(CNN)A secretive political group has been pulling in millions of dollars in recent months amid a growing "Blue Lives Matter" movement, with a cadre of telemarketers urgently telling Americans that now is the time to support the police and keep them safe.
Donations have surged to a 'scam' political group that claims to help police officers
The calls, which often target elderly donors, come from a variety of generic and similar-sounding aliases: The Police Officers Support Association, the National Emergency Responders Coalition and the National Coalition for Police & Troopers.
Many donors say they believed they were supporting a charity that helps local officers. But none of the money being raised actually goes to police departments, according to government records. Instead, their contributions end up with a super PAC, Law Enforcement for a Safer America, which has ties to a controversial union and spends the majority of its money on its own operating costs.
At least seven local police departments from around the country and a state attorney general have issued "scam alerts" and other notices about these fundraising efforts, warning residents in their communities as recently as this summer that they have no affiliation with this group. Around 200 consumer complaints have also been made to state and federal regulators about the super PAC, its aliases and related groups.
Law Enforcement for a Safer America officials did not return repeated requests for comment.
California resident Kellie Van Westen, 69, said she has family members who are law enforcement officers and that she believed the roughly $1,400 she donated since 2019 would help bolster local police budgets and pay for "equipment to keep them safe."
She had noticed the term "PAC" on receipts she received in the mail but thought that meant the charities were working together and had a "pact" to support the police cause she believed in. Claire Reiss, 79, said she thought the more than $2,000 she donated would go to injured police and their families, but that she stopped giving away her money when the calls just wouldn't stop.
"Our officers deserve our respect and support," the Super PAC's website reads. "These are America's heroes." Videos on its site show cities in flames and say that officers have been injured during what the group describes as riots -- presumably referring to recent Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
As the list of high-profile police shootings has grown in recent years and calls to "defund the police" have gotten louder, tensions between protesters and those who have rushed to the support of police -- some of whom have become part of a Blue Lives Matter movement -- have been building. And Law Enforcement for a Safer America appears to be cashing in.
"Now those same anarchists that rioted and assaulted law enforcement officers are using the Taliban playbook by destroying public statues and monuments while advocating for defunding law enforcement agencies," a narrator states in a video from July, as protests continued across the country.
The group's videos have received few views, but money has been pouring in. Law Enforcement for a Safer America has raked in nearly $10 million in donations from January 2019 to June 2020, according to data reported to the Federal Election Commission. This was up from roughly $1 million raised by the group, which was founded in June 2018, in the last six months of the prior election cycle.
The vast majority of donations since 2019 were under $200, meaning the funds came from tens of thousands of donors. Of those who gave more than $200, which are required to be disclosed to the federal government, roughly 80% were retirees, according to an analysis of the data.
Super PACs are able to raise unlimited amounts of money, which they can use to advocate for political candidates or causes. This group purports on various websites that donations are being used to back candidates who will stand up for police and introduce legislation to help officers and provide benefits to families who have lost loved ones in the line of duty. Campaign finance data, however, shows that about 98% of the money spent is not being used for this mission.
Up to June 2020, only 2% of the group's spending went toward political activities -- mainly for advertisements supporting President Donald Trump's reelection, according to data filed with the FEC. The rest of the money has gone primarily to the firms helping it solicit donations -- including nearly $3 million in payments to one telemarketing company sued by the government last month for allegedly using deceptive tactics.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox posted on Facebook last year about a call he received from "Roy" on behalf of the National Coalition for Police and Troopers. "The call was spoofed to appear to be from [a] Montana phone number," he wrote, noting that the caller did not identify the group as a political action committee, or super PAC, and telling his followers that it was not a nonprofit so donations are not tax deductible.
"Money donated to this group might be used for political purposes and will not be used for direct help to police or troopers," Fox wrote. "Please do your homework and avoid scams and misleading appeals for your hard-earned money."
FEC regulations state that political committees can only deposit a contribution into their account if that money came from a solicitation "which expressly states that the contribution will be used in connection with a Federal election" or the solicitation discloses that contributions are subject to federal election law. While several recordings uploaded online show that some callers have briefly mentioned the term "PAC" or have said that the group is supporting efforts to elect lawmakers to advocate for certain issues, the Montana attorney general wasn't the only person to say the group hadn't identified itself as required.
The Greenfield, Massachusetts, police department warned about the group last year as well. "We warn against them because they come off as supportive of the Greenfield Police Department, or the "local" police, and yet they do not do anything for us," said police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. "These tend to be monies for their own agendas, and not based on the locals. I feel they abuse their use of the name to maybe convey a false sense to the community about who they are and what they really do with the money."
Also in Massachusetts, a Wilmington police officer received a call soliciting donations.
"The Wilmington Police Department has no association with this organization and we have never even heard of them," stated a May release from the department. "We found a website for them, but it gives very little information about the organization and their mission. We highly encourage our followers to verify who they are making donations to when contacted for fundraisers."
Among the other warnings: The Miami Township Police in Ohio issued a "scam alert" in June referencing "calls circulating from a Police Officers Support Association asking for credit card donations." The Reading Police Department in Massachusetts described the Police Officers Support Association as a "scam 'charity'" last year. And the Morton Police Department in Illinois posted on Facebook about calls from a mysterious phone number with a local area code last year. It said callers were soliciting support for police officers but that the group was actually connected to a political action committee. "We do not support nor do we condone this group," the post stated. "We are just passing along the information if you get a suspicious call asking for money for police officers."
