FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA
— The calls were always the same: telemarketers claiming he’d promised $20 to a Florida charity.
Coral Springs resident Jerry Mayer didn’t remember pledging money. He told the callers they were wrong. He had an illness in his family. He just wanted to be left alone.
But the phone kept ringing at least once a week until he mailed a check, he said.
“I am sending you the $20 under what I feel is harassment and undue pressure that my wife and I cannot handle at this time,” Mayer wrote the group.
The persistent, and ultimately successful, solicitation calls were on behalf of the Florida Association of State Troopers, one of dozens of state-registered charitable organizations that say they benefit police or firefighters.
Such charities customarily solicit donations with pledges that your money will assist the law enforcement officers or firefighters who keep us safe. But a Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel investigation has found that if you donate as a result of a phone call or a letter asking for money, at least half of your gift is likely to end up in a telemarketing firm’s pocket.
According to state records and federal tax returns obtained by the Sun Sentinel, of the police and firefighter charities operating in Florida, 25 take in more than $500,000 annually each and spend less than 25 percent of that money directly on their stated missions whether it’s to help disabled police officers or police and firefighter unions.
Most law enforcement agencies – such as the Florida Highway Patrol, the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office – have no direct relationship with these organizations and don’t receive a single dollar from them.
Instead, the Sun Sentinel found that the bulk of money the charities take in goes to private telemarketers or fundraising efforts, with the cash sometimes going to such things as salaries for the charity officials, or for lawyers to represent law enforcement officers in actions involving their agencies.
This is legal. Neither state nor federal authorities dictate how charities use their money as long as they can show that a portion – no matter how slim – is going to charitable purposes, said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, which oversees charities operating in Florida. Such groups also are exempt from Do Not Call lists.
Private watchdog organizations say such organizations are exploiting Americans’ deep-seated respect and support for men and women who put their lives on the line for them.
“It’s ironic that the very people who are supposed to be protecting us are participating in a scheme to rip us off,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity monitoring group based in Chicago. “If people understood what is going on, people would not support these groups.”
Among the Sun Sentinel’s findings in its review of state and federal records:
* The Florida Highway Patrol Command Officers Association — a group of 188 ranking and retired FHP command officers — took in nearly $4.6 million in 2007, the last year for which state records were available, but spent only $162,425 on program services. Ninety-three cents of every dollar contributed in 2007 ended up going for fundraising.
* The Florida Association of State Troopers, which represents at least 850 members of the Highway Patrol, paid nearly 70 percent of the $2.5 million it raised in 2007 to a private telemarketing company. A 2006 tax return shows the association paid its executive director a salary of more than $92,000.
* A Panhandle couple — Terry and Lorna Morrison — earned a combined $206,000 over two years for running two charities dedicated to disabled police officers: the Disabled Police Officers of America and Disabled Police Officers Counseling Center of Florida, tax returns show. During the same time frame, the two groups spent about $291,000 on services for disabled police. The 2007 tax returns show that 83 percent of the $1.47 million raised by the groups went to pay for fundraising.
Of all charities operating in Florida, two comprised Highway Patrol employees the Florida Association of State Troopers and Florida Highway Patrol Command Officers Association ranked among the four most complained-about charities with the state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services last year.
FHP spokesman Capt. Mark Welch said the two groups work to improve the lives of members, but FHP gets no money from them. He said he has never heard criticism of the groups’ fundraising efforts.
One of the complaints last year against FAST came from Mayer, who says he mailed the group a check so it would stop calling.
“It was all for just $20,” Mayer said in an interview. “They kept asking, ‘Where is your $20?”‘
FAST officials could not be reached for comment despite several attempts by the Sun Sentinel to contact them. In the state’s file on Mayer’s complaint, which included a copy of the letter he sent with his check, FAST replied that Mayer pledged money last Feb. 19, and that he was placed on the group’s own do-not-call list June 16.
The state file says Mayer’s complaint was “closed satisfactory.” Mayer said he received a form letter from the state that it had received his complaint.
In an interview, Steven Williams, president of the Highway Patrol Command Officers Association, said his nonprofit organization has worked with private telemarketing firms since being formed in 1996, and couldn’t raise money otherwise.
Association members — all of whom have the rank of lieutenant or above — pay $50 in annual dues, said Williams, himself a Highway Patrol major. In exchange, the group offers scholarships for their children, has a professional lobbyist to represent members’ interests in Tallahassee and pays for a lawyer if the Highway Patrol takes action against them.
However, according to state records, the No. 1 beneficiary of donations to the association appears not to be state troopers, but an out-of-state fundraiser, Civic Development Group. The company’s recent contract with FHPCOA allows it to keep as much as 90 cents of every dollar it raises.The Edison, N.J.-based firm is being sued by the Federal Trade Commission, on accusations that it misled the would-be donors it calls by making them believe they are dealing directly with charities, not a professional fundraising business.
Errol Copilevitz, an attorney for Civic Development, said the company denies the FTC’s allegations.
Copilevitz, who represents many of the country’s major telemarketing firms for nonprofits, said it typically takes 12 phone calls to get one contributor and then, less than half of them follow through on the promised donation. By using telemarketing firms, the charities usually assume no financial risk, but get a guaranteed amount of money as well as heightened name recognition and a list of donors, he said.
Williams said he’s “not really concerned” about the FTC lawsuit against Civic Development, noting that all calls are recorded. People who complain to the state either exaggerate or don’t understand what was said in the calls, Williams said.
In rare instances, a complaint to the state has resulted in some disciplinary action, state records show. In June, Kenneth Zwick, 68, of Ocala, objected to being “badgered” by telemarketers for the Florida Association of State Troopers. He was even mailed a form saying he had pledged $20 when he hadn’t, he said.
In reply, FAST said the telemarketer fired the employee who sent the form, and Zwick was given an apology.
“They were very persistent, almost making it sound as if you were unpatriotic (if you didn’t contribute),” Zwick said.
The incident, though, was not his last contact involving the charity. He is still getting calls asking for contributions, he said.