'Pro-troop' conservative charity mainly exists to funnel money to Tea Party Express founder
Suited man with money bag (Shutterstock)

A conservative charity group that claimed to be sending care packages to U.S. Marines in Afghanistan has been exposed as a fraudulent operation dedicated to pumping millions of dollars into the accounts of a Tea Party loyalist and his political consulting groups.

On Tuesday, the Daily Beast printed an exposé of Move America Forward, the right-leaning charity that numbered key George W. Bush administration officials among its supporters while repeatedly misleading donors about where their money was going and how much it had raised.

Move America Forward was founded in 2005 and bills itself as the U.S.'s “largest grassroots pro-troop organization." ProPublica's Kim Barker wrote at the Daily Beast that in fact the group is an unregulated funding pipeline for the group's founder and his firm. The charity rating organization Charity Navigator awarded Move America Forward zero out of four stars.

"In February 2013," wrote Barker, "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."

The group claimed to be sending packages to a 1st Marine Division battalion known as Geronimo to aid them in their fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. During the fund drive, however, Geronimo battalion wasn't anywhere near Afghanistan, but were stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

Nonetheless, the charity reported that its Geronimo fund drive had been a roaring success, and that all 800 Marines received their care packages and personalized notes.

In addition, wrote Barker, Move America Forward has hijacked images, veterans' stories, and accounts of successful deliveries of supplies to U.S. troops from other charities, reprinting them on its own promotional materials and website to give itself a sheen of legitimacy.

Meanwhile, say tax experts, the group has funneled millions of dollars to Tea Party groups and to California Republican businessman Sal Russo, 67, founder of Move America Forward, the Tea Party Express and a bevy of other conservative consulting and political action groups.

Move America Forward's last five tax returns, said ProPublica, state that the organization paid out "more than $2.3 million to Russo or Russo, Marsh and Associates for services including 'program management and advertising.' That’s about 30 percent of the charity’s overall expenditures over that time."

“They’re playing audit roulette,” said former Internal Revenue Service attorney Marcus Owens to Barker. “They’re betting the IRS won’t find them, or won’t find them in time.”

Owens compared Move America Forward to the Coalition for Freedom, a nebulous right-wing pressure group founded by arch conservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms (R), which was shut down in the 1980s after it came to light that the group did little of import besides further enrich Helms and his cronies.

Sponsors of Move America Forward include the San Francisco 49ers, Breitbart media, firearms manufacturers and Cumulus Radio. The group holds an annual "Troopathon" fund-raiser that is simulcast on the Internet and features "live and taped appearances by conservative stars from entertainment, media and politics, including actor Gary Sinise, rock idol Gene Simmons of KISS, Sarah PalinRick PerryRush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity. The charity counts all the money raised in the month of the broadcast as part of Troopathon." The 2014 Troopathon was held on June 25 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Move America Forward claims that it has delivered more than 315 tons of care packages to U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barker reported, however, that the figure is devilishly difficult to verify. Neither the Department of Defense nor the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan track the volume of packages sent to U.S. troops in the field.

One group that sends packages to troops in the field is Operation Gratitude, which confirmed to Barker and ProPublica that the U.S. Postal Service charges $15.45 to send a large box to U.S. military bases in Afghanistan. Operation Gratitude solicits exactly that amount from donors per box, as opposed to the $24.99 that Move America Forward charges each donor.

Operation Gratitude founder Carolyn Blashek told Barker she was appalled to find out that Move America Forward has used photos and testimonials of her group's efforts to falsely bolster its credibility with donors.

“I’m livid, I’m so livid,” said Blashek. “I’m shocked…It’s so beyond wrong.”

[image of man holding bag of money via Shutterstock.com]