September 15, 2015; CBS News
There is no point to dissecting Donald Trump’s speech on the deck of the U.S.S. Iowa for the nonexistent specifics of his plans for improving services for American military veterans. The host of the event was an organization called Veterans for a Strong America. Ever heard of them? No? You’re not alone.
On the Veterans for a Strong America website, the organization describes itself as a “a nonpartisan action organization dedicated to educating the public, members of Congress and the Executive Branch about a strong national defense, robust foreign policy and building a military that is second to none.” Its core beliefs are support for cutting spending to reduce the national debt, strengthening and modernizing America’s military, implementing a “common-sense national energy policy,” whatever that might be, strengthening the intelligence community to prevent another 9/11, and restructuring American law enforcement “to prosecute terrorism on a global battlefield.” Nothing in the five beliefs addresses services to veterans or specific issues concerning the Department of Veterans Affairs. Other than a 2014 press release calling for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, there isn’t much in the VSA product that relates to the domestic concerns of returned veterans. The most prominent theme seems to be VSA’s focus on Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi controversy, including actively intervening in the Arizona gubernatorial race to oppose a candidate who praised Clinton in the wake of the Benghazi incident.
The first press mention of Veterans for a Strong America dates back to October 2011, when Joel Arends, the CEO of the organization, spoke briefly at a press event of the Coalition for the Common Defense with testifying “witnesses” including Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute, four Republican members of Congress, and Scott Cooper of the Virginia Tea Party Federation. Veterans for a Strong America pops up a month later as the sponsor of a “tele-townhall” meeting with presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. A Mother Jones profile of Arends in 2012 describes him as the founder and sole staffer of Veterans for a Strong America, with prior work as the Bush-Cheney field director for South Dakota in 2000 and a former consultant to the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity. He also seems to have run and lost for some political offices, including a race in 2000 for a seat in the Iowa state legislature.
Prior to VSA, he was a staff member of Vets for Freedom, described on his LinkedIn profile as yet another nonpartisan nonprofit. Vets for Freedom at the time was run by conservative Republican Pete Hegseth, who now leads Concerned Veterans of America.
Mother Jones reported that Veterans for a Strong America was a registered 501(c)(4), but news reports indicate that the organization had its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS because it failed to submit Form 990s for three years running. However, regardless of the IRS action, the “Veterans for a Strong America Action Group” appears on the Center for Responsive Politics website as a super PAC with several five-figure donations from Veterans for a Strong America. The PAC’s expenditures were in support of Mitt Romney for president ($125,080) and Rick Berg, a Republican running in North Dakota for the Senate ($45,000). Arends appears as the treasurer of the super PAC. At a minimum, it would appear that Arends and the Veterans for a Strong America, if that is anything more than Arends under a different name, are hardly nonpartisan. The PAC’s disclosure of several five-figure donations from VSA makes it appear like VSA is the 501(c)(4) that camouflages the donors who would otherwise be revealed if they were to give to the Super PAC directly.
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A number of sources suggested that Veterans for a Strong America, unclear whether the PAC or the 501(c)(4), has 500,000 members. Trump himself said that the organization has “hundreds of thousands of members.” Although reportedly not inclined to make political endorsements in the past, Arends and Veterans for a Strong America endorsed Trump’s candidacy at his USS Iowa speech. The press coverage of the Trump speech largely took it for granted that Veterans For a Strong America was a legitimate organization, though Leo Shane III in the Military Times says that the group “is largely unknown among major veterans service organizations.”
The VSA-sponsored event included game-show host Wink Martindale introducing Trump. A better MC couldn’t have been found unless his first name had been “Wink-Wink.” For the most part, the press was hoodwinked. Veterans for a Strong America isn’t a real organization, even if it might have had 501(c)(4) status at some time or is a Super PAC. It’s just one guy, a political operative named Joel Arends.
As embarrassing as it should be to many major press outlets that covered the speech as though there were a full-fledged veterans organization behind the Trump event, just as disconcerting is parading a one-man organization around as though it represents veterans and their concerns about the VA. In the tax-exempt sector, it is hard to find any category of organizations that has been subjected to more misuse, abuse, manipulation, and misrepresentation than groups that claim to serve or speak for veterans. For the most part, the press is reluctant to go after organizations that say they serve veterans, especially those run by veterans like Arends.
The illegitimacy of Veterans for a Strong America isn’t just that it purported to be a nonprofit when its tax exemption had already been revoked, that in all likelihood the people who purchased tickets for the Trump speech thought they were purchasing from a nonprofit, that the U.S.S. Iowa Museum gave the Arends group a preferential rate because its chief executive took Arends at his word that the group was a nonprofit, or that it made an explicit endorsement of a presidential candidate violating 501(c) rules. Veterans for a Strong America was and is clearly yet another fake organization willing to use and abuse veterans for the personal or political ends of the man who created it.
For Arends to claim that Veterans for a Strong America has a half-million members, or for Trump to tout its endorsement of his campaign as a statement of support from veterans, is embarrassing not just to the press, which didn’t dig into the organization’s veteran bona fides, but to the nonprofit sector, which seems to be plagued by 501(c)(4)s, super PACs, and even 501(c)(3)s that are willing to take advantage of the America public’s goodwill toward the men and women who served in the military.—Rick Cohen