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Wednesday, 20 August 2014 06:10

Move America Forward: Bamboozling the Public in the Name of the Troops

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2014.8.20.Berkowitz.BFMove America Forward marches on Washington DC. (Screen grab via Move America Forward / YouTube)

BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

Move America Forward, the pro-Iraq War group that backed George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq to the hilt, has, since its founding in 2004, claimed that it's all about supporting the troops. However, according to a new report by ProPublica, Move America Forward "has repeatedly misled donors and inflated its charitable accomplishments, while funneling millions of dollars in revenue to the men behind the group and their political consulting firms."

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Kim Barker's investigative piece titled "Pro-Troop Charity Misleads Donors While Lining Political Consultants' Pockets," details some of the ethically-challenged practices Move America Forward has used in its fundraising appeals, and how a chunk of the money it has raised has gone, not to support the troops, but to lining the pockets of Republican Party-oriented political consulting firms and Political Action Committees.

Move America Forward (MAF), which claims to be "the nation's largest grassroots pro-troop organization," was the brainchild of Howard Kaloogian, a former California State Assemblyman, and Melanie Morgan, the co-host of a morning drive program on right-wing talk radio in the San Francisco Bay Area. Russo Marsh & Rogers, a Sacramento, California-based public relations outfit with longtime close ties to the Republican Party, helped the group get off the ground. Sal Russo, the Russo of Russo Marsh & Rogers, a longtime GOP political consultant," is listed on the 10-year-old charity's tax returns as chief strategist."

The banner on Move America Forward's website reads: "Supporting Our Troops and Their Missions in the War on Terror." The organization's Mission statement maintains that it "is a military charity ... dedicated to supporting the brave men and women of our Armed Forces and their missions to defeat terrorism."

One of the group's earliest activities had little to do with supporting the troops: Move America Forward tried to pressure theater owners from showing Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. MAF's campaign may have raised a fair amount of money, but failed dismally, as Moore's film went on to become the largest grossing political documentary in cinematic history.

MAF maintains that it runs several programs aimed at the troops, including: a "Care Package Program"; "sponsor[ing] 'Gold Star Parent Trips' to Iraq"; "broadcast[ing] television and radio commercials throughout the nation advocating support for our troops" and "defended our troops from those who have attacked their character, integrity and effectiveness in carrying out their missions"; and "le[ading] the 'Voices of Soldiers' Truth Tour – with Move America Forward's Co-Chairs (Howard Kaloogian & Melanie Morgan) escorting a delegation of radio talk show hosts to Iraq."

Deviously purloining images

According to ProPublica's Kim Barker, "the charity" has frequently "taken images and stories from other groups and from veterans themselves without permission to use in fundraising appeals."

In an advertising campaign conducted last year, MAF solicited funds to provide care packages for 800 Marines in a battalion fighting in Afghanistan. Barker: "The charity later described the fundraising drive as a rousing success: In less than five weeks, all 800 Marines in a 1st Marine Division battalion nicknamed Geronimo were sent care packages and notes in Afghanistan, it claimed. But that couldn't have been true. The Marines of Geronimo weren't even in Afghanistan during Move America Forward's fund drive. Instead, they were deployed more than 3,000 miles away, in Okinawa, Japan."

Last year, MAF also "solicited funds by claiming a partnership with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the largest hospital for wounded service members in the country. No such partnership existed, Defense Department officials say."

Sal Russo, MAF's chief strategist

Sal Russo, a longtime GOP political operative who got his start in politics working for Ronald Reagan, is the Russo of the Russo Marsh and Rogers public relations outfit. Russo was the chief strategist for Our Country Deserves Better PAC, (also known as the Tea Party Express) an organization that was formed to Swift Boat Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. He has also played a seminal role in Move America Forward.

In 2010, I reported that, "Our Country/Tea Party Express has become a major funding source for RMR, raising $1.9 million in 2009 ($600,000 more than in 2008). According to TPMMuckraker, 76% of Our Country Deserves Better PAC's $1.33 million total spending for the period of June through November 2009, went to Russo, Marsh and Rogers or entities closely associated with it: "From July to November, ... OCDB paid $168,437 to King Media Group, for creating ads for the Tea Party Express, according to FEC filings. And King Media has very close ties to Russo, Marsh [and Rogers]. Sal Russo, the founder of ... [RMR] is listed as a 'senior advisor' on King Media's site. Three other ... [RMR] staffers also are listed as officers of King Media. The two companies are both located in the same Sacramento office building, and their websites share a design scheme."

According to ProPublica's Kim Barker, "Move America Forward 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."

Barker also notes that "Russo and his associates have previously drawn attention for lavishing funds raised through the committees on themselves, using this money on an Alaskan cruise and fancy hotels as well as paying themselves huge consulting fees."

Although Russo didn't respond to ProPublica's questions, Danny Gonzalez, "provid[ed] a four-paragraph defense of the charity. 'We are proud of the fact that we always appropriate our donor's (sic) funds ethically and in the spirit of our mission to support the troops,' he said, adding that Move America Forward was currently preparing 2,000 boxes of care packages for shipping."

MAF's overall rating by Charity Navigator -- "Your Guide To Intelligent Giving" – was zero. For the Fiscal Year Ending December 2012, only 53.2% of MAF's budget was spent on programs.

Other organizations with missions similar to MAF have a much better record in that they provide the bulk of the money they raise directly to client services. While MAF's overall score was 44.32, Florida's Special Operations Warrior Foundation received a 98.89 score; Maryland's Fisher House Foundation received a 99.62 score; and Kentucky's USA Cares received an 85.05 score.