Sarah Kleiner and Chris Zubak-Skees reported this for the Center for Public Integrity
TAMPA, Fla. — The telemarketer asked Eric Thomas a question: Would he consider donating money to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network?
Thomas himself was battling a rare and incurable form of leukemia. His wife, Rhonda, had endured two bouts with breast cancer. The Florida retirees had medical bills, but they were manageable, thanks to Thomas’ insurance as an Army veteran.
So Thomas told the telemarketer he’d help. He sent $100 on Oct. 1, 2018.
But virtually none of his money helped children with leukemia or their parents, who often face crippling medical expenses and crushing anxiety.
About $84 of Thomas’ contribution landed with a network of companies run by a Las Vegas-based businessman, Richard Zeitlin.
The remainder? Almost all of it funded Children’s Leukemia Support Network salaries, bank fees, payroll taxes and other overhead expenses.
“I feel cheated,” Thomas said in a recent interview at a cancer treatment center in Tampa. “Misused.”
Thomas is one of thousands of Americans who’ve opened their wallets to groups that sound like charities but actually are political action committees. The groups raise money in the name of leukemia-stricken children, breast cancer survivors, police officers, firefighters and struggling military veterans, among others. Little if any of the money donors provide goes toward the causes being championed.
This is part of a trend. During the last four years, the U.S. saw a significant spike in the number of PACs that raise most of their money from small-dollar donors before plowing much of it back into salaries, administrative costs and raising more cash, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of more than 68.7 million campaign finance records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
PACs that contract with Zeitlin account for about half of that spike, making him a major player in the political world. For more than two decades, he raised tens of millions of dollars in the name of nonprofits before shifting to PACs.
By and large, nonprofits and political committees are allowed to spend almost everything they collect on fundraising. What’s not legal: lying to prospective donors about how their money will be used. It is up to a patchwork of federal and state investigators, each with different jurisdictions and responsibilities, to police solicitors. This is often difficult for agencies with limited resources.
Some of the organizations that have contracted with Zeitlin’s firms over the years have been, or currently are, run by people with troubled histories: a disgraced Florida lawyer and a board member of a charity that was shut down by regulators. Four of the groups are run by a Las Vegas police officer who was accused in a federal lawsuit in 2018 of using “excessive and unreasonable force” when he shot a man armed with a butter knife six times, killing him.
Since 2006, Zeitlin’s telemarketing companies have raised at least $121.3 million for nonprofits, according to a Public Integrity review of hundreds of state disclosures. More recently, political committees that contract with his companies have raised more than $31.8 million, according to financial disclosures filed with federal regulators. Of the combined $153.1 million, Zeitlin’s companies were paid about $133.1 million, Public Integrity’s analysis shows.
Other telemarketers charge a steep premium for fundraising for their charity clients, as a previous Public Integrity analysis found. But Zeitlin’s companies charge about 86 percent — one of the highest percentages among fundraisers who’ve brought in at least $10 million.
One nonprofit watchdog says the most effective organizations spend no more than 25 percent of their expenses on fundraising and overhead.
Zeitlin’s attorney said in a recent letter to Public Integrity that fundraising for small and medium charities is “overhead intensive.” Zeitlin, he said, is a “successful entrepreneur and businessman” who has raised millions of dollars for charities that they otherwise would not have had.
Thomas was angry when told by a reporter how the Children’s Leukemia Support Network spent his money.
“My $100? Big deal. It doesn’t change my life,” Thomas said. “But on a bigger scale, those millions of dollars came from somebody. What kind of a society, what kind of a culture, what kind of a country are we being when we accommodate those kinds of things to go on?”
A 7-year-old boy named Sriyam Sriadibhatla is fighting for his life across the Florida peninsula in Delray Beach, but his parents might not be able to afford the expensive medicine needed to treat his cancer.
Sriyam is among more than 26,000 people, many of them children, asking for financial support through GoFundMe as they battle leukemia — but the Children’s Leukemia Support Network does little, if anything, to help them.
Earlier this year, Srujan and Shanthi Sriadibhatla sensed something wrong with their usually rambunctious son. He had trouble getting off the couch, and he wouldn’t play with the other kids at the playground.
Sriyam’s doctor ran tests in January and called that same night. Come to the hospital immediately, one doctor said. Another test, then another, and then, the devastating truth: Cancer had invaded 97 percent of the boy’s bone marrow cells.
