Wingnut scams the troops: How Tea Party quack uses fake charities to get rich

Meet Sal Russo, the man accused of running a faux veterans charity and Tea Party PAC -- to shadily pocket millions

By Heather Digby Parton


Published August 6, 2014 6:13PM (EDT)

Sal Russo        (AP/Alex Brandon)
Sal Russo (AP/Alex Brandon)

One of the more amusing aspects of the right-wing freakout over the former chief IRS jackbooted thug Lois Lerner -- and her battalion of brown-shirted CPAs allegedly putting the strong arm on the poor little Tea Party groups -- is the extent to which so much of right-wing "activism" is made up of professional grifters who really are defrauding the government (but, more important, defrauding grass-roots conservatives themselves). You'd think they'd be grateful that somebody is trying to put a stop to this thievery, but no. They'd rather line the pockets of a cynical right-wing flim-flam artist than pay the bills for the military, the roads, the untainted meat and the police protection they all enjoy.

Yesterday, I wrote about the resurgence of the Abramoff con game down in Alabama. Now Pro Publica exposes yet another scam from one of the right wing's most prolific scammers, a man named Sal Russo. In an act of chutzpah that's aggressive even by conservative hustler standards, Russo is accused of making millions by skimming large sums of money from his veteran's charity called Move America Forward. According to the report, his group has been bilking large sums from Americans who contribute to the charity for the purpose of sending care packages to troops overseas. The investigation shows that while they routinely steal other charities' photos and letters from grateful soldiers and use phony documents and fake affiliations in their nonstop email fundraising, whatever care packages they do produce are actually full of donated goods prepared by volunteers. Most of the money goes to "overhead" otherwise known as the pockets of the principles in Move America Forward.

But in perhaps the most egregious abuse of Americans' patriotic commitment to support the troops, Move America Forward dishonestly represented itself as a partner with Walter Reed Army hospital in order to sucker its donors into sending money to help wounded vets. Needless to say, Walter Reed knew nothing of this so-called partnership. Interviews did verify that a one-time shipment of care packages was sent but that was the extent of it.

This is a very cruel fraud that goes right to the heart of the conservative movement. Their adoration for the military, especially wounded vets, is fundamental to their ideology.  In light of their recent breast beating over the VA delays and mismanagement, this is also embarrassing. The righteous insistence that those abuses would never happen in the private sector looks a little less compelling when you see how these right-wing rackets use the plight of veterans and lonely soldiers to fatten their own wallets.

But this is actually nothing new.  Going all the way back to the 1980s, none other than the Godfather of Wingnuttia, Jesse Helms, used his so-called nonprofit to push conservative politics and avoid paying taxes. According to the Washington Post in 1994:

Throughout the 1980s, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and the nonprofit Coalition for Freedom were synonymous. Helms, as honorary chairman, touted the group in promotional materials as a small but effective vehicle for telling the public about free enterprise, government waste, communism and media bias.

But sometime recently Helms abruptly and quietly broke off the relationship. The split came after many of the Raleigh-based group's practices were questioned by the Internal Revenue Service in an ongoing tax case that has challenged the legality of some of the interlocking fund-raising organizations that once formed Helms's financial power base.

Two years ago, the IRS revoked the Coalition for Freedom's tax-exempt status after agents concluded that the group between 1985 and 1987 had illegally participated in political activities and improperly benefited private individuals who are connected to conservative causes. …

Yes, then as now, they were ripping off their supporters for fun and profit. And their supporters never seem to tire of being ripped off.

But Move America Forward's Sal Russo's various "enterprises" are truly spectacular. In fact, he's something of a grifter savant. Based in California, he got his start in the Reagan for governor campaign back in 1966 and he's never looked back. He was involved in various Republican Party activities as a strategist and media consultant for decades, but he came to national attention during the Bush years when he spearheaded the Gray Davis recall campaign. Out of that came Move America Forward, which he parlayed into fundraising for trips to Iraq with Gold Star Mothers and various other high-profile activities related tangentially to the war effort (such as campaigns to malign Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 451" and smear the antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan). His group still holds a yearly MAF fundraiser called "Troopathon," which has featured guests Gary Sinise, Jon Voight, Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Miller, Ted Nugent, Pat Sajak, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Huckabee, Gene Simmons and John Ratzenberger, a veritable who's who of conservative C-list celebrities.

(Pro Publica contacted Sinese's representatives to find out if he was concerned about the fact he was raising money from small donors to enrich some con artists' shady shell game. His people said he'd been invited by a Gold Star Mother and that was all he knew about it. As with so many other conservatives, it would appear he'd rather pretend to support the troops by enabling hucksters than by paying taxes so that the government can properly care for them.)

Sal Russo isn't content with ripping off the troops and their supporters, however. In 2008, he saw the potential for the con of a lifetime and he started a group called the Tea Party Express. I'm sure you've heard of it. He formed this group as a PAC instead of a nonprofit so it didn't come under IRS scrutiny in the same way as the other groups, although that hasn't stopped TPE from fundraising off of the scandal. They're best known for their traveling bus toursFox News sponsorship and their racist spokesman. But that doesn't mean it hasn't also been up to the usual tricks:

The Tea Party Express, a PAC run out of Sacramento by longtime Republican consultant Sal Russo, has paid Russo’s firm $2.75 million since the beginning of 2013, while donating just $45,000 to candidates and spending less than $162,000 on ads and bus tours supporting their election.

Russo explained that this was misleading because he got more bang for his buck by not doing TV ads and that he had lots of expenses on his credit card. Seriously.

And yet conservatives insist the IRS was being unusually hard on Tea Party groups by suggesting that they might be worth an extra look. They must be playing the refs. After all, now that they've literally made a federal case out of it, what average IRS employee would dare flag them for anything? And sadly, they probably won't flag any bogus Support the Troops "charities" either. Imagine what these crazy people would do with that.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Editor's Picks Fraud Gop Pac Ripoff Sal Russo Tea Party Tea Party Express The Right Troops Veterans