, were starry-eyed while the Commander performed and willingly passed into the realm where it was impossible to tell what was real and what was made up.
Well-meaning citizens and polished politicians, seasoned regulators, shrewd lawyers, and calculating businessmen all fell prey to the Commander’s come-on, none capable of discerning real from counterfeit. It fell to investigative journalists, whose most basic responsibility is to inform the public of what is true and what is not, to follow a hunch, dig for clues, and finally see through hidden decades of elaborate scheming.
In the search for the Commander, the reporters puzzled over a complex character who seemed much more than a hustler. He was articulate and highly educated, energetic, inventive, and resourceful. Yet he drank to excess, was sometimes mistaken for a vagrant, and could be unconsciously self-confessional. He was chameleonlike, at home in the hovel in which he hid but able to play the bon vivant at a high-society Washington ball. He begged to be known as the collegial commander of U.S. patriots, yet he wrapped himself in a secret cloak-and-dagger history, hinting at a life of espionage and dark government intrigue.
Ultimately, everyone who came to know the Commander wondered the same things: exactly what was the motivation behind his elaborate hoax, what was its endgame, and why had he determined to use his considerable talents to become an outlaw illusionist? Was he some breed of sociopathic lone wolf, a fugitive on the run from a long-hidden secret? Was he a tool, perhaps, of a telemarketing plot, the figurehead to provide the window dressing for a cause so compelling that the public would willingly hand over millions to the solicitors who asked for it? Or was the Commander part of some dark political conspiracy, an operative who used the poorly regulated world of charities to funnel cash to a secret right-wing government cause?
Or was he something else altogether?
The Commander believed only he could define himself. “Life is argument,” he said, “and one man’s fact is another man’s fiction.” He thought he had the power to persuade anyone of anything, and he believed he could be whatever he wanted. While he ran his charity and was the consummate actor in his own show, he was nothing that he claimed. But when finally unmasked, he turned out to be much more than anyone might have imagined.
“Call Me Commander” is available for purchase on Amazon and everywhere else on Feb. 1.
Jeff Testerman is an investigative reporter now retired from the St. Petersburg Times, where he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize five times. The newspaper’s investigation exposing the U.S. Navy Veterans charity scheme earned the Investigative Reporters and Editors top award for public service.
Daniel M. Freed is a senior producer for CNBC’s white-collar crime documentary series “American Greed.” His television and print work has been aired or published by PBS, Current TV, Amazon Prime Video, and the Los Angeles Times.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.