Move America Forward has collected millions to send care packages to US troops. But its appeals often rely on images and stories borrowed without permission, and its assets have been used to benefit political consulting firms and PACs
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.
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. The items in each care package are donated, a former consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity said, and volunteers put them together. "Our volunteers pack each box to the brim," the charity's outreach coordinator Scott Raab told a radio show over Memorial Day weekend.
It was not immediately clear as to which side broke the ceasefire amid claims and counter-claims
A 72-hour ceasefire brokered by the US and the UN was in jeopardy just two hours after it began on Friday, with the Palestinian militant groups accusing Israel of killing four persons in the Gaza Strip by artillery shelling and Tel Aviv blaming militants of firing rockets.
Four Palestinians were killed and 20 others injured in an Israeli artillery attack near the southern Rafiah area today, Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported.
Palestinian sources claimed that three others were shot by Israeli sniper fire in the southern Gaza Strip.
An Israel Defence Forces (IDF) spokesperson said they were looking into the incidents.
Around the same time, two Code Red sirens were heard in Eshkol Regional Council. Two rockets landed in an open area, Israel's Channel 10 reported.
It was not immediately clear as to which side broke the ceasefire amid claims and counter-claims.
The announcement of the truce between Israel and Palestinians was made in a statement released in New Delhi, where US Secretary of State John Kerry is on a visit.
The temporary humanitarian ceasefire came into effect early Friday after Israel accepted a joint proposal from the US and the UN which took into consideration a key demand by it.
Israel had been demanding that any ceasefire deal include a condition that allows its troops to remain in Gaza over the 72-hour truce which it says it would utilise to locate and neutralise tunnels infiltrating into Israel.
Representatives of the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, and an Israeli delegation are in Cairo to work on a sustainable truce beyond the next 72 hours.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders are also camping in the Egyptian capital but talks with Israel are carried out informally through mediators as the militant factions do not recognise the Jewish state.
The Palestinian death toll in the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza surpassed that of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 as the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli attacks reached 1,450 yesterday in its 25th day.
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 1,417 Palestinians were killed during Operation Cast Lead, which was the longest conflict between the two sides lasting 22 days, before the current fighting began.
The death count on the Israeli side also saw a significant increase with 61 soldiers killed this time compared to 10 in 2008-09. Three Israeli civilians and a Thai national working in Israel died in rocket and mortar attacks.
US Attorney Preet Bharara has argued that under a 1986 law governing electronic communications, Microsoft is required to share user data with authorities regardless of where the company has decided to store it
A judge on Thursday rejected a bid by Microsoft to derail a warrant demanding that email data from servers in Ireland be turned over to US prosecutors.
Microsoft vowed to battle on in the case, which is being closely watched by Internet companies eager to assure users around the world that their private information is not being freely shared with US authorities.
“The only issue that was certain this morning was that the District Court’s decision would not represent the final step in this process,” Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in an email reply to an AFP inquiry after the ruling by US District Judge Loretta Preska.
“We will appeal promptly and continue to advocate that people’s email deserves strong privacy protection in the US and around the world.”
Microsoft argued in court that the warrant, which would require the tech giant to turn over customer emails stored in a data centre in Dublin, should be nullified because it would give the US government excessive power to pry over private information.
A two-hour hearing ended with Preska denying Microsoft’s request to have the sub-poena quashed, according to a spokesperson for the US attorney in New York.
The legal battle comes amid rising concern about US surveillance following revelations of snooping disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Leading tech firms, including Apple and Verizon, have filed briefs supporting Microsoft.
Microsoft has argued that the customer emails, sought in this case in a Justice Department narcotics probe, are entitled to the same protections as paper letters sent by mail.
That means prosecutors should only be able to access the information in the electronic “cloud” with a warrant, and that the authority of such warrants ends at the US border.
Smith also has publicly contended that the case could leave US citizen’s privacy vulnerable to overseas prying if other counties opt for the same tactic.
But US Attorney Preet Bharara argued that under a 1986 law governing electronic communications, the tech giant is required to produce the data regardless of where Microsoft has decided to store it.