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By Jarrett Renshaw and Joseph Tanfani
Birmingham, Alabama, Jan 29 (Reuters) - BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – From unmarked strip-mall offices in small-town Alabama, the calls go out across the United States, meant to talk people into giving money for heart-tugging causes like helping breast cancer patients or the widows of fallen police officers.
Even as they charmed millions from credulous donors, a dozen former callers for two major fundraisers told Reuters that they knew their companies would be keeping the vast majority of it. And the groups they were raising money for weren't charities at all, but political action committees, which normally are set up to gather funds for candidates or political causes.
"The motto was, ‘Leave your morals at the door,'" said Alexander Lefler, 21, who worked for nearly a year at a call center southeast of Birmingham, Alabama, describing what he saw as high-pressure and deceptive tactics. "We kind of all understood what we were doing was wrong, but I needed a place to live."
The call centers in Alabama, along with others in Nevada, New Jersey, and Florida, raise money on behalf of "scam PACs," slang among critics for political action committees that purport to support worthy causes but in reality hand over little of the money for political – or charitable – purposes. Instead, the bulk of the money is kept by fundraising firms or the people running the PACs.
Through interviews with the former callers and donors, reviews of call scripts and visits to three call centers in Alabama, Reuters has obtained rare access into the world of these for-profit fundraisers, a tiny but lucrative niche of the multi-billion-dollar U.S. telemarketing industry.
These so-called "scam PACs" and their fundraisers exploit the gray zone between U.S. election finance and state charity fundraising laws, regulators told Reuters. They often are set up as super PACs, groups which in recent years have been empowered by the courts to raise and spend money in unlimited amounts, with little regulation.
But "scam PACs" are not like other political action committees. Rather, they and their fundraisers present the PACs as charities, suggesting they support veterans, firefighters or victims of deadly diseases, for instance.
In fact, "scam PAC" operators and fundraisers are often old hands of the charity world, with a history of run-ins with regulators, state and federal records show. Some fundraisers work in both worlds, raising money for charities and PACs.
When organizations operate as political action committees, however, they are not subject to the laws governing charity fundraising, according to federal and state regulators and telemarketing industry officials. (See related story https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-fundraisers-scampacs on regulation of "scam PACs")
In return for tax-exempt status, charities generally must register with states, disclose their key employees and account for how the money is spent – in some cases by providing audited financial statements.
Not so for "scam PACs."
"It is a way for them to get around the charity laws – that's exactly what they're doing," said Stuart Discount, chief executive of the Professional Association for Customer Engagement, a trade association for direct marketers.
"Scam PAC" telemarketers who use aggressive tactics in the charity realm also face less risk of scrutiny or sanction when they turn to PAC fundraising, regulators and former callers said. Callers told Reuters they easily made the switch, working in the same buildings, for the same bosses, using similar scripts.
Though "scam PACS" have no standard definition and can't be definitively counted, a review of Federal Election Commission records suggests they account for a sliver of the some 6,800 PACs in the country. Even so, Reuters identified a loose network of fundraising companies and PACs that quickly grew into a money-making force, with some ranking near the top fundraisers in the period stretching from January 2017 through mid-2019.
Starting with a group of eight fundraising operations that earned at least a half-million dollars each during this period, Reuters traced interconnections among them and 31 PACs. Generally, those in the informal network portrayed themselves as charitable, gave little to the causes they promoted and relied principally on small donors. Most were super PACs, but several were traditional political action committees, which have contribution limits.
All told, the PACs took in $83.1 million during the 2 ½ year period examined by Reuters, about 82% of which went to the eight fundraising companies, according to the campaign disclosures required by the FEC.
The PACs examined for this article typically handed over less than 10% of their take – sometimes less than 1% – to candidates or causes, Reuters found. Aside from the lion's share that went to for-profit fundraisers, many of the PAC operators took a slice for salaries and overhead.
Two of the fundraising companies identified by Reuters employed jail inmates and ex-cons as telemarketers, according to interviews in Alabama with several former employees, as well as court records.
Reuters interviewed a dozen donors to PACs in the informal network. All said they thought they were giving to a charity. Alex Angelides, a 31-year-old engineer from Arlington, Virginia, donated $600 to a super PAC called For a Better America, which spent 90% of its money on fundraising alone.
It's infuriating," said Angelides, who learned from Reuters that it was a PAC that got his money. "It would've been nice to know that my money was going to a PAC, not a charity, and that it wasn't going to actually help police and firefighters directly."
"There should be more transparency on this to protect consumers," he said.
The committee's treasurer, attorney Chris Marston, told Reuters the purpose of the PAC was to raise money " in support of candidates who would help police and firefighters." "I'm sure the scripts didn't misrepresent anything," Marston said. "I can't speak to people's understanding or what the scripts said."
Few other top officers at these fundraising firms and PACS would speak to Reuters on the record. Those who responded denied their marketing was deceptive and defended their business model and compensation.
"I don't think you understand how hard it is to fundraise," said Forrest Sandusky Baker IV, a telemarketing professional. Baker said he founded Salt Lake City fundraising firm American Public Resource because he hoped to support worthy goals like helping veterans. The firm was paid nearly $3 million from 2017 through mid-2019 for its work raising money for PACS that spent anywhere from 0% to 7% on their promoted causes.
