Eyeing telemarketers who work for police charities

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Telemarketers who dial for dollars on behalf of police-related charities and pretend to be police officers or use intimidating tactics can be pursued for fraud and deception - but the practice can't be outlawed.

The state has pursued such outfits for years and just last month shut down four solicitors, including Suffolk Productions in Copiague, saying they used illegal tactics.

Police groups are divided on the fundraising. While many police-related charities use paid solicitors, others say any solicitation is problematic.

"We believe no law enforcement organization of any sort should be able to solicit the people because of the misconception of who it actually is," said Noel DiGerolamo, second vice president of the Suffolk County PBA, which doesn't solicit money from the public.

Creating false impressions

"It can lead to the false impression that somehow your service is going to be reflective of your contribution, both positive and negative."

On this, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy - not always allied with the PBA - agrees.

"No one should feel pressured to give a donation or feel that there might be some type of retribution if they do not," said Levy, who added that he would be "predisposed" to legislation targeting the practice.

DiGerolamo said he approached Legis. Steve Stern (D-Huntington) last year about possibly sponsoring such legislation. Stern did not return repeated calls for comment.

Sean Delany, former head of the attorney general's charities bureau, said the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right of charities to solicit from the public.

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Attorneys general can pursue individual solicitors for fraud, and can publicize the amount of money that ends up with the charities from these solicitors, he said - but that's it.

"What you cannot do consistent with the Constitution is flat-out ban this charitable solicitation," Delany said.

Last month, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said that solicitors for Suffolk Productions identified themselves as police officers and detectives to potential donors, and intimated that donating money would confer special benefits. All four solicitors have stopped operating.

Professional solicitors often work for police groups because they're easy to solicit for, said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy in Chicago.

"People are more likely to respond to a police or firefighter solicitation than any other type of solicitation," Borochoff said. "People feel very sympathetic."

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Using fear as a tactic

But unlike cancer or hunger charities, which play on donors' heartstrings, experts said solicitors for police charities have another weapon: fear.

"It's not the fact that police organizations are raising money," said Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., and former director of the Newark Police Department. "The issue is the intimidation associated with the fact that they're engaged in that practice."

Toby Morse, 40, of Hyde Park, is a court officer and a former correction officer. In January 2009, Morse said she received a phone call from a man who identified himself as calling from a PBA - she didn't hear which one. When she told him she couldn't donate, she said the man read off her home address to her and added, "we just want to come by and check to see whether you're safe and sound, make sure your doors are locked nice and tight."

Morse complained to the attorney general, but the experience unnerved her.

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Jack Weishahn, president of the Suffolk County Detective Investigators PBA, which represents about 45 plainclothes detective investigators in the district attorney's office, said his union uses a paid solicitor to sell ads in the journal it publishes each year to raise money.

"It would be particularly inappropriate for police officers and detectives to do that kind of work," Weishahn said. He said he doesn't like the idea of detectives collecting ad payments for the journal from businesses.

He said he instructs the solicitors on what they can't do: They can't say they're police officers, that the money is going to widows and orphans, or that donating will help the donor.

Still, Weishahn said, the union's membership and board often questions its use of a professional solicitor. He said that debate "usually ends up where we say, 'Let's keep a tight rein on them and make sure we're doing it right.' "

The rules

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Under state law, solicitors in New York must follow certain rules when they call people to ask for money:

What fundraisers must do

State the fact that they are paid; name the company that employs them; and state that they are calling on behalf of the charity, rather than saying they are "with" or "from" the charity.

Disclose their real names.

Tell donors that they can receive financial reports about the charity from the attorney general's office.

What they can't do

Falsely represent themselves as law-enforcement officials, or lead donors to believe they are officials.

Misrepresent the name or programs of the charity on whose behalf they are calling.

Intimate or say that by donating, donors will receive special benefits or treatment from law-enforcement officials.

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