Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Dial "M" for Money

By Amy Smith

AUGUST 11, 1997:  Over a three-month period this year, Austin residents donated an estimated $50,000 to a relatively obscure non-profit group called the Austin Police Benevolent Association (APBA), an affiliate of the national Fraternal Order of Police. The local APBA contingent formed last year under the direction of Randy Malone, an Austin police officer with a 25-year work record fraught with scrapes and reprimands, the most recent of which stemmed from his controversial Doughnut Free Press, a take-no-prisoners newsletter that earned him a 15-day suspension in February (see related story on p.28).

Given those odds, raising $50,000 in such a short timeframe is quite a feat for a newly established group with only a few dozen members. So how did the Austin PBA manage to reap the rewards of a giving public? By hiring a telephone solicitation firm well-versed in the art of selling citizens on the good deeds the police group will perform with the help of their money.

What the solicitors didn't tell donors is that 62.5% of their contributions would go to the telemarketing concern of Garbarino & Johns and its phone staff, and that only 20% would end up with the PBA. Nor did the telemarketers inform donors that the remaining 17.5% of the funds raised would go to the state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

But times have changed since that fundraising campaign. Starting Sept. 1, telemarketers will have a lot more explaining to do when they call on people to donate to police causes. Legislation signed into law by Gov. George Bush will require solicitors to tell donors what percentage of their contribution is actually going to benefit the police group. Additionally, phone rooms will be prohibited from employing the so-called blood-on-the-badge pitch unless either 100% of the donations will directly benefit the survivors of slain officers, or donors are provided a verbal and written breakdown of who's getting what amount from their dollar. Perhaps the most crippling blow to police fundraising activities is the ban against telephone solicitations on weekends and after 7pm on weeknights -- the times most people are likely to be at home.

Interestingly enough, during the PBA's telemarketing campaign between January and April, a stealth lobbying effort was underway at the Texas Legislature to drastically alter police telemarketing efforts. In the final hours of the session, an anti-telemarketing faction -- the powerful lobby of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT -- slapped a six-page amendment onto Senate Bill 1581 on the third and final reading, changing the language of the legislation to specifically target police groups. Until then, SB 1581 had sailed through the House and Senate as a rather benign telemarketing reform bill that broadly applied to all charitable organizations. In the end, CLEAT's eleventh-hour victory virtually pulverized rival police groups' abilities to solicit funds by telephone.

illustration by Doug Potter

"I had to be completely covert about this legislation," boasted Mark Clark, a CLEAT lobbyist, after the session. "It was practically like an undercover investigation. But at least we won't have any more of, `Wasn't it a shame that Officer Smith was killed last week. His wife and kid are in a fix and sure could use your help,'" Clark says. "The implication is that 100% of the money will go to that dead officer's family, when really it's more like .0025. This law is definitely going to cut out the bait-and-switch stuff."

Across Texas, dozens of law enforcement groups rely on the kindness of strangers to keep their organizations afloat, among them the Texas State Troopers' Association (TSTA), the Harris County Deputies Organization, the Texas Conference of Police and Sheriffs, the Texas Municipal Police Association, and more than 25 Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) affiliates, such as the Austin PBA. The state troopers' group, for one, was outraged by CLEAT's amendment and likened the maneuver to a Pearl Harbor attack, striking at a time when "weary lawmakers were thinking of leaving Austin for home and family," according to one TSTA newsletter account.

The popular opinion among many of the affected groups is that CLEAT had an ulterior motive at work. "They introduced this bill to wipe out their competition, or at least to hinder their ability to operate," says Ken Sanders, treasurer of the state lodge of the FOP. Similarly, Ed Christiansen, president of the Harris County Sheriff's Association, says the CLEAT measure "was a thinly veiled attempt to kick us out of operation."

