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tv   Jeff Testerman and Daniel Freed Call Me Commander  CSPAN  April 17, 2021 8:01am-9:01am EDT

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>> tv on c-span2 start now. forty-eight hours of nonfiction books and authors every weekend. television for serious readers. there are some programs to look up for. jeff reflects on his time including the challenges he faced after 9/11 and during the 2008 financial crisis. the author entry program "afterwards", lisa discusses how our memory works. tomorrow religious professor beutler argues racism has a foothold in white evangelical religion and slavery to today. find schedule information at or consult your program guide. the kick off with an investigative report will former army intelligence officer who ran a charity requiring millions of dollars in donations. >> are authors, i spent my
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career on ohio. investigative reporting including almost seven years so i retired met last may. investigative reporter jobs asked me, i am humbled. back to our panel today, amanda is the name. joining us daniel and jeff, office of the new book, commuter, former intelligence officer and journalist who uncovered to police america. i read the whole book, i couldn't get enough of it. i was impressed by the depth is a reporter by the deaths, uncovering things that no one else could.
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daniel is a nonfiction tv producer and writer for nearly 20 years of experience covering a wide variety across multiple platforms, writing and producing episodes of cnbc financial crime documentaries supervising how far weekly program, a former journalist ranging from los angeles times. jeff and his 33 years at the st. peter's side, now tampa bay side, editor and investigative reporter before retiring in 2012, is named best reporter in the tampa bay area twice and nominated for the pulitzer prize
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five times. now at work on a book exploring the mysterious life of his brilliant younger brother, the great american novel inspired students around the globe to uncover darkness before taking his life in vietnam in 2019. jeff spoke about his little brother, the search of the star shone brighter. you can ask questions and submit them by clicking on ask a question on the bottom of your screen on the chat window. the look here, but start with jeff. a central figure in this. >> thank you for that nice
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introduction i met amanda -- by the way, the title of this panel, it might be a little better title and we came up with, command but we'll do with what we have. it's been great working with you all, it's been great. 2009 we met by accident. i was researching and as i usually do, i was following the records and going where it struck me. during investigation, i was looking into his military career and i learned his mother lasted
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almost five weeks. along distinguished navy career and i said that is a story, wanted to see if i could round out to look at others along the way and i found this at the scene, united states veterans association and i said there's a veterans group i could go talk to and i bet they'll give me a great bit about the guy who claims to have a great procedures navy career, it was not an exaggeration.
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so i went to d.c., but headquarters of the u.s. navy's association by said you know we have a man, robert thompson, and i said you're getting me. i got in the car one day in 2009, he had this question about a campaign chair and i got this is going to be this information, we didn't know what you found out and we appreciate it. i got there and found the sample, a bad part of the city
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and it was two blocks from the inner-city, a number of properties around and across the street, abandoned the car factory. all the neighborhood. sure enough, amanda was there actually out front and he was talking to somebody on his cell phone and there was the commander and he had a couple of beers by 10:00 in the morning and on the unusual. the strangest part, you knew,
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what do you think? the commander seemed welcoming and polite. he was not standoffish. he was combat, he told me some things i didn't even ask. a question i had asked. >> let me ask you this, i know daniel came in a little later but jeff, this commander had just given you some quote being ticked off about the councilman lying about his record, maybe
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you leave and nothing ever comes of it. >> we are not talking right now, this would never be written. the fact is, i left in days wondering what just happened. i came back to the office sat down with my research partner and he said how did that go? i said it didn't go like i thought it would go metal and i said i have a funny feeling and i said nothing more. that's not how commander acts and it's not supposed to be and i said there's something strange about this. and john drove up to try to find
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officers, first the ceo, jack nimitz, supposed to be the ceo and he spent the day or day and a half and he couldn't find him. john said to me, i can't find him and my concern is, the ceo of a nationwide charity was lost off the grid. >> explain how you guys started working together, how did you find out about this jeff wrote an article in the times under the radar about this guy to help tell me how you got involved. >> sure, that starts about five years after jeff and his investigation. i also want to thank you for moderating, it's great to be here with you.
