There is no smoking gun in the ProPublica report this week on Move America Forward, the nation’s self-proclaimed “largest grassroots pro-troop” charitable organization. It’s mostly a lot of sleazy anecdotes, lopsided allocations of donations to administration and suspicious co-mingling of non-profit efforts by the organization’s chief strategist, Sal Russo.
Russo, a longtime California political consultant, is best known for his Tea Party Express, more formerly known as Our Country Deserves Better PAC. It was one of the earliest Tea Party fundraisers and is a major player in Republican politics. It raised nearly $10 million in the most recent election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.com. Sacramento-based Russo, Marsh and Associates also controls the Conservative Campaign Committee.
Move America Forward raised $7.8 million between 2008 and 2012 to buy care packages for troops overseas. It claims to have sent 315 tons of packages to American soldiers in the Mideast, but no independent organization actually counts that sort of thing. What is counted is how much of the money raised is actually spent on the goods.
Charity Navigator, a respected charity evaluator, calculated that Move America Forward spent a large percentage of its money, 38.9%, on administrative costs in fiscal year 2012 and another 7.7% on fundraising. A big chunk of its money is raised at the monthlong Troopathon, which receives celebrity support from Gary Sinise, musician Gene Simmons of KISS, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Overall, Charity Navigator gives it a rating of 14.32 out of 70, and zero stars out of a potential four. By comparison, the ratings group gave Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors of Virginia a 66.94, Homes for our Troops 68.97 and USA Cares 55.05. The charity lacked independent voting board members, audited financials, a conflict-of-interest policy and any information about itself in an accessible form on its website.
ProPublica calculated that $2.3 million, or 30%, of the charity’s expenses went to Russo or his consulting firm for advertising and management, and found evidence that money may have been used to support their other activities. Although charities that accept tax-deductible donations, like Moving America Forward, are not allowed to be overtly political, the charity shares offices with at least two Russo PACs. ProPublica found that Moving America Forward paid $82,000 in rent in 2012 while the PACs paid nothing.
ProPublica littered its report with skeptical accounts of the charity’s interaction with the troops. In February 2013, Move America Forward claimed to have sent care packages to all 800 members of the Marines 1st Division battalion Geronimo, fighting in Afghanistan. That battalion was actually 3,000 miles away in Japan.
The charity’s staff has displayed, over the years, a propensity for making stuff up. It regularly uses stock photos and other groups’ pics to falsely illustrate their alleged accomplishments. The charity even had the audacity to claim in a photo caption that soldiers were holding packages of Double Stuff Oreo cookies that came from them. The snacks came from Operation Oreo, a project of Alpharetta Methodist Church in Georgia.
The charity also claimed an alliance with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. A Walter Reed spokesman said they don’t partner with any charities and after ProPublica relayed that information to Moving America Forward, it took down a press release making the claim.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense told ProPublica that one of the criteria for a charity to even be listed as a “community resource” on its OurMilitary.mil website is a high-rating from Charity Navigator or an evaluator like it.