California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing a military charity that sends care packages to active-duty troops and its directors of self-dealing and illegal electioneering, as well as falsely inflating its effectiveness and using some veterans' likenesses without permission.
Becerra says Move America Forward misled donors about where their money was actually going and broke IRS rules related to its status as a 501 (c)(3) charity. He is seeking to remove Move America Forward's chairman and three high-ranking officers from their positions, ban them from running charities in California and to have them pay restitution to the charity along with any court costs.
“Our troops and their commitment to our country should never be used for deceitful gimmicks,” Becerra said in a statement. “Preying on donors’ support for military service members and veterans with deceptive marketing not only hurts generous donors, but also hurts military families. These actions taint the good work done by the many honest charities in California that support our troops and veterans."
FILE – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
The suit names Move America Forward's Chief Strategist Salvatore Russo, Chairman Melanie Morgan, Executive Director Shawn Callahan and Director Howard Kaloogian as defendants. Move America Forward denied any wrongdoing in a statement Wednesday, saying it passed multiple IRS audits.
"All of the accusations have been TOTALLY FALSE and misrepresent the truth," the release said. "Now, the AG is resorted to a politically motivated and highly negative public relations campaign to demean and destroy an organization that has sent over 450 tons of care packages to the troops in harm’s way throughout the world and into the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan."
The lawsuit alleges that Move America Forward allowed multiple for-profit companies run by Russo and Callahan to use its office space free-of-charge while they "charged fees for services" to the charity.
The logo for Move America Forward, a veterans’ charity that says it’s donated over 450 tons in care packages to active-duty troops. (Move America Forward)
One of those was a now-defunct LLC called "The Campaign Store," which Becerra alleges would receive online donations to Move America Forward, then charge fees ranging from 7.55 percent to 10.06 percent to deposit them in charity's bank account. Becerra says this was a way for Russo to "skim" money from donations. The Campaign Store was based rent-free out of Move America Forward's offices, the lawsuit says.
Becerra also says the conservative marketing and consulting firm Russo Marsh & Associates, Tea Party Express and Move America Forward Freedom Political Action Committee had similar improper relationships with the charity, which is tax-exempt and therefore can't engage in political activity.
In 2012, the suit alleges, Move America Forward issued formal press releases endorsing then-Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., who later resigned from Congress after admitting to tax evasion, and Josh Mandel, who briefly sought the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio that year. The endorsements "were produced on Move America Forward letterhead that prominently displays the 'MoveAmericaForward.org logo," the lawsuit says.
In all, the lawsuit says Move America Forward received more than $11.3 million in charitable contributions between 2008 and 2015. Of that amount, more than $2.65 million was paid to various for-profit companies operated by Russo.
The lawsuit also accuses the charity of lying to donors in February 2013 by claiming it was raising money to send care packages to Marines serving in Afghanistan. In fact, the suit says, the Marines who got the packages were deployed to Okinawa, Japan. Move America Forward is also accused of taking images used in solicitation materials from other military charities, including Operation Gratitude and AdoptAPlatoon, as well as using an injured veteran's name and story without permission to solicit donations on at least one occasion.
Move America Forward also falsely claimed to have a partnership with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the lawsuit says.
Move America Forward, which was founded in 2004 and is based in Sacramento County, says it will prevail in the lawsuit.
"Shame on Attorney General Becerra for his unrelenting harassment," the charity's statement said. "We look forward to our day in court for all the facts to come to light and for our opportunity [to] clear our name so that we can continue with our business of supporting our brave men and women of the military."
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, California Senior Assistant Attorney General Tania 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.
Fox News' Tyler Olson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.