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thank you for having us. i work on a show that's been on cnbc for a number of years called american greed, a documentary program about white-collar crime and 2014 i began producing an episode about john cody, the commander and one of the things i found, i had been working on the show a couple of years most stories we covered were fairly cut and dry but you knew the story and why the person had done it and you knew the motivation. in this case, you could pretty much take all that and throw it out the window. one of the people i interviewed was the u.s. marshal in the northern district of ohio. a fantastic guy and he said to me we know a lot about this guy but there's still a lot we don't know and that's not something you usually hear from law
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enforcement. they usually tell you there's, the mystery has been solved and there's everything we know your. they had the same thing to say. this still plenty of mystery out there about commander bobby johnson. in hearing fact, it kind of got me even more interested in the story, way more interested in a typical story i would cover and i wanted to know was a guy in prison, the guy exposed so i met at the paper, i wanted to know the rest of the story and even after my broadcast, after my show was broadcast, i kept on picking away making phone calls, digging up documents trying to figure out what else there was
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to know about him and a few years into it, i started calling jeff to let them know something's always finding and i think at first he was retired on the mountains of north carolina and i think he listened to me, it's such a complex story, i wanted a partner and i knew jeff was the perfect partner to tell this story. i interviewed him before the show and knew how much he invested in it. we had lunch one day at a restaurant in cincinnati kentucky and we started talking, should be doable? interestingly, the book was about two blocks from where the commander was, one of his male drops to perpetrate his multimillion dollar gun.
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jeff and i started talking about we can tell the story what you found and then i want to tell the story about what i found and what i am finding and we were often discussing this, jeff figured out what commander bobby thompson wasn't and that is he wasn't a lieutenant commander in the navy, he wasn't the guy running a huge charity that supported veterans, he was a con man but when i came along, i wanted to figure out, what was he really? there were these questions about where he had come from, there's a 14 year. work no one could say where he had been or what he had done and while it was known he had an intelligence background, he claimed a lot of things about the intelligence background and i wanted to find out the extent that's possible, what the background actually was. those were two things working
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alongside jeff accomplished in the book together telling all of these different pieces in one place. i think we told a great story. >> i agree. in both abuse, hundreds of conmen but this is the first one and you tell me how this helps him avoid capture the only one i know it at the harvard educated, went to law school at the university of virginia. on it you elaborate on that? >> the background of commander bobby thompson as he called himself, when we stumbled across him, six months exploring and
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determining that it was all a charade, and what it exposed in terms of the brilliance of this conmen, there is an entire hopes out of thin air. there's regulators and donors and attorneys and we found 2550 pages of background and history and it was mind-boggling to think that it might not be true. we began to take apart piece by piece and six months trying to find the officers and directors,
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they were non- existent. a documentary footprint and we can determine. at the end of the day, we had looked at 82 officers and found commander bobby thompson. we did know who he was. we found he did not have a wheelchair record despite the one first meeting i had with him, you came up with he might have owned a port, he might have landed in new mexico, it was just hard to find the guy.
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the brilliance of the guy, totally out there, hiring marketing companies millions of dollars a year, from small donors, 20, $25 and everybody thought he was real. ultimately -- >> i asked daniel, he stayed out of trouble this time, a champion debater, nondescriptive high school and college and goes to harvard, could you find an incident or cause to this breakdown? like catch me if you can. is there something, his mother died or something or what?
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>> honestly, but still partially one of the mysteries still. what made john ron why, as a lawyer, a few years of experience working at a firm in sierra vista not too far from tucson along the mexican border, he had a successful practice the. at one time was able to get a guy off death row in the appeal, he helped a man file. he was doing pretty well, he wasn't very well liked by the prosecutors in town but he had all the makings of being a successful lawyer and with his background he could have gone to any firm i would think and it the united states. he did go to sierra vista in 1984 he mysteriously disappeared and i can't say for certain what
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made him, if he was inciting incident but i was able and reporting people, to find he wrote to the editor a few weeks before he disappeared in which he mentioned people who can do what they want to whom they want, when they wanted how they want but i think that really was another eureka moment for me, it seemed as though he was writing about himself. i think earlier on in his life there were hints -- obviously he was a brilliant guy and loved to make mischief and see what he could get away with. like most financial crimes and white-collar criminals who are doing it to get themselves a
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yacht, jet and a mansion, that was now his motivation. his motivation was just seeing how far he could push this, seeing what he could get away with and while on the run after he disappeared, he was wanted by fbi for an espionage investigation. while that was going on, while the fbi was pursuing him, we have pictures of him attending events president george w. bush on numerous occasions and you mentioned catch me if you can, when he was finally found, that was one of the dvds he had on his shelf in oregon, catch me if you can. i think i was him, he wanted to see how far he could push this and get away with. i think he was just in it for the fun trying to discover that. >> what about the fact that
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millions of people didn't question the donors, nobody was really into it, to get the call from the fundraiser and give however much money. nobody took that out works. >> they didn't. i would say in respect to the donors, they oftentimes were older, often veterans themselves. this started back in about 2001, 1999, very much a post 9/11 veterans enthusiasm and if you member back post 9/11, everybody was for the military and for veterans, the country was
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together so if you got a call for help for veterans say you get a better global reward, he called the state of ohio or florida or virginia to see on the books and your eligible into found out that they were, you might find out they had top-notch attorneys represented. he might look at the website and see it's amazing, depth and breadth and the people involved on the website, it looked totally legit. there's supposed to be 36000 members.