Of course, CLEAT President Ron DeLord denies the accusations. "It's okay that they don't like CLEAT because of this bill, but they didn't like us before the bill either," he says. "If CLEAT benefits in any way, it's that we forced them to stop telling the old widow woman that she's helping out widows and orphans with her money. What they're doing is wrong. The whole concept of police solicitation is wrong." (As an aside, CLEAT has had its own share of alleged wrongdoings this year. A San Antonio grand jury recently indicted two CLEAT attorneys, along with the former president of the CLEAT-affiliated San Antonio Police Officers Association, on charges of mail fraud and money laundering, while one of the attorneys faces additional charges of trying to have his ex-wife killed.)

For the most part, police groups defend their telemarketing endeavors while applauding stepped-up efforts to eliminate "badge fraud," whereby solicitation companies falsely claim to represent police associations. The state Attorney General's office currently has four lawsuits pending against phony police groups working out of Dallas and Houston.

Ron DeLord
photograph by John Anderson

Still, it's a wonder how even a legitimate police organization can justify ringing up strangers during the dinner hour and asking for money. But then, that's where nervy people like Joe DeBenneto come in handy. DeBenneto is the local office manager of the New Jersey-based Southern Education Counsel, the telemarketing company that handles fundraising for the FOP's state chapter, among other organizations. "The person sitting at home, all he wants to hear is the truth," DeBenneto says. "No one responds well to having their intelligence insulted." The new legislation, he says, "is the best thing to happen to our industry."

That's too little too late for a 75-year-old heart patient in Borger, Texas. In a March 11 letter complaining about the state FOP's phone call to her home, the woman wrote, "I was ill and under medication when I was called. I guess I said `yes' to shut him up. He said we had been donating. We have not," she concluded with emphasis. All the same, the FOP promptly mailed the woman an invoice for $25, along with a nifty FOP V.I.P. Supporter decal, as if to suggest that the cops would let her off the hook for speeding if her vehicle bore the seal of approval.

But look at telemarketing's role another way, defenders argue. Police groups that take money from anonymous donors avoid the appearance of accepting bribe money from politically influential groups or individuals. Plus, the financial success of telemarketing also keeps membership dues low and enables the groups to provide better services, such as legal benefits plans, for its members. And, supporters never fail to add, the fundraising efforts help police groups donate more money to community projects.

The stranger ringing you up for money for the police may not be a cop, but rather a telemarketer from the New Jersey-based Southern Education Counsel.
photograph by Jana Birchum

In the case of the Austin PBA, Malone, who serves as treasurer, says he has big plans for the group's civic activities, ranging from sponsoring Little League teams to funding college scholarships. Of the money PBA raised earlier this year, Malone says the group donated $1,000 to the tornado-ridden town of Jarrell. At the same time, he says, "I wish we didn't have to depend on telephone solicitations, but we're a small group just starting out."

At the start of this year, with a five-member board in place, the PBA moved forward in earnest with its first fundraising campaign from a phone room in South Austin. When Vincenzo Provenzano answered his phone one evening in March, he got the PBA pitch. "They asked me if I'd like to donate to help benefit widows of police officers," Provenzano recalls, "so I said sure." In short order Provenzano received an invoice in the mail for $25. Leaving home on an errand one day, he decided to bring the invoice and a check along with him to drop off at the Austin Police Department.

"I asked an officer who I should give the payment to and he looked at it and turned around and asked somebody else if they knew anything about it," Provenzano recalls. "Nobody at the police department had heard of them. Then I began to wonder, if the organization is so small that nobody's ever heard of them, why do they have a telemarketing company soliciting money for them?" Provenzano pocketed his check and went home.

How police telemarketing efforts will play out under the new law is hard to predict. Christiansen of the Harris County Sheriff's Association doesn't expect to see much change in the way his group operates. "We don't use our fundraising for the meat-and-potatoes work that we do," he says of his 3,000-member organization. "So as far as the bill is concerned, I don't have a problem with it. Besides," he adds, "there's always Bingo."

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