Panic gripped the family. They had been planning to return to India, because Srujan Sriadibhatla’s visa was about to expire. He obtained an emergency extension to stay in the United States, but couldn’t keep his information technology job because his visa didn’t allow it. Shanthi had already quit her IT job because of her visa.
No jobs meant no money to pay what would soon be a flood of medical bills.
The first dose of Sriyam’s chemotherapy cost $93,000. Srujan’s insurance covered most of it.
But the second dose made the boy gravely ill, forcing doctors to prescribe a new drug for future treatments.
Srujan’s insurance initially didn’t cover the substitute drug, which costs about $16,000 a dose. It’s made by a single manufacturer and produced in such small quantities that it usually sells out within an hour of becoming available. Sriyam needs six doses.
A family friend started a GoFundMe page for Sriyam, which had raised $87,000 as of this week. The Sriadibhatlas had already tapped into that for some initial hospital visits. Srujan has since secured permission to work again.
Still, Shanthi said, “It’s a nightmare.”
Sriyam, tall and slender with glasses and thinning hair, climbed on the couch behind his parents, chattering about airplanes — his favorite topic — and cooking meals with his family. They live in an apartment in a gated apartment complex in Delray Beach.
Shanthi, who must monitor Sriyam’s temperature every four hours, is exhausted.
Awake late each night, she turns her anxiety into art, which hangs on the walls inside their apartment.
At the head of the dining table hang five etchings, one more intricate than the next, of women performing traditional Indian dances.
The Sriadibhatlas are thankful for the money friends have donated, but they have no idea how much the next two-and-a-half years of treatment might cost.
Eric Thomas said a telemarketer made a pitch last fall that made him believe he was helping families like the Sriadibhatlas. He then received a letter signed by the person who contracts with Zeitlin’s companies.
“Children with Leukemia need your support,” wrote William Christopher Pollock, an officer with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, who identifies himself as president and CEO of the Children’s Leukemia Support Network, a political action committee.
He and his wife, Kecia Pollock, together run four super PACs, including one that raises money for police officers.
It is unclear who physically sends the pledge letters like the one signed by Pollock. Letters obtained by Public Integrity from six PACs that contract with Zeitlin have nearly identical formats and fonts.
In the letter for his leukemia group, William Pollock tells donors the network will “provide the parents of children stricken with Leukemia emotional support and information on new discoveries and cutting-edge treatments” and “continue the fight for further funding and research.”
On its website, the PAC says it aims to “educate the public that boys also get Cancer not just girls” and “try to get the same support for Leukemia as there is for just cancer.”
About 86 percent of the money raised by the Children’s Leukemia Support Network went to Zeitlin’s companies, according to Federal Election Commission filings. That’s roughly the same percentage that about three dozen organizations that contract with Zeitlin firms pay for fundraising and other services, according to an analysis of federal and state disclosures.
The Pollocks pocketed about a third of what money was left over. They also got steady paychecks from their other PACs that contract with Zeitlin’s companies: the Firefighters Alliance of America, the Heart Disease Network of America and the Police Officers Defense Alliance.
“Firefighters Alliance of America’s mission is to ensure that government pass legislations [sic] that will provide easier access to full medical benefits to firefighters who suffer from heart and lung disease,” William Pollock wrote in a letter to a donor who pledged three contributions totaling $1,200 in late 2018. The donor declined to be interviewed or identified but shared the letters he received from three of the Pollocks’ PACs.
The letter from the Firefighters Alliance urges donors to ask their representatives in Congress to support House Resolution 1884, the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act of 2017, a failed bill that would have provided protections to federal firefighters diagnosed with heart and lung diseases and certain cancers.
As a super PAC, the Firefighters Alliance could have spent money supporting any of the 32 co-sponsors of H.R. 1884 in the House of Representatives — but it didn’t. It supported just one politician: Republican Dean Heller, a U.S. senator from Nevada who was ousted in the 2018 midterm elections.
Heller also was the only beneficiary of spending by two of the Pollocks’ other PACs. He could not be reached for comment.
In a separate fundraising letter, William Pollock wrote on behalf of the Police Officers Defense Alliance to urge prospective contributors to support law enforcement officials “who have sworn an oath to provide safety to us as citizens, [and] we will make our communities a safer place and continue to work for the betterment of society.”
