California is suing a nonprofit that sends care packages to combat troops, accusing it of misleading donors about its affiliations, engaging in political activity and paying fees to its directors' for-profit companies.
The lawsuit alleges the charity Move America Forward invaded the privacy of injured veterans by using their names and stories to solicit donations without their permission and falsely claimed to have a partnership with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
"Our troops and their commitment to our country should never be exploited in deceitful solicitation gimmicks, but unfortunately they are," state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Wednesday.
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The lawsuit alleges the charity violated IRS rules by providing free office space for the political action committees Move America Forward PAC and Tea Party Express.
The charity also is accused of using charitable donations to endorse the political campaigns of former Republican U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in New York last year after pleading guilty to tax evasion, and Josh Mandel who briefly ran for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio.
Becerra said federal rules ban charities from backing political candidates.
Move America Forward said the organization has always been completely transparent and provides proof of tax filings and independent audits on its website.
"Shame on Attorney General Becerra for his unrelenting harassment," Melanie Morgan, chairwoman and co-founder of Move America Forward, said in a statement. "We look forward to our day in court for all the facts to come to light and for our opportunity clear our name so that we can continue with our business of supporting our brave men and women of the military."
Becerra said charity directors Salvatore Russo and Shawn Callahan also operated several separate for-profit entities that charged fees for marketing and other services provided to Move America Forward.
For example, a Russo-owned entity called The Campaign Store LLC intercepted online donations and charged fees ranging from 7.55% to 10.06% to transfer the remaining funds to the charity's bank account without adding any value to the transaction, the lawsuit says, calling it a vehicle to "skim" off a percentage of donations.
The attorney general said the lawsuit seeks to remove Russo and Callahan as directors and ban them from operating charities in California. Becerra said his office will pursue further penalties but that they wouldn't be criminal because it would be hard to prove intent.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Tania Ibanez highlighted the number of military or veterans charities that are operating as unregistered or delinquent, meaning they failed to supply their annual reports to the state.
An investigation from June 2018 to June 2019 revealed that over 1,000 charities in California have names relating to the military and 554 were found to be delinquent, Ibanez said. Only half have fixed the problem. The office sent cease-and-desist orders to 498 charities that have not registered with the state.
Ibanez said veterans are the group most likely to be exploited, followed by firefighters and police officers.