Dubious Police Fund Drives Common, Troublesome
The letter from the city official was pointed.
Paid solicitors for a group of California lawmen had been violating local ordinances by asking Los Angeles businessmen for “charitable” donations that were actually used to help the officers pay their insurance premiums.
“This department through years of experience knows the magic sound of ‘Police or law enforcement officer,’ ” wrote Los Angeles city investigator Frank E. Kelly. When businessmen receive requests for money from such groups, Kelly explained, they usually assume that a contribution will “give them what they think is ‘special privileges.’ ” Over the years, he added, the practice has prompted “numerous inquiries and complaints. . . .”
The letter, to a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, was dated Jan. 30, 1957.
In the intervening 30 years, city and state officials said in a series of recent interviews, questionable fund-raising campaigns on behalf of organizations that represent law enforcement officers have, if anything, become more common--and more troublesome.
Last week, investigators for the Los Angeles Police Commission ordered the operators of a Santa Monica telephone bank to stop soliciting advertisements for a drug awareness manual sponsored by the Los Angeles Unified School District Police Officers Assn. The investigators alleged that the solicitors were operating without permits, and were less than candid with donors about whom the advertising dollars would benefit.
In what several officials described as a more serious case, the major frauds division of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office for the last four months has been investigating a campaign conducted for an organization called the Police Officers Assn. Ball of Los Angeles County Inc. One deputy district attorney estimated that the public gave the group as much as $300,000 in a 30-month period.
While the organization held itself out as a charitable and tax-exempt group, it was neither, according to an investigator’s affidavit filed in Los Angeles Municipal Court. Its main purposes were to operate a gymnasium for its members to pay for their food and lodging at athletic events, a hearing officer for the Los Angeles city attorney’s office concluded.
In addition to these cases, Los Angeles city officials who regulate charitable solicitations say they have opened files on at least 10 other law enforcement organizations whose fund-raising activities have prompted inquiries or complaints.
But several officials said these efforts to control the problem belie the difficulty of enforcing the state law and two Los Angeles ordinances that govern the fund-raising. Generally, the law and the ordinances require disclosure of who will benefit from the contribution.
“What you’re left with is a specific set of facts involving a specific phone call, a specific solicitation,” said Sue L. Frauens, who heads the Los Angeles city attorney’s consumer protection section. “And how do you go up the hierarchy . . . to show that (top officials) had knowledge of that call?”
George Delianedis, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Social Service Department, the agency responsible for keeping an eye on charitable solicitations within city limits, believes that there is another problem.
Enforcement in many communities, he said, “is not a high-priority item.” As a result, Delianedis said, police associations often “are above the law.”
Public officials, officers of law enforcement groups and the paid solicitors they hire disagreed over the extent to which shady fund-raisers are bilking the public. But most concurred that, whether the effort is legitimate or not, soliciting money on behalf of lawmen is a big business.
“It’s a million-dollar industry,” Delianedis said. Records filed in his office show that the promoters of a Los Angeles variety show staged in March, 1986, sold tickets valued at more than $630,000, he said.
More than 20 law enforcement groups in recent years have been granted permission by the Los Angeles Police Commission to solicit within the city. Others raise money illegally, without required permits.
The most significant problem with solicitations for law enforcement groups is that donors often assume, mistakenly, that the bulk of their contribution will directly benefit local police--and that as a result, they will get special consideration from the cop on the beat.
“Ninety cents of (each donated dollar) is not going to that police organization, but rather into the pockets of some solicitor,” said Deputy City Atty. Frauens. Typically, Delianedis said, only 10 to 20 cents of every dollar donated to a police group actually reaches the organization. To earn the money, association officials usually have to do little more than sign a contract allowing an outside solicitor or promoter to use their name.
While some public officials are critical of the way that police associations use paid solicitors, officers of several groups said it is the only way they can keep their organizations, and their public service programs, from going broke.