Baker said his employees never try to dupe donors and that he can't control what his clients, the PACs, do with the money he raises.
"My job is to deliver a message, and try as best as I can to make sure I'm not working for a scumbag," he said.
Richard Zeitlin, the biggest fundraiser in the loose network identified by Reuters, told a reporter in a brief interview that he had closed down all of his call centers, saying "I wanted a change in direction." Asked about ex-employees' claims of deception in his companies' PAC fundraising practices, he declined to discuss specifics.
"How do I know you are telling the truth or the people who talked to you are telling the truth?" he said.
Last summer, after coming under fire from state and government regulators for alleged deception in fundraising for charities, he defended his reputation on a website called richardzeitlintruth.com.
While acknowledging that every industry has its "bad apples, he wrote: "To this day it strikes me as odd that an industry that has over the years hired hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps millions), many of whom had trouble holding down more traditional day jobs, would become such a punching bag for the government and the media."
ANONYMOUS OFFICES, UNCLEAR OWNERSHIP
In a small Alabama town at the edge of the Talladega National Forest, next to a Chinese restaurant, stands a shop with mirrored windows and no signs.
The call center in Sylacauga, visited by Reuters last year, was operated by Las Vegas-based TPFE Inc, a firm controlled by Zeitlin. Like many such telemarketing centers tucked away in strip malls or office parks, it offered no clues to what went on inside.
Federal campaign records tell part of the story. In the 2 ½ year period examined by Reuters, records show, TPFE and three other Zeitlin firms earned more than $27.6 million for PAC fundraising.
For instance, the operation raised $16.8 million for PACs founded by Robert Piaro of Fredonia, Wisconsin, which purported to support police, veterans and people with breast cancer. About 82% of the money, $13.8 million, went to Zeitlin's firms, while Piaro collected $190,613 in salary from the PACs, according to the records.
One Piaro committee, Americans for the Cure of Breast Cancer, garnered $1.6 million in donations through Zeitlin's fundraising operations and made one charitable contribution, $10,000 to the Susan G. Komen Foundation – less than 1% of the total raised, campaign filings show.
JoAnn Coleman, 63, a construction engineer from Gaithersburg, Maryland, said she was particularly vulnerable to a pitch for the breast cancer PAC.
"I had breast cancer, so they knew how to get me," she said. When she later realized it was a PAC telemarketer, she felt exploited. "What a racket, oh my God." Piaro declined to comment.
On his website, Zeitlin said his firms' revenue – which he described as 80% to 90% of the proceeds – "may seem high" but actually is standard for the industry and is needed to offset high costs for technology and "intensive time-consuming labor." As a fundraiser for charities, Zeitlin ran into trouble with regulators.
In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission sued Zeitlin for allegedly deceptive practices in charity fundraising, but the case has been suspended because a grand jury was investigating, according to court documents. The FTC declined to comment.
Zeitlin told Reuters he was not the target of the grand jury investigation. He said only that it was based in Florida; Reuters could not determine the specific jurisdiction.
Neither Zeitlin nor his attorney would comment on the FTC lawsuit. Zeitlin, whose operations also have been examined by the Center for Public Integrity and other media outlets, said on his website that he's "never been accused, indicted, tried or convicted of anything."
Some political fundraising operations change locations frequently, operate under different names or dissolve and resurface under another name, making it difficult to trace their ownership, activities and connections to one another.
Reuters also could not ascertain the ownership of another large fundraising operation with a call center in Hoover, Alabama, some 45 miles from Zeitlin's center in Sylacauga. Reporters visited the center last summer, though it has since closed.
Going by various names, the fundraising operation has worked for some of the same PACs as Zeitlin's firms have and has employed some of the same people, according to internal PAC records, state corporate filings, employee interviews and deposition testimony in a civil case unrelated to this article. It also has roots in charity fundraising.
The fundraising operation used corporate names including Charity Promotions, from 2013 to 2016, and Charity Appeal, from 2016 to 2018, according to several ex-employee interviews and state filings. The fundraisers later went to work for PACs under the names Politicause and Pledge Assistance, both registered in Wyoming, which requires little disclosure from corporations.
Together Politicause and Pledge Assistance earned close to $20 million between January 2017 through mid-2019 raising money for PACS, campaign finance records show. Those two fundraising firms, whose ownership is not clear, dissolved – Pledge Assistance in July 2018 and Politicause in June 2019, according to Wyoming records.
Interviews and records indicate managers at both firms once worked at a Zeitlin company called Courtesy Call. None of the three managers Reuters was able to identify could be reached for comment.
At the time Reuters visited, the firm's Hoover call center was jammed with desks and callers on headsets. The otherwise bland office was decorated with posters from the film "Glengarry Glen Ross," a tale of ruthless telemarketer salesmen set in a real-estate boiler room. "Always Be Closing," one poster read. "Coffee is for Closers Only," read another.