Law Enforcement for a Safer America does not disclose on its website who is running the super PAC, but public filings reveal that leaders of one of the country's largest police unions are pulling the strings.
Government documents show that the founding treasurer is currently an executive at the International Union of Police Associations. A union receptionist also confirmed to CNN that the super PAC is run by the union, but union leaders did not respond to repeated calls, voicemails and emails that laid out the concerns from other police departments and donors and asked why so little of the $10 million raised went toward political activities.
This Florida-based union touts its federal lobbying efforts on behalf of local members. Entire local police unions, which negotiate collective bargaining agreements for their members, can choose to affiliate with the group. Individual officers can also become members, according to its website.
The union is run by a retired police detective, and it is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the country's biggest federation of unions, which did not respond to requests for comment.
The union has previously come under fire for hiring allegedly deceptive telemarketers and costly fundraising efforts that benefited its own organization and a police charity it operates.
The union has recently claimed to have more than 100,000 members, but the IUPA has reported around 20,000 members in tax filings. Tax filings also show that the union operates its own call center and that a company the union controls purchased a nearly 20,000 square foot office building valued at more than $2.5 million, where the union is now based.
The filings don't show how much the group's officials are directly benefiting from the political committee it created, and it is unclear why the group deemed it necessary to create so many different aliases to use for soliciting donations. They do disclose, however, that of the nearly $10 million raised, the super PAC gave more money back to the union -- roughly $350,000 for "office, operational and overhead expenses" -- than the $173,500 it spent on political activities between January 2019 and June 2020. It also transferred $30,000 to another pro-police super PAC that the union operates, based on the officers listed on its filings.
"This all looks very peculiar," said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in campaign finance. He said that although it is more expensive for super PACs to solicit small donations -- which is what this one is doing -- spending so much on operations and so little on political activities is unusual.
While there are no requirements dictating the percentage of money that must go toward political activities, campaign finance expert Rob Pyers has dubbed the group a "Scam PAC" because of its high operating expenses and negligible political spending. Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor specializing in campaign finance and political corruption, said the fact that the super PAC had spent such a huge proportion of its contributions on its own expenses was "jaw dropping" and that it was equally concerning to hear that fundraisers were going after the elderly who they may consider "easy marks."
An employee who said he previously worked for two companies that raised money for Law Enforcement for a Safer America said that at his more recent job, callers were instructed not to disclose that they were calling on behalf of a super PAC. "The scripts were designed to give the impression that they were helping out officers versus lobbying efforts," he said, adding that the political affiliation was only "fully disclosed" when someone proactively asked where the money would be going.
He said he ultimately left because he didn't feel like he was supporting the charitable efforts he had hoped to -- seeing a shift toward fundraising for PACs instead of charities and observing how little of the money went to the causes callers were touting. It also concerned him that so many "prospects" were elderly. "At times, I thought they were maybe misguided," he said.
The former employee, who asked to remain anonymous because of a nondisclosure agreement, said he remembered fundraising companies outsourcing some of the telemarketing overseas to locations like the Philippines, where they relied on recordings instead of live agents. "They would have soundboards with prerecorded bits that would play and give the impression they were talking to a live person but in reality it was just someone playing bits off a soundboard," he said. Another telemarketing employee reached by CNN in the Philippines confirmed this, saying he solicited money on behalf of the super PAC and the IUPA using audio recordings of someone who sounded like they were actually calling from America, and that most of the people they reached were elderly -- adding he felt it was a scam because they didn't realize what they were actually donating to.
Several donors said they never would have given money to the group if they knew it would pay for Trump advertisements, including 70-year-old Susan Durie, a self-described "bleeding heart liberal Democrat" from Los Angeles who donated around $600 and said she felt like a victim of a scam since she thinks she was misled into believing that her donation would go to local police. "Oh, god," she said upon being contacted by CNN and learning how the money was spent, "I'm supposed to be smart, but boy was I a dope."
In a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, another woman, whose name was redacted, said she received multiple calls from the National Coalition for Police and Troopers, one of the super PAC's various aliases. She said she was told the group was a charity benefiting police and troopers. "As a wife of a police officer this is absolutely disgusting!" she stated. Many of the other complaints to the FTC about the political committee and its related groups said fundraisers used spoofed numbers and violated the law by calling them even though they were on the Do Not Call list, while others said they had been misled or even harassed by fundraisers.
After learning from CNN that his 92-year-old father had given $1,200 to the super PAC, Curt Busse said that the donations were made as his father's cognitive skills declined, making him a prime target for telemarketers. He said his father served in the Navy for nearly two decades and was always proud of his service. As a result, he had a positive outlook on military and all law enforcement officers, Busse said, but he never expressed "any particular interest in supporting the police through financial donations."
"He was donating to anyone who asked him for money," he said.
Busse said he and his sister took over their father's finances last year. He said his father has always leaned heavily Democratic, supported President Barack Obama and previously expressed strong anti-Trump views.
"He never would have given money to any group if he knew that some of that money was going to pro-Trump campaign ads," said Busse.
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