“We haven’t found any other way to do it,” said Lynda Franzen, secretary for the 215-member Santa Monica Police Officers’ Assn., which acts as a collective bargaining unit for the city police.
“It’s, unfortunately, a necessary evil,” added Fred (Moon) Mullins, general manager of the 6,500-member Municipal Motorcycle Officers of California, the group that was the subject of the city investigator’s 1957 letter. About 1,400 of the MMOC’s members actually are police officers.
“If it wasn’t for the money we receive from our promoters, then we wouldn’t be able to continue with the various traffic, alcohol and drug awareness programs that we have,” Mullins said, acknowledging that some of the money raised by solicitors also helps pay for general operating expenses--including his salary.
Franzen, Mullins and officials of other police organizations said that the majority of law enforcement associations work diligently to strictly adhere to the law. Often, they said, the transgressions of hired fund-raisers are beyond their control.
Los Angeles Police Detective R. K. Rudell, who investigates complaints of illegal solicitations for the city police commission, said fund-raisers who work without permits usually are those whose pitches are most misleading.
California’s charitable solicitation disclosure law requires that anyone seeking donations for charity, either in person or over the telephone, must clearly state the name of the charitable organization that will benefit; the percentage of the contribution that will actually go to charity; the percentage that will be paid to fund-raisers; and the percentage that is legally tax-deductible.
If the solicitation is made for a law enforcement group, the law also requires disclosure of the total membership of the organization and the number of members working or living in the county where the campaign is under way.
The Los Angeles Municipal Code makes similar demands. It requires that anyone soliciting for charity register with the Social Service Department and present an “information card” to potential contributors that discloses the financial details of the fund-raising campaign.
Another section of the code requires any law enforcement group that is seeking donations for any purpose, charitable or otherwise, to register with the police commission and disclose similar financial information.
Many communities do not have local ordinances that regulate solicitations. Those that rely solely on the state law often find it circumvented by groups that claim that their fund-raising campaign is not for charity. For example, a pitch for a contribution to help a police group purchase new athletic equipment would not be a charitable solicitation.
“We have tried unsuccessfully over the years to try to get the statute amended to take care of that problem, but it’s been fought” by many of the police groups, said Herschel T. Elkins, the senior assistant attorney general who heads the state Department of Justice’s consumer law section.
Even in Los Angeles, tough city ordinances have not stopped misleading solicitations.
The most common ploy is for unscrupulous solicitors to misrepresent themselves as police officers, Rudell said.
Another tactic is to ask businessmen to “donate” tickets to a variety show so the tickets then may be handed out to handicapped children, senior citizens, or some other deserving citizens. Later, it is all but impossible to determine whether the tickets ever were distributed, officials said.
In one case, Delianedis said, solicitors sold 120,000 admissions to an event held in an auditorium that seats no more than 8,000. Only 4,000 people actually went to the show, Delianedis said.
In the most recent case under investigation in Los Angeles, Rudell said, a solicitor for a Santa Monica telephone bank who was selling advertising space in a drug and gang awareness manual last week misrepresented the sponsorship of the manual.
In a telephone call to Rudell, who was masquerading as a local businessman, the salesman said the book would benefit the non-existent “Los Angeles Police Assn.,” Rudell said in his official report on the incident. In fact, the sponsor was the Los Angeles Unified School District Police Officers Assn. Officials of that group said they have taken steps to terminate their contract with the publisher.
Officials of Stuart-Bradley Productions Inc., the publisher of the manual, said last week that every potential contributor was provided with a written statement disclosing that the school police group would receive 15% of the advertising proceeds; that the advertising expense is not tax-deductible, and that the money the police group gets “will be used in part to better the living and working conditions of the association’s members.”
The publisher said its failure to secure a Los Angeles Police Commission permit resulted from “an unfortunate gap in communication between offices.” It said its profit, after expenses, will be about half the amount given to the school police.