The telemarketing calls and follow-up letters signed by Pollock worked.
Bill Guzules in Santa Clara, Calif., for example, said he gave $500 to the Pollocks’ Firefighters Alliance because he wanted to help firefighters after his softball teammate’s house burned down in the wildfires that ravaged the state last year.
The four Pollock PACs together spent about $4 million from 2017 to 2019, almost all of what they raised. About $3.7 million of that went to Zeitlin’s companies, while the Pollocks brought home about $150,000. Most of the rest covered overhead.
The only political expenditures — less than 1 percent of overall spending — benefited Heller, the senator from Nevada who was defeated in the November 2018 general election.
William Pollock used his position as a law enforcement official in at least one solicitation, referring to himself as “Officer William Pollock, President/CEO” in the Police Officers Defense Alliance letter.
Pollock’s law enforcement career has been fraught of late. The family of a man Pollock shot six times and killed while on duty in July 2017 has sued Pollock for “excessive and unreasonable force.” Pollock has denied the allegations.
Pollock had been dispatched to the scene of a disturbance at a pawn shop, where he encountered a man with a butter knife. The man allegedly grabbed Pollock’s car door and turned toward Pollock.
Pollock fired twice and the man fell. According to the police department, the man attempted to get up, still holding the knife. Pollock then fired four more times, according to the lawsuit. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department investigated the shooting and found that Pollock, for the most part, followed department procedures. The district attorney declined to prosecute Pollock. He returned to patrol duty, but the lawsuit is still pending.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department hired Pollock in 2001, a spokesman confirmed. He currently serves as a patrol officer, earning $118,000 in 2018, plus $53,000 in benefits for a combined $170,600 in compensation, according to the organization Transparent Nevada.
C. Terry Raben, an accountant in Las Vegas who is paid by the Pollocks’ PACs and two other PACs that contract with Zeitlin’s companies, was out of the office when a Public Integrity reporter stopped by his office in May. He did not respond to a request for an interview sent via email and certified letter.
Kecia Pollock, however, was home when the reporter visited her house in Las Vegas in May.
The reporter said she wanted to talk about Pollock’s political action committees.
“I’m not going to talk to anybody,” Kecia Pollock said, tossing the reporter’s business card on the porch and quickly shutting the door.
Her husband did not respond to an email or to certified letters sent to their home and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. The phone numbers the Pollocks listed on their PAC registration paperwork are disconnected, and the numbers on the pledge letters signed by William Pollock lead to recorded messages that the voicemail box hasn’t been set up.
The Pollocks’ fortunes have markedly improved of late after filing for bankruptcy in 1998 and again in 2011.
Kecia Pollock’s Facebook page includes a picture of a new Lincoln.
Someone commented: “You so fancy mama Kecia!”
She replied, “Yes we are after all these years :)”
When the reporter visited in May, the Pollocks were living in a four-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot house within a gated neighborhood in northwest Las Vegas, about two miles from where Zeitlin lives. They didn’t own it, but it was valued at $500,000, according to Clark County tax records.
In August, the Pollocks bought a six-bedroom, three-bathroom home for $405,000 in a different gated community in Las Vegas.
The Zillow listing for the home, which is no longer on the market, describes it as “grandiose” and a “colossal estate” with a three-car garage, a spiral staircase and a “roman tub.”
From pizza to fundraising
Richard Zeitlin was born in November 1970, the last of three sons of Sandra and Norman “Tize” Zeitlin in Milwaukee, Wis. His father is deceased, and his mother has little to say about him.
“I’m not in touch with my son,” she said by phone, declining further comment.
Zeitlin’s brother, Alan Zeitlin, a truck driver who still lives in Wisconsin, said his younger brother, “Rick,” went to high school in Milwaukee and did not attend college.
Once, when Rick was 16 years old and delivering pizzas to a telemarketing office, Alan said a man there asked him if he wanted to make more money.
“He said, ‘Sure,’” Alan said. “The rest is history.”
During the past 12 months, Public Integrity pieced together Zeitlin’s history, interviewing people who know him personally and through work, and scouring court records, property documents, tax filings, building permits and fundraising disclosures made to state and federal regulators.
