Thursday, May 27, 2010

Staffer: Cuccinelli made no pledge to Navy Vets

The attorney general met with the group's lawyer in February, before it came under state scrutiny.


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RICHMOND -- Details about an embattled Navy veterans organization's dealings in Virginia continued to emerge Wednesday.

A lawyer and lobbyist for the U.S. Navy Veterans Association gained an audience with Virginia's attorney general in February while state lawmakers were approving legislation that would make it easier for the group to solicit in the state.

A spokesman for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said Wednesday that Cuccinelli met with Washington lawyer Samuel Wright on Feb. 15 in Northern Virginia. They discussed veterans issues, including legislation pushed by the U.S. Navy Vets that would exempt the organization from annual registration requirements under the state's charitable solicitation laws.

"The attorney general told him he would give it a look, but he gave him no commitment," said Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein.

The meeting took place in the Fairfax office of Cuccinelli's political action committee, Gottstein said. Gottstein informed The Roanoke Times of the meeting at Cuccinelli's request after a review of the attorney general's official and political meeting schedules.

Cuccinelli last year accepted $55,500 in campaign contributions from Bobby Thompson, a Florida-based director for U.S. Navy Vets. Thompson moved out of his Tampa duplex after the St. Petersburg Times began questioning him about the association's fundraising and expenditures for a series of stories published in March. The association is now under investigation in at least three states. Questions have also been raised about the legitimacy of the group's membership.

Thompson made contributions of $5,000 to Cuccinelli on June 16 and $500 on Aug. 19 during the period Cuccinelli was running for attorney general.

Thompson made a $50,000 contribution Aug. 31 after Cuccinelli spoke to him by phone and asked for another donation, the attorney general said in an interview earlier this month.

"I talked to him by phone one time asking for the biggest donation," Cuccinelli said in that interview, adding that he could not recall how much he asked Thompson to give.

"I have a hard time imagining I asked for that number," Cuccinelli also said.

But referring to the earlier, unsolicited donations, the attorney general added: "This guy surprised us more than one time."

Since the questions about U.S. Navy Vets have emerged, other Virginia elected officials, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, have given away contributions they received from Thompson. Cuccinelli has not followed suit, saying he does not presume Thompson is guilty of wrongdoing. Cuccinelli's political director has said money contributed by Thompson would be donated to military support organizations in Virginia if Thompson is convicted of misappropriating charitable funds.

Cuccinelli's meeting with Wright occurred before the St. Petersburg Times series sparked questions about U.S. Navy Vets. Wright is the lobbyist who asked state Sen. Patsy Ticer, D-Alexandria, to sponsor legislation adding a reporting exemption to the state's charitable solicitation law to cover certain tax-exempt veterans services.

The bill already had passed the Senate when Cuccinelli met with Wright. It later sailed through the House of Delegates without opposition. After learning of the St. Petersburg Times investigation, Ticer tried to get the governor's office to veto the bill. But McDonnell signed it before Ticer's concerns were relayed to him, his staff has said.

A person answering Wright's phone immediately hung up when contacted Wednesday.

Before it can resume soliciting in the state, U.S. Navy Vets must file documents with the state to demonstrate that it qualifies for an exemption from annual registration requirements. The required information includes copies of a financial report or tax return, a listing of officers and copies of contracts with professional solicitors. But if it receives an exemption, the association will not have to file annual registration forms and financial reports with the state.

The U.S. Navy Vets Virginia chapter reported that it raised more than $2 million last year, before it agreed to stop solicitation in Virginia upon a notice from state officials that it would have to register its status in order to keep raising money. That was when representatives of the group sought out Ticer to file the legislation.

Three people in the Roanoke region have contacted The Roanoke Times to raise concerns about donations they gave U.S. Navy Vets after being solicited. One said he received a call from a telephone solicitor raising money on the group's behalf in March -- after the group had said it would suspend such solicitations.

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