By Sarah Kleiner and Chris Zubak-Skees for the Center for Public Integrity
A Florida charity that raises money in the name of fallen police officers touts the support of several major businesses and sports franchises in its marketing materials.
But at least four of these organizations — Southwest Airlines, the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Universal Orlando Resort — say they have no record of sponsoring the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund, the charitable arm of the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO.
The relief fund and union were the focus of a recent Center for Public Integrity investigation, which detailed how little of the money the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund raises reaches police officers and their families. The two groups share a penthouse office in downtown Sarasota and are run by the same men.
Together, the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund and the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO, have spent about $82.3 million — 77 percent of their operating expenditures — on fundraising services from around 2011 to March 2018, according to a Public Integrity analysis of annual tax returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
While the two groups rely almost exclusively on professional telemarketers to raise cash — companies that charge some of the highest rates for fundraising on behalf of charity clients, Public Integrity has reported — the relief fund has also hosted an annual benefit golf tournament for several years.
The tournament’s 2019 program includes dozens of company logos under the heading “past sponsors.”
Spokespeople for the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers said they had no record of past sponsorship of the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund.
“We took some time to research and did not find any record of support for this organization on our behalf to date,” said Ro Hawthorne, spokesperson for Southwest Airlines.
Universal Orlando Resort gave two complimentary tickets to the relief fund in 2016, 2017 and 2018, said Tom Schroder, a resort spokesperson. The relief fund did not request or receive tickets in 2019.
“We donate many, many passes to a wide range of organizations over the course of a year — and so two passes in a year does not rise to the level of what we would call ‘sponsorship,’” Schroder said. “And to my knowledge, we did not share our logo with this group or give them permission to use it.”
Officials with the International Union of Police Associations and the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund declined to comment. The AFL-CIO, with which the police union is affiliated, did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
One labor organization this month said it will likely stop sponsoring the relief fund while another is undecided.
Michele Ryan, spokesperson for the International Union of Elevator Constructors, said the organization’s officers will not make additional donations to the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund “if, upon review, the facts in your article are correct.”
Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, an Anheuser-Busch distribution company based in Sarasota, confirmed its support for the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund’s golf tournament. Owner and president John Saputo said via email his company hadn’t made any decisions about whether to continue supporting the relief fund in the future, adding that his company supports the golf tournament “out of profound respect and appreciation” for local police and deputies.
Other major companies are listed as “past sponsors” in the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund’s golf tournament brochure. They include: Humana, BlueCross BlueShield National Labor Office, SeaWorld Parks & Resorts in Orlando, Busch Gardens in Tampa, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Buffalo Bills, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and several international hotel chains. Spokespeople for those organizations did not return requests for comment.
Daniel Capierseho, owner and president of Sarasota Health & Financial Services, said he planned to continue to support the relief fund, but hung up the phone when a reporter tried to ask additional questions.
The executive board of the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund and the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO, appear to be strengthening their political connections as the nation barrels toward the 2020 election.
The leaders of the two organizations met with President Donald Trump at the White House in November, two months after endorsing him for re-election. White House spokesman Steven Groves declined to comment.
“This union endorsement of President Trump means a great deal, because not only does the President stand for working people, he also stands for law enforcement,” Trump’s campaign said in a news release issued in September.
Other politicians, political groups and celebrities, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R; Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, D; and the Democratic Governors Association, have touted endorsements and accolades bestowed upon them by the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO.
But the union and the relief fund have found themselves the targets of complaints from would-be donors, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
A man who described himself as a former federal law enforcement officer in Vienna, Va., complained to Florida regulators in 2016 that the International Union of Police Associations “tried to guilt me into making a donation by suggesting I don’t support law enforcement officers in our country.”
When asked on a complaint form what would satisfy his concern, he wrote: “Investigate this company and shut them down!”
“My father died in 1985,” the woman wrote. “This was very upsetting to my elderly mother.”
Despite the complaints, neither the International Union of Police Associations nor the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund is under investigation by Florida regulators, said Max Flugrath, press secretary for Nikki Fried, commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates charities.
The department “is not aware of any illegal activities regarding this organization,” Flugrath said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot cap how much money charities can spend on fundraising and administration, but many states — including Florida — investigate charities that are found to have misled donors about how their money will be used.
“Commissioner Fried and our department take charity regulation very seriously — it is a violation of Florida law for organizations soliciting contributions from the public to misrepresent how their funds are being used,” Flugrath said. “We advise consumers who believe they were substantively misled about how contributions are utilized to file a complaint with our Division of Consumer Services immediately so they can look into the issue.”
Matt Weidner, a Florida lawyer who has been pushing state officials to crack down on nonprofits that spend most of the money they raise on fundraising, said the state has made a conscious decision to “roll out the welcome mat and encourage blatant widespread fraud to proliferate.”
Florida requires nonprofits to register and submit routine financial statements detailing their expenses, Weidner said.
“What is the point of spending any of this money (collecting and processing nonprofits’ forms) if the state isn't going to undertake any meaningful review — much less actual regulation — of those entities that are providing all this information?” Weidner said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who in 2018 lauded the International Union of Police Associations for supporting a bill that ultimately passed, would not comment specifically on the union’s fundraising activities. Brown’s office said in a statement that Brown “believes all organizations should exercise legal and ethical spending practices as it relates to money raised for any stated purpose, especially money raised in the names of our fallen law enforcement officers.”
The press offices for DeSantis, Florida’s governor, did not return phone calls or respond to emails requesting comment about his endorsement from the union.
Christina Stephens, a spokesperson for Edwards, Louisiana’s governor, said: “The election was last year. We are focused on the governor’s second term.”