He called himself Bobby Charles Thompson and gave himself the rank of lieutenant commander as he headed a nationwide nonprofit for U.S. Navy veterans.
Donations solicited by telemarketers poured in to his U.S. Navy Veterans Association from around the country _ largely individual gifts under $50 _ piling up tens of millions of dollars intended for veterans' needs and other military causes.
Thompson and NAVPAC, his political action committee, gave lavishly to more than 50 candidates in 16 states _ most of them Republicans, records show _ and the generosity was rewarded with some high-level entree, at least for photo opportunities. President George W. Bush and his adviser, Karl Rove, were among those who posing with Thompson in photographs that show him smiling broadly through an unkempt black beard and mustache.
But authorities say veterans got precious little of Thompson's largesse and that he was a fraud, operating a bogus charity from a seedy Tampa-area duplex with a stolen identity, scamming hundreds of thousands of donors in 30 states out of at least $20 million.
He disappeared last June after the St. Petersburg Times questioned him about some political donations and began publishing an investigative series.
Now charged in Ohio with aggravated theft, money laundering, identity fraud and corruption, Thompson, believed to be 65, is being investigated by several states. And many of the politicians whose treasuries he graced have hastened to shed his donations.
Not only do authorities not know where he is, they don't know who he really is, they say. And they don't know where all the money went.
Campaign finance records show the man claiming to be Thompson has donated nearly $300,000 since 1999 to Bush's presidential campaigns, several U.S. senators, other candidates and groups.
He also gave to candidates for local offices, such as county commissioner and sheriff, according to the Ohio attorney general's office.
Investigators say he also used other aliases linked to his U.S. Navy Veterans Association to contribute to other political causes, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's 2008 White House campaign.
The Ohio attorney general's office doesn't yet know if the money Thompson used for political donations flowed directly from the charity.
Other than the campaign donations and about $500,000 for lawyers and lobbyists since 2007, investigators don't know what happened to USNVA's money. The association's bank accounts with about $70,000 and drop boxes in Ohio have been frozen.
In the alleged scam being unraveled by Ohio and other states, the man began using Thompson's identity by 2003 and applied that year for a special federal tax-exempt status for veterans' groups. "Thompson" listed the USNVA's national headquarters address at what turned out to be a United Parcel Service postal box in Washington, D.C.
Several chapters across the country, including those in Ohio, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota and South Carolina, had addresses linked to UPS boxes, Ohio authorities say.
In IRS filing papers and annual reports, USNVA listed numerous officers _ including one surnamed Reagan and another Nimitz _ most of them believed to be fictitious.
Yet the group Thompson created gave sporadically to some real causes for veterans and active-duty military.
The Navy Memorial Foundation in Washington got $6,000 for two plaques for servicemen, military in Iraq were sent a batch of care packages and a VFW post in Florida received at least one donation, said Lisa Peterson Hackley, spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
In 2009, she said, USNVA gave a $28,000 van to a serviceman injured in Iraq and paid $8,000 in 2008 to have a veteran on vacation flown from Miami to Chicago after he suffered a stroke and his family didn't have the money to get him home.
Other verified gifts include a $10,000 donation in 2009 to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Hawaii and $2,000 to the USO in 2007.
As professional fund-raisers made phone and mail solicitations for the USNVA, someone using the name "Brian Reagan" and purporting to be the group's secretary submitted 990s, the annual income and spending reports required by the IRS. The documents also list "Jack Nimitz" as CEO.
In October, Thompson was indicted in Cleveland after authorities already looking into the case saw the charity listed as a beneficiary in a Navy veteran's obituary printed in The Plain Dealer newspaper. Authorities say as many as 100,000 Ohio residents have donated more than $2.1 million to the fraudulent charity. Thompson faces decades in prison if convicted.
Charged with him is Blanca Contreras, 39, of Tampa, Fla., who prosecutors said was his charity's acting treasurer. Arrested in North Carolina in October, she was extradited to Ohio, jailed in Cleveland and awaits trial in June. Messages seeking comment were left with her attorneys.
Political donations went to candidates in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington state, authorities said.
When they learned of the allegations against Thompson, some recipients passed the contributions on to charities.
The real Bobby Charles Thompson lives in Washington state and had nothing to do with the charity or the scam, authorities said. His stolen identity was used as long ago as 2003, when a UPS box was rented in his name in Cincinnati, said Ted Hart, a former Ohio attorney general's spokesman.
