PORT RICHEY — A telemarketing group that has come under fire for how it solicits donations for local rescue workers' unions is under investigation by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
Residents have complained that solicitors from the Bay Area Council, known locally as the Pasco County Council of Firefighters & Paramedics, misrepresents itself as a donation arm of the Pasco fire stations.
Union officials in Hernando County, where the group has also solicited, have criticized the group for keeping about 85 percent of the donation money it collects from residents.
And, though telemarketers continue to solicit donations, state business records show the company dissolved in 2008.
Detectives began looking last week for any possible wrongdoing, sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said.
Hudson resident Ron Wegner filed complaints across the state last year when his mother received what resembled a $30 bill from the company. The invoice was deceiving, he said, and insinuated his mother needed to pay something she didn't owe.
"These guys are taking your money and deciding where to put it, and it's not in a good place," Wegner said.
Fundraising manager Bill Slack said the company, which runs a phone bank in Port Richey, collects locally on behalf of firefighters' unions in Pasco County, New Port Richey and Zephyrhills. Employees, he said, are trained to clarify that any money given to the group goes to union activities, not the local fire station, which is funded entirely by tax revenue.
"We'd be crazy to misrepresent ourselves," Slack said. "Do people sometimes get confused or misinterpret us? I think that's what it is."
Copies of the donation form and request letter supplied to the St. Petersburg Times state the association is a nonprofit organization, not a tax-deductible charity. Donations, the letter states, go toward the company, which "represents firefighter & paramedic members' themselves, not the fire department."
New Port Richey resident Robert Trenary said company workers often obscure that point. A caller he spoke with acted as if he was calling from a Pasco firehouse, he said. He was actually phoning from a call center.
"Where there's smoke, there's fire," Trenary said. "This whole thing stinks to high heaven."
Last month, a Hernando County firefighters union voted to cut loose from the company. One representative told the Times that the company had given only $4,500 — less than a fifth what the union raised by itself.
Slack said that's a problem with the economy, not the company. Benevolent associations and fraternal orders collect money in similar fashions all the time, he said, with many of them giving back less to the unions than his group.
"Is 15 percent a great number to be at? No," he said. "But in this economy, it's better than a lot of other organizations can do."
Pasco Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Mike Ciccarello said he has received a few complaints related to the group's cold calls, "most of it misunderstandings with the solicitors, strong-arm tactics or misinformation." Fire officials stress to residents that the donations go to the unions, not the stations.
"We don't really have an opinion on whether people want to support the organization," Ciccarello said. "As long as people are given the right information."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6244.