Morry Rosenblatt said he became friends with Zeitlin when they worked together in telemarketing as teenagers. Later, they became roommates. And much later, their friendship disintegrated.
Rosenblatt said he and Zeitlin decided to strike out on their own in Las Vegas. They formed Courtesy Call Inc. in 1994, according to court records.
Initially, Courtesy Call’s charity clients were small. The people who donated money to its charities wound up on a list of easy targets, and Courtesy Call workers contacted them repeatedly, Rosenblatt said.
“I know you are a sucker if you are giving money to a stranger on the phone,” Rosenblatt said. “I’m going to call you for the next veterans group, the firefighter groups, and I’m going to keep calling you for different people until you run out of money.”
In August 2003, Rosenblatt showed up for work, but Zeitlin had changed the locks and wouldn’t let him in, according to a lawsuit Rosenblatt filed against Zeitlin in December 2003. The lawsuit was settled before Zeitlin filed a response.
Zeitlin stopped paying Rosenblatt and told his partner he was terminated, according to the lawsuit. Zeitlin said he was planning to file a criminal complaint against Rosenblatt, alleging embezzlement and forgery.
Rosenblatt denied wrongdoing in his lawsuit and said he believed Zeitlin was trying to take control of the company and its assets. He asked the court for supervision because “any meeting between the two would likely be confrontational.”
The two settled Rosenblatt’s lawsuit in early 2004, with Zeitlin and the company agreeing to pay Rosenblatt $193,000, according to court documents.
The men haven’t spoken in 10 years, Rosenblatt said.
Rosenblatt, who eventually moved to California with his family, talks about Zeitlin and the work they did together in profane, and, at times, remorseful terms.
“We took money from people that were working hard,” Rosenblatt said. “That’s not right. I truly apologize for my part that I played in this shit.”
Investigators ask questions
Courtesy Call generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each year during the mid-2000s, according to disclosures the company filed in Colorado, California and Washington.
In 2010, it reported raising $4 million in the aftermath of the Great Recession, according to disclosures filed in Colorado. And by 2014, the company was bringing in more than $9 million a year for clients. Of that amount, $8 million went to Courtesy Call.
The following year, Zeitlin purchased a six-bedroom home northwest of Las Vegas, which, at the time, was made of pink stucco. He bought it in late 2014 for $890,000 from Vanessa Rousso, a professional poker player and reality television star.
The next year, he began a $700,000 renovation project that changed the structure inside and out. He built a 1,900-square-foot “master retreat” and a 3,000-square-foot detached garage with a “casita,” according to Clark County, Nev., construction permits. The property, which sits on nearly an acre, is now valued at $1.9 million, according to county tax records.
As Zeitlin’s business success and wealth grew, he largely avoided public scrutiny by government regulators and investigators.
One brush with the law came in May 2009. The California attorney general filed a lawsuit against Courtesy Call and one of its charity clients, alleging they made “false, deceptive, and misleading statements to donors.” Courtesy Call denied the allegations in a response to the lawsuit, but agreed to settle for $17,000 without admitting wrongdoing.
The Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general in various states shut down at least five of the charity clients that contracted with Courtesy Call for allegedly misleading donors. Zeitlin was not a party in any of those lawsuits, nor were he or his companies accused of any wrongdoing.
One of the charities, Help the Vets Inc., was run by Neil G. Paulson, a former Florida lawyer who forfeited his law license before the Florida Bar could complete an investigation into whether he allegedly defrauded clients, court records show. The FTC and attorneys general in several states later shut down Help the Vets, alleging the “sham charity” brought in $20 million from donors between 2014 and 2017. The agencies permanently banned Paulson from running charities.
Paulson said “no comment” and hung up the phone when a reporter called.
In a letter sent to Public Integrity last week, Joel Hansen — Zeitlin’s attorney — said Zeitlin and his companies “are certainly not responsible for the alleged actions of a very small number of previous charity clients.” Nor is it Zeitlin’s job to “police or otherwise investigate” the practices of his clients.
The FTC has a history of investigating telemarketers that raise funds in the name of charity. Complaints to the commission about charitable solicitations are on the rise. More than 4,000 such complaints were filed in 2018 — up from 2,500 in 2013.