The organization abruptly went out of business and its website went blank when Thompson disappeared in June. He was last seen in Pompano Beach, Fla., about three months after the St. Petersburg Times began publishing its investigative series challenging the organization's legitimacy.
Thompson has not been charged in other states but some, including New Mexico, Virginia, Florida, Missouri and Hawaii, also are looking into whether Thompson misappropriated charity money.
Hackley, the spokeswoman for the Ohio attorney general's office, says investigators have been getting new information since Thompson appeared on a recent episode of "America's Most Wanted." She did not elaborate.
Ohio authorities say records show Thompson gave about $3,700 to Bush's 2000 campaign and about $3,200 to his 2004 campaign. He also made donations to GOP presidential hopefuls John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2007 and 2008 and, from 2002 to 2008, contributed to campaigns for current and former U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, George Voinovich of Ohio, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Coryn of Texas.
From 2006-2009, Thompson also gave $48,600 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which works to get members of the GOP elected to the U.S. Senate, Ohio investigators said.
In Virginia, investigators said that state residents donated at least $2 million to USNVA. Governor spokesman Jeff Caldwell said a state agency's investigation found significant fundraising concerns that have now been turned over to state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's office for possible prosecution.
Ohio authorities say Cuccinelli himself received $55,000, the largest single known political donation from Thompson. In July, amid reports questioning Thompson's legitimacy, Cuccinelli said he'd give the money to military charities.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who got $5,000 from Thompson, said he would donate the funds to the Naval Special Warfare Foundation.
Ohio says Thompson _ after giving nearly $70,000 to Virginia political candidates in 2009 _ pushed legislation to exempt his and similar veterans groups from state regulatory oversight. The legislation, introduced by state Sen. Patsy Ticer, passed last year.
Ticer, a Democrat, received $1,000 in 2009, one of the few non-Republicans to get Thompson's money. After news reports questioned the charity's validity, Ticer asked the governor to veto the bill.
But she was too late. McDonnell had already signed it. He recently signed a new measure repealing the exemption Thompson had sought.
In Minnesota, $2,400 Thompson gave in 2010 to Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann has since been removed from her campaign fund, according to Federal Election Commission records. Her office says she gave the money to a local charity when she learned of allegations against Thompson.
His smallest donations, $1 each, went to the 2002 campaign of U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris in Florida and to the unsuccessful 2002 House campaign of Tim Escobar in California, both Republicans.
The St. Petersburg Times' investigative series triggered Ohio's examination of USNVA filings under then-Attorney General Richard Cordray.
"We know he bilked Ohioans out of at least $1.9 million, and we estimate that nationally he collected at least $20 million," Cordray said.
IRS filings submitted by the national branch show the USNVA, also known as NavyVets, got nonprofit status in 2004, long after it claimed it was formed in 1927. It also claimed about 67,000 "voting members" in 2009, along with revenues of $5.9 million, up from $4.2 million declared in 2008. Various state chapters also made IRS filings, records show.
Among its reported expenses in 2009 were about $689,000 in professional fundraising fees. It listed 13 officers and key employees, all unpaid.
The USNVA's stated mission, written in the IRS documents, is to assist disabled and needy war veterans and current members of the U.S. military and their dependents, widows and orphans.
"Americans are not only the best, but also the most generous, people on earth, and that statement certainly applies to our donors' and members' support for the causes of the needy American veteran, our Armed Forces personnel and their mission," declared the association's purported chairman, "Jack L. Nimitz," in 2008. "Love of Country may be a simplistic concept to some, denounced by many, hair-splitted about by others, but to us, it is our bedrock, and most meaningful value."
Court records do not list an attorney for Thompson. USNVA attorneys who have worked with him said he worked tirelessly for the organization. And his disheveled appearance _ bearded, long hair, wearing outdated, torn or dirty clothing _ indicated he wasn't spending money on himself, they said.
"Not only did I not see it, I did not even see where he would have the time," said Helen Mac Murray, a suburban Columbus lawyer who represented the veterans association.
"He was on the association's business 24-7. He would e-mail and call me at all hours of the night and day," Mac Murray said. "That was his entire life."
For example, she said, Thompson's association flew an ill veteran to the U.S. from overseas on a special airplane at a cost of at least $10,000.
"I spoke with that family, and I spoke with individuals in the Tampa area who had received tens of thousands of dollars from him," Mac Murray said. "It appears there were funds being expended on a regular basis and veterans were being assisted."
Darryll Jones, a law professor at Florida A&M University who also represented USNVA, said Thompson "didn't live lavishly."
"He just didn't appear to be skimming money for his private use," Jones said.