WHAT DO YOU SAY WHEN THE POLICE CALL -- AND ASK FOR MONEY?
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — Your telephone rings. The caller says he represents a police organization raising funds. Finding it hard to turn down the police, you agree to donate. But how much of your money ever reaches the police? Often very little. Who gets the rest? What do the police actually do with their small share? And how do you tell a legitimate police fund-raising effort from a fraud?
These questions get too little public attention, investigators in a number of states have told the Monitor. And interviews with some three dozen charity officials, investigators, some police groups, and their fund-raisers indicate that most attempts to curttail illegal police fund-raising have been ineffective. A recent crackdown under way against an allegedly fraudulent police fund-raising group shows the elusive nature of such groups:
In White Plains, N.Y., on April 8, 1980, investigators for the local district attorney raided what they describe as a "typical boiler room" operation -- a temporary office from which many phone calls were made to solicit money from the public for a group calling itself the National Police Conference.
The NPC, according to one of its few known officials, is a for-profit organization that lobbies for federal, state, and local legislation to benefit law enforcement officials. But investigators in White Plains and nearby New York City suspect the NPC of being little more than a shell, selling ads in worthless journals that may never appear and soliciting memberships whose benefits are misrepresented.
On June 26, Westchester District Attorney Carl A. Vergari announced that a grand jury has indicted three persons connected with the NPC on charges of fraud and grand larceny. Unlike most crackdowns, this one seeks felony convictions rather than just misdemeanor convictions for failure to register as a business.
One of the NPC organizers indicted had already been enjoined from fund raising in another country in New York.
Telephone solicitations, long used legitimately by a variety of civic, ethnic , and other groups to raise money, recently have been the subject of complaints from those solicited. Even when telephone solicitation is on the up and up, much of the money received often goes to pay the cost of the operation. This is particularly true when groups hire some outside agent to solicit for them -- a practice that has been on the increase in recent years.
But when telephone solicitations are used in the name of law enforcement groups, there is an added element -- implied or sometimes actual coercion, according to officials in a number of states where probes of such tactics are under way.
"There is a serious danger of coercion inherent in any solicitation made on behalf of law enforcement organizations," says New York Attorney General Robert Abrams. "Those who are victimized naturally assume that law enforcement personnel are aware of these solicitations."
Telephone solicitation abuse "continues to be a big problem" across the country, says Helen O'Rourke, vice-president of the Philanthropic Advisory Service of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. She advises the public to be wary of telephone solicitations for money and to ask questions about where the money goes.
Monitor interviews also indicate that telephone solicitations in the name of the police continue across the United States. Some laws against these abuses, such as a ban on telephone solicitations by professional funding. but such laws raise potential constitutional questions.
Many police groups donot use telephone solicitors, relying instead on membership dues and mailed solicitations.
Police groups that use telephone solicitors defend the technique as an effective way to raise funds for lobbying, legal fees for police, and other purposes.
Here in this condominium-rich section of Florida, there have been numerous complaints from the public over the past several years about high-pressured sales tactics of groups soliciting funds by telephone for police organizations. The potential for further abuse is great because "the sugar is so sweet," says Fort Lauderdale police detective Arthur Trollinger, referring to the large sums of money that can be raised by telephone.
But proving alleged abuses in difficult. Solicitors often use fictitious names ofthe telephone and are not traceable.
A proposed law banning telephone solicitation by law enforcement defeated in the Florida Legislature. It was heavily lobbied against by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which relies on phone soliticitations.
In Connecticut and Illinois, the attorneys general offices are investigating telephone sales tactics of fund-raisers selling tickets to public shows to raise money for police groups.
Los Angeles County passed on ordinance last year aimed at curbing abuses by telephone solicitors for police groups, following numerous complaints by the public that civilian solicitors misrepresented themselves as actual police, firemen, or paramedics.
The ordinance requires soliciting organizations to register and tell the public how the money is used. It also requires charities to have a local board of at least 11 members, something national charity officials say hurts legitimate groups based elsewhere.
The percentage of funds raised that actually reach the legitimate police groups typically is only 30 to 40 percent, according to investigators, police fund-raisers, and Nassau County attorney Lawrence Gordon, who has prepared many contracts between police and fund-raisers in the New York area. The balance of 60 to 70 percent goes for expenses of the boiler-room operation and for the fund-raisers' profits.
This compares with an average fund-raising cost of only 11 to 17 percent for more than 2,000 charities examined in New York State in 1975 by Malvern J. Gross Jr., a certified public accountant with Price, Waterhouse & Co.
The alternative to using professional fund-raisers and telephone solicitations is to use police officers, says Charles Maddox, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA). "Where is the greater threat of coercion?" he asks.
In the past, when the Florida PBA used police to solicit donations, and even after they switched to using wives and women friends of the police, "I got more heat than I could stand" from the press, Mr. Maddox says.
Today the Florida PBA relies heavily on telephone solicitations organized by fund-raiser Carl Gallo of Pompano Beach. In 1978, according to reports on file with the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, the Florida PBA raised $ 58,000 from dues and some $984,000 from "fund raising."
Neither Mr. Maddox nor Mr. Gallo would reveal what percentage of funds raised through telephone solicitations actually went to the PBA. But Mr. Gallo indicated in telephone interviews with this newspaper that boiler-room expenses may consume 50 percent of the funds raised. He said he works on a percentage of funds raised after expenses are deducted.
All states have unfair trade laws that cover misrepresentation or extraordinary pressure by telephone solicitors, says Mr. Ormstedt, who is chairman of the National Association of State Charity Officials. And some 38 states have charity solicitation statutes.
"It isn't the laws that need revision," he suggests. What is needed, he says , is more money to enforce existing laws; coordination among states to bring simultaneous lawsuits against suspected fund-raisers operating in several states; more investigations; and greater use of accountants to trace the often-complicated path of funds raised by boiler rooms.
In New York, the state attorney general's office has proposed a bill banning use of professional fund-raisers by police groups. But the bill has "no chance at all" of passing this election year, says Assistant Attorney General frank Fiermonte. Legislators are wary of voting for a bill that could be seen as antipolice, even though some police officials support the restrictions, he says.
New Jersey's ban on use of telephone soliciations by police groups of their fund-raisers has not been challenged in court, says state charity investigator Dennis Lies. Los Angeles has a similar ban that has withstood legal challenges, officials there say.
Helen O'Rourke, a former fund-raiser herself, favors sefl-regulation. And individuals can do much to help curb abuses, she says, by asking where the money goes -- and insisting on written solicitations and verifications of how the money is divided up; never donating cash; checking with the local Better Business Bureau (although many religious and police organizations are not on the BBB's approved list because they do not supply requested information to the bureau).
"People are afraid to ask questions" when a telephone solicitor calls, she says. "They shouldn't feel that way."