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Saturday, June 1, 2013
School is now out, but lessons are always useful. Today we’ll have one on the term “fraud.” It means to intentionally deceive for personal gain, or to damage another.
This is taught in every law school in the land, including at George Mason University, where Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli earned his shingle. Now he’s the Republican nominee for governor.
The question of the day is, did Cuccinelli learn his law school lessons about fraud? His tenure as attorney general leaves you wondering. Let’s consider two prominent fraud cases Cuccinelli has been mixed up in.
The first concerns former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann, who’s now at Penn State. While he was at UVa, Mann published a paper that revealed the “hockey stick graph,” a chart that showed steeply rising temperatures on Earth in the past 100 years.
It’s among data cited by climatologists around the world that suggests pollution from humans has contributed to the Earth’s warming. It wasn’t perfect, but a decade’s worth of critical analysis by other scientists has supported Mann’s research and methodology. The global warming deniers have claimed Mann cooked his data.
Four months into his job as attorney general, Cuccinelli decided Mann’s research at UVa should be investigated to see if he had defrauded taxpayers. So he went after Mann over some research grants he’d obtained while at UVa, including a $215,000 Virginia grant to study land, atmosphere and vegetation in Africa.
During its probe, the attorney general’s office demanded UVa turn over many documents, including emails between Mann and 39 other climate scientists around the world that went back more than a decade. Nearly two years later, the Virginia Supreme Court shot down the fishing expedition, and the investigation ended.
By then, UVa had spent more than $350,000 defending itself on the case, and more than 900 Virginia academics had signed a letter decrying it as a witch hunt. But Cuccinelli’s stock among the global-warming-denial crowd soared. It turned him into one of their up-and-coming stars.
The second case involves an alleged Florida con man who, under the fake identity “Bobby Thompson,” created and ran the U.S. Navy Veterans Association scam. Via telemarketing, the group raked in as much as $100 million nationwide; it reported taking in more than $2.6 million from Virginians in 2009 alone.
That year, Virginia suspended fundraising by the U.S. Navy Vets because it had failed to comply with charity paperwork reporting requirements. Rather than submit the paperwork, Thompson made $67,500 in campaign contributions to Virginia lawmakers.
Of that, $55,500 went in three separate contributions to then-state senator Cuccinelli, who was running for attorney general. Cuccinelli personally telephoned Thompson in August 2009 and requested the third contribution. That one was for $50,000.
In 2010, Thompson’s hired lobbyist persuaded the Virginia General Assembly to enact a law that relieved the Navy Vets from state reporting requirements. Gov. Bob McDonnell — who got $5,000 in campaign donations from Thompson — signed the bill.
In May 2010, this newspaper published a report about the new law and Thompson’s contributions to politicians in the state.
McDonnell and most of the other politicians immediately distanced themselves from Thompson. They transferred his contributions to legitimate veterans organizations. And in 2011, the General Assembly repealed the law Thompson had fooled them into enacting.
Cuccinelli, however, initially defended Thompson. First, he said he would give up Thompson’s campaign donations only if the alleged con man was convicted of a crime.
At the end of July, after Thompson had disappeared and his own lawyer was calling him a crook, Cuccinelli relented. He said he, too, would give the Thompson contributions to bona fide veterans charities. That money was disbursed five months after the story broke.
It turned out, Thompson’s real name is John Donald Cody. He was apprehended last year in Oregon on an Ohio warrant. He had almost $1 million in cash stuffed in a suitcase. A Harvard-educated lawyer with an Army intelligence background, he’s now in jail in Ohio, where he’s facing fraud and other charges stemming from U.S. Navy Vets operations in that state. His trial is scheduled for September. The case has been spearheaded by the Ohio attorney general.
The Virginia AG’s office squeezed a $65,000 settlement from one of the fundraising contractors employed by the U.S. Navy Vets. But unlike Ohio, Virginia has never charged Thompson nee Cody with a single crime. Brian Gottstein, spokesman for the Virginia attorney general, explained that the AG’s office lacks jurisdiction.
The office has claimed the best it could do is refer the complex case to a local commonwealth’s attorney to handle it. Citing a pending investigation, the AG’s office has declined all further comment.
Here’s what the AG’s website says about its consumer protection powers: “The attorney general enforces state and federal consumer protection laws, keeping Virginians safe from things like identity theft, consumer fraud and telemarketing scams. … Complaints are either assigned within the section or referred to the appropriate local, state or federal agency having specific jurisdiction.”
Identity theft, consumer fraud and telemarketing scams are precisely at the heart of the U.S. Navy Vets case. While Ohio drops a hammer on “Thompson,” Virginia has done little.
But Thompson did far more than take millions from ordinary Virginians. He used a phony identity to contribute $67,500 to key Virginia politicians, then scammed the entire Virginia General Assembly into passing a law allowing him to perpetuate his fraud. Arguably, that’s even worse.
Who is the General Assembly’s lawyer? Attorney General Cuccinelli. That’s why it seems almost inconceivable that he hasn’t gone after Thompson.
Which brings us back to the issue of Cuccinelli and fraud.
It appears we have an attorney general who can’t distinguish real fraud from phony fraud. Especially when the real fraud (the U.S. Navy Vets) is highly embarrassing to him, and the phony fraud (Michael Mann) is politically advantageous for him.
The latter bought Cuccinelli not only the political fealty of global warming deniers, but since 2010 it also has helped him raise more than $450,000 in campaign contributions from oil, gas and coal barons.
You’ll have to judge for yourself whether the witch hunt against Mann was an intentional deception for personal gain, or why Cuccinelli has been so reluctant to purse Bobby Thompson.
But taken together, the two cases suggest political self-interest is Cuccinelli’s highest priority of all.
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