LOOKING FOR 'NATURALS'
In interviews, a dozen former employees of Politicause and Zeitlin's TPFE described techniques they used to wrangle donations, leaving contributors with the impression they were giving to good causes.
"You are not lying, but you are being extremely misleading," said Jason Jones, 24, a former employee at Politicause.
Training was minimal, pressure relentless and turnover high, the workers said. If new workers weren't making sales, they were quickly fired. "It's a sink or swim environment. They are looking for naturals," said Jones, adding that good performers could take home $1,000 to $1,500 a week.
Former callers at both TPFE and Politicause said they were given scripts and FAQs that required them to mention that the groups were political action committees but were told by managers to glide past the disclosures about who was calling and how the money would be used.
"They said to pitch it like it was a charity but as quietly and quickly as you can, slip in that it was a PAC," said Lefler, who worked at TPFE until March.
The callers said they'd already honed their charity pitches and so found it easy to repurpose them for the political committees, appealing to patriotism and what one called "pulling heartstrings."
One FAQ, given to callers at Politicause and reviewed by Reuters, shaped the fundraising pitch for a super PAC called the American Coalition for Injured Veterans. It "is an organization who (sic) advocates for those who deserve it the most and are often left behind: American Veterans, especially who are homeless and disabled," the FAQ read.
If the potential donors suspected they had given to the group before, the callers were instructed to say: "I have no way of knowing because we feel that donations are given from the heart, not the hand, so we keep all donation records confidential," according to the FAQ.
The PAC, organized by Zachary Bass, spent 90% of its take on fundraising, campaign filings show. It spent $103,700 on behalf of House candidates – about 3% of the total, and it has contributed nothing directly to veterans groups.
Bass, who set up several other super PACs, declined to comment.
Across the industry, calls are computer-generated before being routed to telemarketers, something Politicause and TPFE employees said allowed their firms to maximize the number of calls – and to pester people repeatedly.
"They called 4 times in one day. We have told them many times to stop calling us," one person contacted by Politicause complained to the FTC in April 2019, noting that the household was on a Do Not Call list.
Federal Do Not Call rules do not apply to political or nonprofit fundraising. Reuters obtained FTC complaint records, with names redacted, through a Freedom of Information Act request. The FTC's response to complaints is not noted in the records.
Pitches at Politicause and TPFE were adapted to avoid allegations of fraud, former callers said, noting that the conversations were occasionally monitored by company compliance officers. At Politicause, for instance, some said they initially were told to say donations would be used to "help" buy new police and fire equipment. But because that suggested donors were contributing directly to purchasing new gear, the callers said they were told by managers to adjust their language.
"We could no longer say, ‘We are helping police officers get body armor,' but we could say, ‘We are supporting efforts to get them body armor,'" said Jackie Armstrong, 32, a former Politicause employee.
When asked by potential donors how much of the money would go to the cause they were touting, telemarketers said they suggested it was the vast majority.
"‘We are proud to say it's a 90-10 split,'" Jones recalled saying, leaving out that his company was getting the 90% share. "'We wish it was 100, but we have to keep the lights on.'"
The workers said Politicause managers eventually reined in that practice, requiring them to instead say that at least 10% went to the cause. Callers said they did so quickly and proudly, hoping people wouldn't catch on.
At TPFE, callers said they told potential donors all proceeds went to "defraying the cost of the appeal [for funds] and to accomplish the mission," said former employee Jake Adair, 28.
"Just enough to get them to stop asking," he added.
FROM JAIL TO BOILER ROOM
James Dellinger, 34, said he and other callers got in the door with a remarkable qualification – they were in jail. While in the Shelby County Jail on a felony charge of stealing a truck, Dellinger said he began working at a center in suburban Birmingham then known as Charity Promotions as part of his government-sponsored work release program. The company later was renamed Politicause.
These workers were a convenient labor pool – and skilled at getting people to open their wallets, former callers said. "We were good at slick-talking these people," said Dellinger, who court records show has been convicted of felonies including the truck theft and other burglary charges.
Some of the workers for TPFE also had felony convictions, according to several former callers and court records. The Sylacauga call center employed work release inmates, an arrangement that apparently ended before 2018, the former callers said.
"What is wrong with giving somebody a second chance?" Zeitlin responded when Reuters asked about his hiring practices. Both Politicause and TPFE had procedures to keep workers with fraud convictions from handling credit card information, former callers said, although Politicause workers said the rules were sometimes relaxed for high performers.
Zeitlin did not respond to questions about this issue. Drug abuse was a problem at both call centers, ex-employees said. They said it was not uncommon to find needles in the bathroom or a caller passed out at his desk.
Jessica Blanchard, 23, who worked at Politicause in 2018, said many callers either were addicts from halfway houses or jail inmates on work release.
Former Politicause employee Armstrong said he was fired in 2018, when the call center did charity fundraising, for having drugs at work. A week later, Armstrong said, he was rehired to help raise money for political action committees.
"It's the only thing in life I've ever been (expletive) good at," said Armstrong, who records show has theft and drug convictions. "Most of the guys that are real good are felons."
(Jarrett Renshaw reported from Birmingham, Alabama, Joseph Tanfani from Washington; Editing by Julie Marquis)
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