Editorial: Florida needs to toughen charity laws

Published September 20 2013
Updated September 20 2013

This week's arrest of four Florida men accused of hiring felons to solicit donations for a dubious charity in the name of fallen police officers is a step in the right direction toward protecting donors and reputable charities. But the minimal penalty the suspects will face if convicted is a reminder of just how much more needs to be done in Florida. Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose officers made the arrests, has made a start at holding charities to better account, but the Legislature needs to do its part by toughening state regulations.

The arrests of phone room managers for the Police Protective Fund — in Clearwater, Port Richey, New Port Richey and Davie — came three years after the state first got wind the charity was skirting a state law that prohibits charities and professional solicitors from knowingly employing telemarketers who have been convicted of fraud and other financial felonies. As a recent Tampa Bay Times/Center for Investigative Reporting investigation of the nation's worst charities found, back then regulators found at least five employees who had been convicted of fraud, theft and armed robbery. The charity claimed it couldn't afford background checks and regulators dropped it.

Yet between 2001 and 2010, the Police Protective Fund pulled in as much as $35 million, with $15 million of that total going to cover solicitor fees. Tax records show a paltry $260,000 went in direct cash aid to promote officer safety and provide help to the families of slain law enforcement officers.

If convicted, the four men arrested this week would face just $500 per violation. Putnam wants lawmakers to increase such penalties, among many other reforms. The Legislature needs to sign on. There should be no cover for pseudo charities rolling in the dough by bilking well-meaning Americans out of their money.