Meet Move America Forward, a 501(c)(3) that calls itself the nation's "largest grassroots pro-troop organization."
The charity appeals to donors to help it send care packages to the troops in Afghanistan, but as former ProPublica reporter Kim Barker details in her latest story, a closer examination of Move America Forward's tax records and other documents show a substantial portion of its funds and assets have been used for other purposes, some involving partisan politics.
For starters, about 30 percent of the $7.8 million Move America Forward raised from 2008 to 2012 went to one of its founders, Sal Russo – a longtime political consultant better known for running one of the largest Tea Party groups in the country – or his political consulting firm, Russo, Marsh and Associates. Move America Forward has been known to use Facebook and its other social media accounts to ask for donations on behalf of PACs linked to Russo, many of which share the charity's office space in Sacramento, a move that experts say should be a red flag for the IRS.
"A charity is not allowed to do any politics," Barker tells managing editor Robin Fields on the podcast. "The whole reason they get to take tax deductions, and donors get to take tax deductions in giving to them, is that these are not supposed to do politics whatsoever; they're just supposed to benefit the public."
As Barker dug deeper, she looked into Move America Forward's fundraising appeals and a couple Google searches revealed that some images that Move America Forward used in fundraising had been on the Internet elsewhere – whether from other military charities or wire services like AP and Reuters – and did not depict charitable activities by Move America Forward.
"Sometimes it was like playing the game Concentration, you remember from when you were a kid? ... I would know that I had seen this picture somewhere in the past so it was about sort of matching things up that way," Barker said. "Sometimes they would take an image, for instance of one soldier in a picture of five, blow it up, blur his name out and imply at least that the package he was holding was from Move America Forward. And I simply found that example just by looking through a lot of pictures and playing Concentration, only with military pictures."
Barker's father even helped with her reporting by creating a new Gmail account solely to sign up for Move America Forward's mailing list. He received a few emails from the charity but soon started receiving messages from the PACs – a "dicey proposition," Barker says. "If a PAC is going to use a charity's mailing list, they most certainly at the very least have to pay market value for that. ... We could find no records whatsoever that Move America Forward either got money from any of the PACs or the political consulting firms for that mailing list."