Police Protective Fund raises millions of dollars each year in the name of fallen officers.
On Tuesday, four men in charge of the charity's telemarketing operations were arrested on charges of hiring felons to raise that money.
All four are managers who oversee the charity's phone rooms in the Tampa Bay area and in South Florida.
Charity regulators with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services descended on the boiler room operations Tuesday afternoon and began running criminal background checks on each employee.
During the raid, they determined that several felons had been hired and were soliciting donations, agency spokeswoman Erin Gillespie said.
Florida law bans charities and professional solicitors from knowingly employing telemarketers who have been convicted of fraud and other financial felonies.
James Campanelli, 22, said he worked at the Port Richey phone room for about nine months until leaving in July 2011. He told a reporter that employees talked openly about their criminal pasts.
"It wasn't a hush-hush thing, but I thought it was weird they were getting people's credit card numbers," Campanelli said. "It seemed like the people who did real well were the guys that did time. They learned how to be smooth."
The state raid was prompted by an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and The Center for Investigative Reporting, which in June named Police Protective Fund as one of the worst charities in the nation based on its high fundraising expenses.
The Times and CIR also revealed that state officials issued a warning but took no further action in 2010 when they first learned the charity had been hiring felons to solicit donations.
Police Protective Fund runs telemarketing centers in Port Richey, New Port Richey, Clearwater and Davie. One is in a shot-out strip center behind an Arby's on U.S. 19; another shares office space with a pain clinic.
Times reporters were turned away at several of the call centers Tuesday afternoon while state officials were inside screening employee records.
David Dierks, co-founder of the Austin, Texas-based charity, declined to comment on the arrests. He described Florida regulators' visit on Tuesday as a "routine follow up" and said his charity was cooperating with the state.
Today, Police Protective Fund relies almost exclusively on telemarketing by its own employees to raise donations. Charity officials said they employ about 120 telemarketers and reach about 1 million people across the country each year.
But for many years the charity relied on professional solicitors. From 2001 to 2010, they raised about $35 million. Nearly $15 million of that went to cover the solicitors' fees, IRS records show.
That put Police Protective at No. 20 on the Times/CIR list of America's worst charities, which was based on the total paid to solicitors over a decade.
Though its employees ask for money to promote officer safety and help the families of slain officers, tax filings show it has spent $260,000 on direct cash aid over the past decade.
Nonprofits run by Dierks and co-founder Phil LeConte, including Police Protective Fund, have been sued by regulators in at least six states, including Illinois, Ohio and Massachusetts. States accused charity employees of falsifying documents and overstating charitable deeds. Telemarketers went as far as pretending they were police officers to raise money, according to complaints filed by California and Illinois.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has received at least four complaints about Police Protective Fund since 2010.
A retired police officer in Maryland asked regulators to investigate the organization after he was solicited. A North Carolina woman complained that Police Protective Fund had fraudulently obtained her 95-year-old mother's personal information and charged her credit card.
The Attorney General's Office took no action and did not pass the allegations on to the Agriculture Department, which regulates charities.
State officials on Tuesday arrested Jason Robert Williams, who is on probation for sexual battery. Williams, 33, of Holiday, is the manager of a one of the Port Richey phone rooms.
His 60-year-old father, James Paul Williams Jr., was also arrested. Williams, of Tarpon Springs, oversees all five of the charity's Florida phone rooms.
Also arrested were Phillip Brian Stinson, 31, manager of the charity's New Port Richey call center and Jose Ramon Quinones, 49, who manages its phone room in Davie.
None of the men could be reached for comment.
The charge, a third-degree felony, carries a fine of $500 for each violation.
Three years ago, Florida regulators visited one of the Port Richey call centers and found that at least five employees had been convicted of fraud, theft or armed robbery.
At the time, James Williams told investigators that the charity couldn't afford to do background checks and had to rely on employees to voluntarily disclose their criminal histories, according to a Pasco County sheriff's report.
The state closed the case with a warning, saying future violations would be a third-degree felony.
Adam Putnam, who became Florida's agriculture commissioner in 2011, recently proposed strengthening charity oversight in response to the Times/CIR investigation into America's worst charities. Among his proposals is making background checks mandatory for charitable solicitors.
"Charities that cannot follow state law cannot be trusted with Floridians' hard-earned money," Putnam said Tuesday. "By cracking down on charities that hire felons, we're working to make sure more of Floridians' charitable contributions are used to do good."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.