In one case unrelated to Zeitlin, two operators of a telemarketing firm were banned from soliciting ever again, and they had to repay $18.8 million. And InfoCision, a telemarketing company that contracts with charities and politicians — also unrelated to Zeitlin — was fined by the FTC in 2018 over allegedly “false and misleading” tactics.
Zeitlin started a new company, Donor Relations, in 2016 and appears to have taken over Courtesy Call’s contracts, according to state charity disclosures.
In all, Courtesy Call and Donor Relations raised about $121 million from 2006 to 2018 for charity clients, according to Colorado fundraising solicitation reports. Zeitlin’s companies were paid about $106 million of that — about $90 million of which went to salaries. The charities that contract with Zeitlin’s firms received 12.1 percent — or $14.7 million.
The FTC was investigating whether Donor Relations and Courtesy Call — two of Zeitlin’s companies — were “engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” according to a court document filed by the commission in February 2018.
But the companies did not cooperate, according to the FTC, failing to meet deadlines and sending “patently inaccurate” documents. The FTC suddenly dropped the investigation in the fall of last year, citing an ongoing grand jury investigation involving Courtesy Call and Donor Relations.
An FTC spokesman confirmed the grand jury is located in southern Florida. Lois Greisman, who leads the commission’s division that polices consumer fraud, said she was not authorized to say anything about the investigation or Zeitlin.
Hansen, Zeitlin’s attorney, said neither Zeitlin nor his companies are a “target” of the grand jury investigation, and Zeitlin has fully cooperated with investigators. He said he could not say anything else about the investigation.
Greisman said in a recent phone interview that the commission has always made enforcing telemarketing rules a priority. But the FTC’s resources, like those of any law enforcement agency, are limited.
“The harm it causes is significant, and it has a ripple effect,” Greisman said. “The consumer who donates money, they’re not getting what they wished to get, the legitimate charity that would have received the money doesn’t have anything, and the person who would have been served by that charity isn’t being helped.”
Greisman put the onus on donors: “What I say to them is, don’t donate without doing some research, and particularly, I would say, don’t respond to a telemarketing solicitation without looking up the charity and finding out what it’s about.”
Zeitlin brought his own lawsuit against the FTC in April, alleging the agency failed to provide public notice before amending one of its telemarketing rules in 2016.
The lawsuit claims the policy change prohibits certain technology that allows fundraisers to select pre-recorded statements when talking to donors — a practice Zeitlin claimed makes telemarketing more efficient and profitable. The lawsuit is pending.
Zeitlin also sued Bank of America in 2018 because the bank froze funds in nine of Zeitlin’s business accounts “without notice or explanation,” Hansen said. The bank later unfroze all nine of Zeitlin’s accounts, according to a motion the bank filed in November. The lawsuit is pending.
Branching out to PACs
As Zeitlin’s charity clients face increased scrutiny, Zeitlin has veered into a lucrative and decidedly less regulated territory — politics.
He started three companies in 2018 that began contracting with political action committees: American Technology Services LLC, Compliance Consultant LLC, and Unified Data Services LLC. A fourth, TPFE Inc., was started in 2015, according to Nevada business incorporation records.
Hansen said the work Zeitlin’s companies do for the PACs “is confined almost solely to technology licensing and billing/payment services.” He said Zeitlin’s companies “do not fundraise for PACs.”
That’s not what two of Zeitlin’s PAC clients say.
“Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not raising the money. Rick’s company is raising the money,” said Oliver Cappleman, who runs two PACs that contract with Zeitlin’s companies: Autism Hear Us Now PAC Inc., and United Veterans Alliance of America PAC Inc. Cappleman also formed a new group this year, Veterans Aid PAC Inc.
Another PAC treasurer last year told Politico that Zeitlin’s companies raise funds for his PACs.
Some of Zeitlin’s clients and contractors from the charity world have joined him in politics.
There’s Robert Piaro, a decorated Marine Corps veteran who worked with the nonprofit Veterans Employment Training Services, which contracted with Zeitlin’s Donor Relations. Now Piaro runs four PACs that contract with Zeitlin’s companies: U.S. Veterans Assistance Foundation, Standing by Veterans PAC Inc., Americans for the Cure of Breast Cancer and the Association for Emergency Responders and Firefighters. Three of those haven’t spent any money supporting politicians. The phone number listed on his PAC registration statements is disconnected and Piaro did not respond to emails seeking comment.
