Capitol Alert

Sacramento charity that sends care packages to troops misused money, California lawsuit says

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against a Sacramento nonprofit that sends care packages to troops, alleging that the organization misled donors and its directors misused charity money for political purposes.

The lawsuit against Move America Forward alleges that the organization violated Internal Revenue Services regulations because its two directors, Sal Russo and Shawn Callahan, managed separate for-profit groups that “charged fees for services” provided to the nonprofit.

Becerra argues that the charity engaged in “deceitful solicitation gimmicks,” which he said included using photographs from other organizations, advertising a veteran’s story without his permission and plagiarizing information from other nonprofit campaigns.

The lawsuit was filed in the Sacramento Superior Court.

Becerra said during a press conference on Wednesday that his office will hold “unscrupulous charities accountable and will make sure donations to them are not misspent or diverted.”

“There are legitimate charities out there that are helping our veterans, our friends, our neighbors,” Becerra said. “We will go after those that try to do it the wrong way. The bottom line is this: our troops deserve respect and generous Californians deserve transparency.”

Russo, chief strategist for the nonprofit and a Sacramento County resident, allegedly diverted more than $1.8 million to his for-profit companies, according to the lawsuit. Callahan is the executive director. The suits also names Chairman Melanie Morgan and Director Howard Kaloogian as defendants.

Becerra’s office is alleging that the nonprofit also provided free office space for two political action committees called Move America Forward PAC and the Tea Party Express. The suit also claims charity assets were used to support candidates endorsed by the committees.

According to its website, Move America Forward has sent more than 388 tons of packages to troops “directly from American citizens affirming their support and providing some comforts from home.”

Morgan denounced Becerra’s lawsuit in an emailed statement, and called the filing a “disgraceful effort of far-left politicians to attack every conservative they can.”

“Shame on Attorney General Becerra for his unrelenting harassment,” Morgan wrote. “We look forward to our day in court for all the facts to come to light and for our opportunity clear our name so that we can continue with our business of supporting our brave men and women of the military.”

The organization has been in business since 2004, and does operate a “valid program,” but up to 10 percent of the donations were allegedly used to finance Russo’s for-profit interests, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is asking for the removal of Russo and Callahan as directors and is seeking a ban on the two from operating charities in California.

Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.