Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Public safety

Loophole protects telemarketers that hire felons to call you for money

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No one disputes that Police Protective Fund hired felons at its five Florida call centers to solicit donations from the public.

State regulators raided the charity's phone rooms in September after the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting named Police Protective Fund one of the nation's worst charities based on how much it spent over a decade on telemarketing.

They found convicted felons among those working the phones and arrested four of the charity's managers on charges they made the hires.

It was the first time regulators tried to enforce a 1999 statute that made it a crime to hire felons to do charitable soliciting.

And it failed.

It turns out the law was written to apply only to "professional fundraising consultants," not phone room managers or charity executives.

And a pre-existing statute defined these consultants as people who do not have paid employees. Because Police Protective Fund pays its callers, managers there don't fit the definition.

Handicapped by a law that looks tough on paper but is unenforceable in practice, prosecutors said they had no choice but to abandon the case. In October, Police Protective Fund's managers returned to their jobs supervising about 120 call center workers in Florida.

"It would be easy to fix it," said Mike Halkitis, an assistant state attorney in Pasco County. "All you do is change the statute. But that takes legislative action."

The 1999 law was intended to hold the people doing the hiring responsible for their actions and protect donors, who often provide credit card information and other financial data over the phone.

The state still bars people who have been convicted in the past 10 years of financial-related felonies, including fraud, theft or embezzlement, from soliciting on behalf of a charity.

But unless changes are made, the people who hire them face no criminal charges.

It is not known if felons continue making calls on behalf of Police Protective Fund, which is based in Austin, Texas.

David Dierks, co-founder of the charity, did not respond to phone calls and email requests for comment. In September, he described the investigators' visits as a "routine followup" and said his charity was cooperating with the state.

The case against Police Protective Fund illustrates the roadblocks regulators face when they try to crack down on charities, even when they find what seems like clear evidence of violations.

The Times and CIR investigation found that Florida officials first learned the police charity had been hiring felons in 2010, but did no more than issue a warning.

Spurred by questions from Times and CIR reporters, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services subpoenaed the charity's employee records last summer. On Sept. 17, authorities arrested four people, including James Paul Williams Jr., 61, who, according to an investigator's report, said he was allowed to hire convicted felons "because they were not soliciting individuals who lived in Florida."

"He stated that when someone answers 'yes' to being a convicted felon, as long as their arrest wasn't for what he described as rape, murder or fraud, he has no problem employing them and letting them make calls," the investigator's arrest report said.

Williams identified himself as the regional manager of the phone rooms, which make about 1 million calls a year.

Also arrested was the regional manager's son, Jason Robert Williams, 34, who manages the charity's phone room in Port Richey. The younger Williams is a convicted sex offender.

Charges against all men were dropped a month later.

Though the criminal case has been dismissed, Aaron Keller, an agriculture department spokesman, said the state is pursuing fines and other penalties against Police Protective Fund.

And Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, said he plans to file a bill next month that will allow regulators to enforce rules on the books against hiring felons.

"We'll craft the bill in such a way that it will close that loophole," Brandes said.

Kris Hundley can be reached at [email protected]

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