The Badge Means You Owe
She never saw the dunning notice, but that was her name up at the top, beneath the letterhead and badge-shaped logo of the Texas State Fraternal Order of Police.
"Dear Daisy Bostick," the letter read, "On 12/06/00, you made commitment over the phone for $35. Please make your Check or Money Order Payable directly to: Texas State Fraternal Order of Police We are counting on you DAISY BOSTICK to honor the commitment and promise that you gave us to return your pledge! The police officers truly count on the residents like yourself that are kind enough to pledge, to return that pledge as soon as possible."
Daisy Bostick never saw the notice because, at age 85, she doesn't see much at all beyond the walls of the Twilight Home for elderly care in Corsicana, south of Dallas. Nurses forward mail to her son Henry, who takes care of Daisy's bills and dwindling correspondence. But it's only appropriate that Bostick never saw the dun, because she certainly never pledged $35 over the phone.
The phone number referenced on the FOP's bill used to be hers, over two years ago, but she hasn't had a private phone since then, and nursing supervisors at the Twilight Home are certain that Daisy was never wheeled to the front desk to receive a solicitation call.
"We would not put a phone call through, no sir," said Carol, the nurse on desk duty last week. "Only for family or something like that. No, we wouldn't put a solicitor through to your grandmother."
Which leaves the question, Just who the hell is billing my grandmother, under color of law enforcement, for "commitments" she could not possibly have made?
The Fraternal Order of Police is one of the oldest and largest "fraternal membership organizations" in the country, claiming over 4,000 members within Texas and upwards of 300,000 nationwide. According to state lodge spokesperson Pete Coxson, the group provides scholarship programs, insurance and grants to the families of officers killed in the line of duty. The FOP maintains legislative lobbies in Austin and Washington, D.C.
In a somewhat rambling statement, Coxson also talked about "kicking off" a new program so parents can get their children fingerprinted and photographed at malls, to help police find them if they are kidnapped.
Coxson confirmed that the dunning notice in question -- despite the return address in Houston -- is part of a state FOP fund-raising campaign. The mistaken bill, he said, is not the state lodge's fault.
"We contract with this company, Community Affairs out of West Virginia, that makes the calls. These people that call get a percentage, or minimum wage, I don't know which way they do it. Now, what these people will do is turn in a phony pledge," Coxson said. "If they've been given this number, they'll turn in a phony pledge hoping to get paid commission on that and so this happens quite a lot."
Community Affairs is actually located in New Jersey. A woman who answered the phone there speculated that the company could have had Daisy's name still listed with the phone number. Perhaps someone at that number pledged, and the names were confused by the solicitor. "I know that it can happen that way, but I am going to have Chris call you," she said.
Chris is Community Affairs president Chris Himes. He never called.
The Houston Better Business Bureau's Dan Parsons did return a call immediately.
"Your timing is really good," he said, "because they're in the middle of a big pitch right now. I get calls every day on these people." Parsons said the FOB is essentially a labor union -- not a charity -- that raises money to lobby and operate their group.
"No, it's not illegal. Is it deceptive? You bet," Parsons said. "They're badge deals, law enforcement thugs." The BBB official said Harris County has only a "handful" of legitimate nonprofit police groups, "and they do not reach you by telemarketing campaigns."
Rick Hartley is executive director of one of them, the 100 Club. It has never used telemarketers. Hartley said a lot of law enforcement employee groups use phone soliciting companies that take about two-thirds of the proceeds they raise, leaving only about a third for the organization.
When the Texas FOP wrote to my grandmother that without her support, it "would be unable to continue many of the programs, which benefit the area," it neglected to mention that the "area" in question included a New Jersey boiler room.
Texas State FOP director Deborah Sowards, wife of FOP president Larry Sowards, declined to answer questions about the organization's budget, non-fund-raising sources of income, or what percentage of donations went to the FOP, and what to its telemarketing company.
Neither did she respond to information provided by the Texas attorney general's office: As of January 10, the legal deadline for Community Affairs to register with the state had expired. Which means, wrote AG spokesman Thomas Kelley, "They should not be operating" in Texas. Kelley added that state agencies have received "hundreds of inquiries about this whole setup over the past three months."
Texas FOP president Sowards did respond, generally speaking, to my grandmother's particular case.
"Of course I will definitely get to the bottom of this thing, because that's ridiculous, that billing situation," he said. "I will be thumping some heads, you could say, and get this figured out, what happened here, and make sure it doesn't happen again. Without a doubt."