Pro-Troop Charity Misleads Donors While Lining Political Consultants’ Pockets
by Kim Barker ProPublica, Aug. 5, 2014, 5:45 a.m.
This story was co-published with The Daily Beast
In February 2013, Move America Forward announced an ambitious fundraising goal. The charity, launched in part by one of the most prominent figures in the Tea Party movement, had adopted the 800 Marines in a battalion fighting in Afghanistan and wanted to send them all care packages.
“For some troops, these care packages are the only mail they will receive all year,” the group said in one email solicitation.
The charity later described the fundraising drive as a rousing success: In less than five weeks, all 800 Marines in a 1st Marine Division battalion nicknamed Geronimo were sent care packages and notes in Afghanistan, it claimed.
But that couldn’t have been true. The Marines of Geronimo weren’t even in Afghanistan during Move America Forward’s fund drive. Instead, they were deployed more than 3,000 miles away, in Okinawa, Japan.
Move America Forward calls itself the nation’s “largest grassroots pro-troop organization,” and has recruited a bevy of Republican luminaries, including former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, to support its efforts.
Yet an examination of its fundraising appeals, tax records and other documents shows that Move America Forward has repeatedly misled donors and inflated its charitable accomplishments, while funneling millions of dollars in revenue to the men behind the group and their political consulting firms.
In several instances, the charity has taken images and stories from other groups and from veterans themselves without permission to use in fundraising appeals.
Last year, Move America Forward even solicited funds by claiming a partnership with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the largest hospital for wounded service members in the country. No such partnership existed, Defense Department officials say.
The charity’s funds and other assets also appear to have been used to subsidize three conservative political action committees, records show.
Charity watchdogs have long criticized Move America Forward for spending too much on administrative fees and having little outside oversight. For instance, it earned zero stars out of a potential four from the rating organization Charity Navigator.
But experts on campaign finance and taxation say Move America Forward’s practices may trigger more than bad ratings. Its activities could violate tax rules, which prohibit charities from engaging in partisan politics or overly benefiting the people who run them.
“They’re playing audit roulette,” said Marcus Owens, a lawyer who once ran the division on tax-exempt organizations in the Internal Revenue Service. Owens said Move America Forward reminded him of the Coalition for Freedom, a charity linked to then-Senator Jesse Helms that lost its tax-exempt status with the IRS largely because of its political activities in the mid-1980s. “They’re betting the IRS won’t find them, or won’t find them in time.”
The driving force behind Move America Forward is Sal Russo, 67, the longtime political consultant who is listed on the 10-year-old charity’s tax returns as chief strategist.
Russo is better known for helping to form the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, also known as the Tea Party Express, one of the largest Tea Party groups in the country. Consultants from his Sacramento-based firm, Russo, Marsh and Associates, also set up two other PACs, the Move America Forward Freedom PAC and the Conservative Campaign Committee, to aid conservative causes and candidates.
Russo and his associates have previously drawn attention for lavishing funds raised through the committees on themselves, using this money on an Alaskan cruise and fancy hotels as well as paying themselves huge consulting fees.
Russo didn’t respond to questions from ProPublica. Danny Gonzalez, a spokesman for Move America Forward, did not answer questions either, instead providing a four-paragraph defense of the charity. “We are proud of the fact that we always appropriate our donor’s (sic) funds ethically and in the spirit of our mission to support the troops,” he said, adding that Move America Forward was currently preparing 2,000 boxes of care packages for shipping.
It’s not clear who currently oversees Move America Forward’s day-to-day operations. The former executive director, Shawn Callahan, left in 2012 and does not seem to have been replaced. Callahan also didn’t respond to questions, although last year, he defended the group to ProPublica in an email and said Move America Forward had been audited recently by the IRS. (The IRS does not comment on individual taxpayers.)
“I personally oversaw the audit where I worked with the IRS as they went over every penny spent with a fine-tooth comb,” Callahan wrote in March 2013. “As expected, they reported that we were in full compliance and all our expenditures were appropriate.”
Bill Durdin, the family readiness program coordinator for the 1st Marine Division, said Move America Forward recently sent care packages to at least five units in the division, but said a “thank you” letter from him the charity included in a March 2013 email praising donors for the Geronimo pledge drive had actually been written a year or two earlier. In an email to ProPublica, Durdin described the charity’s use of his letter as “a serious case of ‘Cut & Paste(ing)’!”
Move America Forward raises much of its money with its annual fundraiser, called Troopathon, held this year in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and broadcast live on the Internet.
Over the years, Troopathons have featured live and taped appearances by conservative stars from entertainment, media and politics, including actor Gary Sinise, rock idol Gene Simmons of KISS, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The charity counts all the money raised in the month of the broadcast as part of Troopathon.
“I’m hoping this will be the biggest and best event that we’ve had to let our troops know that we will not forget you,” spokeswoman Debbie Lee said during an appearance over Memorial Day weekend on the Breitbart News Sunday radio show that kicked off this year’s fundraiser. “We do recognize, even though, you know, there’s been changes over there, that you’re still there fighting.
“And we’re here for you. We’ve got your back.”
Move America Forward says on its tax returns that its mission is to “provide and promote support (for) our brave men and women in the armed forces.”
It raised $7.8 million from 2008 to 2012, about 44 percent of it from the month of Troopathon.
Much of the rest came from responses to the emailed appeals it sends out every day or two, emotional notes packed with exclamation points and capital letters. The emails often seize on a tragedy like the Boston bombing and then ask for help sending boxes filled with items like Jelly Belly jelly beans, Swiss Miss hot chocolate and Hoo-Ahhs field towels.
In press releases and articles, the charity boasts that over its lifespan it has delivered more than 315 tons of care packages to American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tracking the truth of this assertion is difficult, however. Neither the Defense Department nor the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan monitors who sends care packages to military personnel.
Each package for an individual service member is paid for with a $24.99 donation, the charity says, but it’s unclear what the $24.99 pays for.