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and they all made headquarters, there is no officers, only a simple and if you call the veterans in washington d.c., a receptionist answers and resource, he's not in, secretary of treasury is not in, they might be, i don't know. you have to go for a donor to meet the hopes. they were just very well camouflaged and i don't know anything ever would have let it shut, i've never heard that. >> did you write the story you
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first ran in the times, did you hear from attorney general or investigators trying to ask questions, do they seem interested in prosecuting? >> about two weeks they did and all the attorneys general around the country, all had services and you know there is a guy, an officer in new mexico and we are trying to find him and it turned out to be of vacant lot, nothing there. the military general, a match story and in new mexico and the
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suburban office, he's going to send somebody out to see this, that's exactly what happened. the attorney general, elizabeth was her name, the sternness the next couple of days looking on the form, she shut them down in their was a new attorney but she wrote a letter up until the following, they were pretty fit for reaction but you had to work the stories he brought in and as we did, it was.
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>> just to add to that, i think the charity regulation in the united states is reactive, not proactive, there's too many charities, not enough staff in the state offices and it's really up to local investigative reporters to dig up the stories. they just don't have the wherewithal to check out everything to find out if the charity is real and is what is said it is or if it is bogus as it was in this case. >> they call themselves commander, so many identities including those of deceased children. when you were investigating, he did a brilliant thing in writing a newspaper ad for a job for hazmat workers, getting social security numbers. why do you explain a little of
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that, your wife said you were obsessed. that's a deep thought to say the least to find that ad in the newspaper. >> while i was working on this, in order to make this con work, commander bobby thompson, a stolen identity and when commander was first charged in ohio, the first charge he face was identity theft but he hadn't just used the one stolen identity, he had a number of other identities stockpiled he could use in turn into money, to create an escape fund use when the day came. it was phenomenal in use of
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these fake ids from our perspective and law enforcement perspective, he created some of these ten years before he would use them. he wasn't stealing identities to get somebody's credit and by a tv at best buy and rip off $1000, he set up these ids sat on them until the day he needed them. when i first started, i knew there were different identities he had stolen but no one could figure out how he had done it so i had a list of the names and people whose ids he used and one day i was trying to figure this out and i started, i opened up a google maps document and started putting them on points on the map and a lot were from new mexico or tiny little towns
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surrounding it so i said has to be a connection and at one time u.s. marshals, they thought there was a connection to the area, to, stolen identities from the area but they could never figure out where it was and i knew he had because when he was arrested in portland, oregon 2012, he had a bunch of job applications in a storage locker, a company called total security inc. and like everything else jeff found, it backs up, it had been incorporated, all papers filed, it had an address and phone number but i didn't know how he had gotten those specific job applications and one of the people whose id had stolen, i do remember, none of them, none of
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the victims remember filling out the applications but they all said yes, that's my handwriting. one said i don't know, it could have been a job fair and i said maybe if there was a job fair, which was hypothetical, it would have been the local paper from the time all these job applications were received thinking that was the case, a library system to order microfilm copies from august 1997 and when it came in, just started cruising, hoping to find an ad that said job fair this weekend and i had gone through two or three weeks, i was glazed over and realized i was probably on a fools arid here in about to get back to library and i got to
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the second to last page august 8, 1997 there in the classified ad under the help wanted section, a little add said wanted, 35 hazmat drivers, total security, if you're interested, fill out an application and background security check and send it to this address and that's when i knew that's how he had done it and it was two years before he started the con in florida stole these ids. the best one, the main one he used, bobby thompson and he would use that roughly 1998 -- 2010, 12 years he operated as a bobby thompson but the others he stockpiled and waited until the time was right. >> harvard educated lawyer, is
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it correct to say legality to put it nicely also led to your suspicion and others have he's successful smart, the way he dressed and lived, didn't that raise suspicion? >> from the first time i visited, and going to see a retired navy commander, a veterans group, raises millions of dollars a year. slowing down in this little town, just not the right place,