There’s also Cappleman, an Army veteran who said in a phone interview that he met Zeitlin when the two were teenagers working for a telemarketing company in Milwaukee.
Cappleman used to run his own telemarketing company, which subcontracted with Zeitlin’s Courtesy Call.
Two of Cappleman’s PACs spent $20,000 supporting two politicians, but most of the rest of the $1.9 million raised for the groups went to Zeitlin’s companies and overhead.
Cappleman got a cut — $27,700 in 2018 and almost $27,400 so far this year. Two politicians benefited from spending by Cappleman’s PACs: $10,000 for Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who has sponsored three autism-related bills, and $10,000 for Heller, the U.S. senator from Nevada ousted by voters in November. Smith’s office did not reply to a request for comment.
In a phone interview, Cappleman said he’s offended when his PACs are referred to by detractors as “scam PACs.” He defended the high cost of fundraising he pays to Zeitlin’s companies.
“You don’t have volunteers working in there,” Cappleman said. “It’s very difficult to keep your head above water.”
He said he believes it is better to support politicians who can change laws than to start charities that directly help veterans and people with autism, like his son.
Cappleman said he and Zeitlin’s employees jointly craft the scripts used on phone calls with donors. He declined to provide Public Integrity the scripts.
Political action committees like the ones that contract with Richard Zeitlin’s companies are proliferating:
- Seventeen years ago, in the middle of George W. Bush’s first term, only seven PACs were raising money in small increments and spending most of it on fundraising, wages and administration. Those groups raised and spent a little over $5 million in a two-year period ending in 2002. Today, the number of such groups has grown to 61. Together, they collected $101 million during 2017 and 2018 — $85.5 million of which was from donors contributing $200 or less.
- More than 37 of the 61 PACs became active in 2017 or 2018.
- PACs like these raised $349.3 million and spent $344.3 million since 2001. They spent most heavily on fundraising, including telemarketing and direct mail.
- More than 71 percent of the total spent, or $245.7 million, went to fundraising, wages and administration.
- Little of the money collected went to political contributions, or directly advocating for a candidate’s election or defeat.
Bryan Monville was a board member for his father’s Florida-based veterans charity — which contracted with Zeitlin’s companies — until it was shut down by regulators for allegedly misleading donors.
Now Monville runs a super PAC that, up until recently, contracted with Zeitlin's companies.
"We no longer do business with Rick Zeitlin … [because] we found out his ways of doing business, and it happened directly to us," Monville said in a telephone interview, declining to discuss specifics about the work Zeitlin's companies did for his PAC or the nature of his objections to Zeitlin’s work.
In all, about a dozen PACs contract almost exclusively with Zeitlin’s companies.
In the past two years, they have collectively raised more than $31.8 million, largely from small-dollar donors. Zeitlin’s companies have been paid about $26.5 million of that, or 83 percent.
Seventeen years ago, in the middle of George W. Bush’s first term, only seven PACs across the country were raising money in small increments and spending most of it on fundraising, wages and administration. Those groups raised and spent a little over $5 million in a two-year period ending in 2002.
Today, 61 do, according to Public Integrity’s analysis. Those PACs have grown to collect $101 million over the course of 2017 and 2018 — $85.5 million of which was from donors contributing $200 or less. This is up from 38 PACs in 2015 and 2017 — a 60 percent increase. PACs that contract with Zeitlin account for more than half of that increase.
Brett Kappel, a campaign finance attorney who works in Washington, D.C., for the Akerman law firm, said hundreds of millions of dollars across the industry are being diverted from legitimate charities and political committees.
Money, Kappel said, is also being siphoned from hundreds of thousands of Americans who, by and large, think they’re making the world a better place.
That’s exactly what Eric Thomas, the Florida retiree battling leukemia, thought when he sent $100 to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network last year.
He said he and his wife, Rhonda, don’t give a lot of money to charities, but they contribute to organizations close to their hearts — like the ones that help people with leukemia and breast cancer.
“We think, ‘Boy, we’ve been there. Those people need help,’” Thomas said.
Ever since making the contribution, Thomas’ phone rings several times a day. It’s telemarketers asking for money.
He’s stopped answering.
“On a practical level, [Zeitlin’s] selfish behavior will result in fewer donations ... and fewer people can be helped,” Thomas said.
