If the Legislature does its job this spring, it soon will be a lot safer to give to charities in Florida. Adam Putnam, the state agriculture and consumer services commissioner, has proposed significantly tougher regulations for charities and firms that solicit donations for them by phone. Now lawmakers need to approve the reforms and drive out the bad actors who capitalize on Floridians' best intentions.
Putnam's move comes eight months after the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting began shining the light on "America's worst charities." Many of those flourished in Florida thanks to lax regulation, enriching themselves and their family members while spending next to nothing on the causes they claim to champion. Now even when charities or the telephone solicitors who raise money for them run afoul of Florida's rules — such as hiring convicted thieves or fraudsters to call potential donors and potentially collect credit card numbers — regulators have struggled to prosecute.
The legislation that Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, filed last week at Putnam's request has two key strengths: Dramatically increasing public disclosure of the inner workings of charities and solicitors, and clarifying when the state can shut them down.
But its most important function, Putnam's office believes, is that tougher rules could prevent bad actors from setting up shop here. That would include scammers such as Bobby Thompson, who was convicted in Ohio last month and sentenced to 28 years in prison after the Times first exposed his multi-million-dollar U.S. Navy Veterans Association scam. Charities claiming annual revenues of more than $1 million will be required to undergo an independent financial audit. If less than 25 percent of the proceeds are actually being spent on charity, the group will have to detail how it is spending its money and with whom — including identifying any familial connections. Charities that evoke a national or international tragedy to solicit money will have to file quarterly rather than annual reports.
The state also would require more disclosure by professional solicitors — telemarketing firms that dial for donations on charities' behalf. Before a single call is made to ask for money, the firm would have to provide a copy of the solicitation script, the locations and phone numbers from which the calls would be made, and details about what percentage of funds raised actually flow to the charity. While now solicitors are on the honor system to not hire felons, the state would require a $100 licensing fee and background check for each employee who calls the public for donations.
Finally, much of the new information the state collects will flow to an online database, enabling Floridians to investigate a charity before giving. Those without computer access could call the state's consumer services hotline at 1-800-Help-Fla.
It would be naive to think these changes would root out every unscrupulous actor in Florida. But Putnam's proposal gives regulators more tools and the donating public far more information. Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford should make this legislation a priority.