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it's the wrong place. when we begin -- when we began, we looked for every piece of paper that had bobby thompson's name on it but there were very few. he looked like a homeless guy. ripped jeans, ponytail, beard, this was not a harvard educated lawyer and former intelligence officer, this was something else altogether, i thought. >> a good question coming in, maybe start with daniel, what
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did thompson do with the money that he was pulling in every year? >> through information that came out at trial, it looks like the two marketers he hired raised roughly 30 -- $40 million over the years of the charity and operation. one of the things i think many people, certainly when i first started reporting, one thing i think people find remarkable is that there is really no limit to the u.s. to how much telemarketing can charge for raising money for charity. in this case, they were taking summer around 85 to 90% of what came in. ten cents went to the charity. it's quite a bit of money that ended up with bobby thompson in
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the bank accounts and certain amounts went to pay the lawyers he had, high-powered lawyers and ran interference for him and grant regulatory questions when raised who tried batter him around when he started to investigate. they collect a lot of this money in legal fees. other money he had a few helpers who worked for him in the end of the getting, a lot of it went to live in tampa to each, by beer and all sorts of other things and i think what's really intriguing about what he spent money on, he was living in this
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hobble, he gave a couple hundred thousand dollars in donations individually but also a political action committee he controlled to numerous politicians. imagine him getting his picture taken with george bush, gave a lot of money to republican senatorial committee, berries of the candidates and thought brought him pictures with bush, john mccain, with john weiner, any number of 99% of them were republican leaning rights in the early 2000. he got his picture taken with a lot of them. i think he did that for a number of reasons, when you can show that picture to people, to put some of these pictures on business cards, it showed, it
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helped stand the charity up and making it look legit. why would people stand next to him if it wasn't legit? but i also think part, seeing how far he could get away with it, there's this aspect to the commander that he seems to like feeling important, feel he's part of something bigger, be part of world history i think by standing next to these people, he was able to live out that story in his mind. >> obviously as you said earlier, they said jeff, the first day of the story but this side he spent a lot of money on booze but jeff, i want you both to answer this, the excuse he
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picked, hugh was smart enough to say he worked in the cia knowing the cia would not say if somebody is a former member. >> he dives into the records and the temperance of an alibi, i was with the cia, worked as an operative all my life, in the case of a navy veteran, i was helping support, and go to my website and you can see war on terror post 9/11 and they try to entice them to join the war in iraq so i was on a mission.
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you can't call the cia, we can't confirm or deny, that's what he carries because the cia does tell you so he was always on a secret mission or not, he definitely had a connection. >> is a 14 year gap in his career but before that, they found out, we don't know if he was in the cia, do we? >> there are indications, this is covered in a book but he did have some interaction either working with or for them at sometime probably late 1970s and you asked earlier is harvard
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background and how it helped him, is a harvard educated lawyer and strong defense attorney at one time criminal defense attorney so i think the brilliance of the life, this is not the first time i heard a con man say i was doing it for the cia or a criminal for the cia, it's pretty easy to dismiss that off as crazy talk so when you look at his military record and besides talking to jeff and others, that was one of the first things i did, his military records and it was immediate obvious he had more of an intelligence background and previously reported so because he's a defense attorney, there are these little pieces of truth to his own story that makes the cia story perhaps a little more plausible. one thing i wanted to do was try to figure out what was the
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intelligence background? you can't call the cia just ask national security purposes, we can't either confirm nor deny. what i did do, using military records i obtained, first i found an organization he was attached to for a number of years, the army intelligence corps and ask them if they would respond and they told me very quickly we can't respond but you should send a request for cia and i thought that was interesting. they responded to me within six days that they are not going to, or be able to respond. sometimes that's language for years, i got a response days saying no comment was was interesting.