Finding Richard Zeitlin
Sriyam Sriadibhatla’s family was able to get a dose of the rare and expensive drug he needs to become available — but Sriyam has been too sick to receive it the past two weeks.
If she could talk to Zeitlin, Shanthi Sriadibhatla says, she’d tell him that their lives have changed forever. Sriyam has lost his childhood and his parents live in constant fear. The economic and emotional consequences are crushing.
“We came to this world empty-handed, we die and leave the world empty-handed,” Shanthi said, repeating a lesson her parents taught her. “But the kindness and care that we show for others in need will keep us alive forever.”
Hansen, Zeitlin’s attorney, lamented what he said are unfair expectations placed on charitable operations that conflate "frugality with morality" to the detriment of "well-run charities."
But what does Richard Zeitlin have to say for himself?
His companies used to be based at 1835 E. Charleston Ave. in Las Vegas — a rundown building in a ragged section northeast of downtown.
Zeitlin, however, has largely abandoned it. He moved his operation to a newer $1 million building in Henderson, Nev., a tidy suburb south of Las Vegas. Zeitlin’s MRZ Management owns the building.
It’s a 15-minute drive down Interstate 515, past a barrage of advertisements for personal injury and bankruptcy lawyers, easy-to-get loans, house flippers, erectile dysfunction and sex — explicit and implied.
A sign on the outside said “TRC” and “Results you can rely on.” TRC appears to be the name of an engineering company.
Inside the neatly decorated lobby, a receptionist greeted a Public Integrity reporter and took her business card into the back office. She came back a minute later and said Zeitlin was not there.
But Zeitlin soon emerged from the back wearing an olive-green T-shirt and khaki shorts.
The reporter extended her hand. Zeitlin refused to shake it. Instead he told her to leave and asked the receptionist to call the police.
“There’s the door. Don’t come back,” he said. “You are trespassing. You’re not welcome to come here.”
The reporter left, but Zeitlin jogged after her into the parking lot. He said he wanted to get her license plate number.
“My business card is in your office,” the reporter said. “You have all my contact information.”
“No, no,” Zeitlin said. “You’re coming at me. I’m going to come at you.”
The reporter tried to ask questions, but Zeitlin cut her off and disputed the amount she said he’d raised.
The reporter asked him to justify his business practices.
“How do you justify bothering me?” Zeitlin said over his shoulder as he turned away.
He kept walking, leaving the reporter’s question hanging in the dry Las Vegas air.
Rosie Cima contributed to this report.
How can I protect myself and my loved ones?
The head of the charities investigation division at the Federal Trade Commission recommends people who get calls from telemarketers do research or ask for more information before donating money. If the organization is a nonprofit, groups such as CharityWatch and Charity Navigator can help you figure out if the organization is spending money wisely. If the organization is a political action committee, few resources are available to help you discern how the money is being spent. You can research political action committee expenditures here by clicking on “disbursements.” You can also use the resources available from OpenSecrets.org, a project of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
About this story:
There’s a proliferation of political action committees that raise most of their money from small-dollar donors then spend most of their money on fundraising costs and other overhead expenses. To quantify this trend, Public Integrity analyzed data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics covering 2001 through 2018. The analysis was limited to federal PACs not directly affiliated with a party or candidate.
To identify PACs spending heavily on overhead expenses, Public Integrity summed 68.7 million expenditure records to find the total amount of money each PAC spent on fundraising, wages and administration during two-year election cycles, such as the 2017-2018 election cycle. In all, about 320 PACs reported that more than 50 percent of their total expenditures fell into those categories during at least one two-year period. The list of about 320 PACs was further filtered to include only PACs that received more than 50 percent of the amount they raised during a given time period from donors each giving less than $200. The result was a list of a little more than 100 PACs.
For this analysis, PACs were only counted in a given cycle if they crossed those two thresholds — and also spent at least $10,000.
To understand fundraising by Richard Zeitlin’s companies, Public Integrity totaled campaign report data released by the Colorado Secretary of State, as well as reports filed in the states of California and Washington.
Help the Center for Public Integrity investigate telemarketers who claim they’re raising money for charitable causes. Did a telemarketer contact you about fundraising on behalf of a charity or political action committee? Let us know by texting us or leaving a voicemail at (202) 656-7178. You can also reach reporter Sarah Kleiner at firstname.lastname@example.org.