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that saying there is another army unit he said he worked for and when i looked it up, it basically was nonexistent in the record. i spoke to military records experts i had never heard of and when i started using newspapers, i started to find people from the 50s to 70s, there would be a marriage announcement. go so-and-so was going to work the army geographical analysis. geographical evaluation, they had gone to work there and look at the same person and 20 years later find their obituary and said they worked in the cia. it would happen over and over again, numerous people that had worked at this unit he said he
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worked for would be in newspaper articles so that was one thing. then various filings he filed as he was preparing and after he had gone to trial in ohio, he mentioned people he wanted to call but was not able to, to testify about his intelligence background. a lot of these were people like barack obama, george bush, david patricia, so you kind of look and say it's more bs the way down on the same list, there are names i hadn't heard of and i said looking them up and after speaking to a few of them who said i don't know guy but yes, i did work at the cia, i found a woman who when i searched for her name, i found newspaper stories from the early 80s,
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she had been kicked out of nicaragua the government there tried to poison them minister with a bottle of brandy. it's bizarre, how did he know her name, why did he list her as someone with knowledge of his intelligence background? i found her number and called her, spoke to her on the phone and she said i did with cody in washington, we actually dated for a little while during the time i knew him, he was working at the cia so i can't say definitively, they've never responded to my questions but my reporting's indicate that some time in his career in the late 70s he had worked there. he liked to say he was there when he created u.s. navy veterans association by the
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reporting, is it not the case but that is the brilliance, he can continue to say of course he can't find the evidence but that's kind of what he does. >> public records, jeff, how is he able to get his arm around george w. bush and numerous senators? >> there's no evidence anywhere there's a secondary source of income. he told people that he was an
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investor, money coming in and he said this and he said that. there isn't any indication the money he had came from anywhere but donors, a telemarketing company and it was funneled into the bank account and he walked around sometimes, ten to 12 times going to atms at different banks and moving money around, some of the money on his personal account, a whole different identity saving it for a rainy day but the fact is,
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there is a leader, very politically, 36000 members and the size of $55000, running for the attorney general and at that time a man of florida, the third largest donor in the campaign but he got a personal meeting and their commanders attorney themselves and those two things, i political and fluence, there
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was a website open to the hundreds of thousands of dollars and it went to george busch, the delegation in ohio, many worked along with what they use to create of the law in virginia so money and influence. he had the stability, i never got inside but other people i talked to did and he had pictures. from the mayor to the governor
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of florida. >> there's a part in the book where he calls his attorney and says over because he gets order from the internal revenue service they are going to conduct audit but it wasn't, why not? >> his father was over, a nonexistent chapter is going to lead to arrest and he got the notice, it was a strictly random selection, the connecticut of the united states navy veteran, the two years and thompson was protected and that audit by his attorney. senior attorney, the producer will going to find.
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montgomery, former attorney general in ohio, mcmurray, deputy attorney general of ohio and there was nonprofit experts, law professor in florida, also, put together what they refer to as a defensible receipt and they allotted you know on the bill, the documents that thompson had. the numbers from the state of
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connecticut, there were financial records and they came in with the supposed treasurer, the flash flood and they were all lost but there was nothing i could do. the attorneys -- >> sorry, i think in many ways in this book, it's really about of the many things, one thing is about the law and lawyers. cody had this great legal background. what did he choose to use it for? there are lawyers like the one mentioned, a deputy attorney general and use it to shut down the charities and there was cody, legal background to create this entire scheme and other
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lawyers he was able to hire in many ways without their help and otherwise he would never have gone through it. >> it's a bogus charity, no members on the board, made up name run by one man. why did any of his attorneys, are to speak to your board members, why did they not make sure it wasn't just this one guy running this? >> they said they did. they found it odd every time they would try to come to florida, they didn't meet because they never saw the duplex, they never were invited to a meeting, never had a conversation with him. thompson told them it's a very
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private group, so they require the people but evidently he was very persuasive. a debate champion, so persuasive with his stories that they believed what he said when he said we had a board meeting last night but there was no board or board meeting and i think the attorneys, we didn't represent his manner, we represented what we believed was a different group. the u.s. navy's veterans association. to find an otherwise, all of
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them. this guy had gone beyond and attorney general of ohio, so far, it's the most elaborate i've ever seen and i have seen a few, he was just better at this and everybody, more persuasive and by happenstance of checking a campaign check that happened to find, we wrote a story -- >> that's why you are a great investigative reporter because you could have driven back and said you know what, don't the loss so kudos to you. we have about 30 seconds left
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how do we sum this up? >> i think is story is really about the truth and those who try to hide from it and the fact in our world today there's plenty of people trying to pull it over our eyes. if it isn't for reporters like jess, investigative reporters out there still doing their jobs, scams like this are going to continue to flourish and that's why it's important support local newspapers, subscribe to local newspapers and make sure is important work done because there are plenty of people out there trying to pass out lies to us. if there's nobody digging into it and it's going to just continue. people are going to lose their money and be tricked. it's up to the reporters in the world to make sure this doesn't happen going forward. >> besides the book, i want to
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tell everybody besides reading the book, watch the american brief documentary, how can they find that? >> i can put a link in the chat and the second. >> all right, that's it for today, everyone. a special thank you for your to his participation this afternoon and thank you to all the readers. be safe, be well and keep reading. ♪♪ >> book tv on c-span2 every weekend with the latest nonfiction books and authors. tv from these television companies to support c-span2 as a public service. ♪♪
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