The chipper voice on the phone recently at the New To Las Vegas world headquarters said she was soliciting money for Breast Cancer Relief Committee. I hadn’t heard about that organization. But that’s not surprising, since there are thousands of cancer causes out there.
The cold caller went through her spiel about helping ailing women. But she mentioned the way to help them would be by supporting political candidates. Hmmmmm.
“Is that a charity?” I asked, batting my baby-blue eyes at my phone.
“Yes,” the caller replied.
Now, that was a blatantly false answer. Charities are barred by law from making contributions to politicians. The full name of the cause calling me was Breast Cancer Relief Committee PAC, as in political action committee. The legitimate function of a PAC is to give received donations to support or oppose candidates for political office in line with the PAC’s stated conceit (conservative, liberal, pro-health care, pro-cop, you name it). Contributions by you to PACs are most definitely not tax-deductible. That might have been why the caller left out the PAC part in her initial pitch to me.
The only reason I don’t call the answer I was given to my question about charitable status a lie is that the caller wasn’t exactly a person, but rather a computer-generated voice controlled by a hidden but live operator who hits keys on a keyboard (using what is known as “soundboard technology”). It’s possible the hidden but live operator who controls the answers simply hit the wrong key. Of course, the hidden but live operator should have known better.
By expressing some interest in making a pledge, I eventually got switched to a live person who wasn’t hidden. She told me that Breast Cancer Relief Committee is a name used by something called American Coalition for Crisis Relief PAC, in Windermere, Fla. As you will see later, that location is officially false, too.
Let’s cut to the chase. I started perusing records filed with the Federal Election Commission. In its entire reported history, from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2021, American Coalition received $3.46 million in donations, mostly from small donors. Guess how much was given to political candidates?
Zero. Not. One. Penny. You spent more on your last Starbucks.
So maybe, you ask, American Coalition is amassing a war chest for future campaigns (although 2020, a presidential election year with control of Congress at stake, was pretty big)? Nope. American Coalition, which also solicits under the name Veterans Crisis Relief Fund PAC, spent upwards of 98% of the money raised on fundraising expenses and overhead, including fees to a entity apparently controlled by its leaders. Cash in the bank on June 30 was just $54,528.24, which in this era of big-money politics isn’t going to support a lot of candidates going forward.
I call these PACs with outrageous financial efficiencies misleadingly soliciting in the name of seemingly worthy causes “faux charities.” They exist mainly to financially benefit their operators (it’s never disclosed how much they rake off, perhaps in kickbacks from telemarketers), not the public. There’s at least one blog post on the Internet calling American Coalition something a lot worse.
And as it turns out, American Coalition has some interesting ties–and shared m.o.’s, down to key words in the name–to an iffy charity I wrote about in this space exactly four years ago today.
Intrigued? Read on.
Let’s start with early FEC filings. American Coalition filed its initial statement of organization with the agency on June 13, 2019. It listed an address in a home in Windermere, a suburb of Orlando. The treasurer–the only name on the filing and generally the top person–was Don Wood, whose home that apparently was.
I know a little bit about Don Wood.
It was his charity, Crisis Relief Network, I wrote about four years ago today after receiving a cold-call on behalf of one of the names it used at the time, Veterans Trauma Support Network. (Other heart-tugging names used to solicit included Child Watch of North America, Childhood Abuse and Trauma Foundation, Children’s Cancer Relief Foundation and Breast Cancer Relief Network.) In my opinion, Crisis Relief Network was a financially inefficient organization–not unlike American Coalition–that did little good and used accounting tricks to hide its considerable fundraising expense.
The IRS Form 990 that Crisis Relief Network filed for 2016 said that it had no agreements with professional fundraisers. The problem was filings made by professional fundraisers with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s Office said they did have agreements with Crisis Relief Network. Wood and I had an email back-and-forth on this. I can’t say I got a good explanation for the seemingly false Form 990 statement made under penalty of perjury. I just looked at Crisis Relief Network’s latest available 990, for 2019. The charity still said it has no agreements with professional fundraisers. But filings made by professional fundraisers in North Carolina said they still did have agreements with Crisis Relief Network.
Anyway, at some point, American Coalition got a new treasurer, a fellow named Andrew Stefanides. I don’t know much about him. American Coalition also changed its address on FEC records from one of Wood’s bedrooms (I guessing here a bit) in Windermere, Fla., to an address in far-away Dallas, Tex., 3626 North Hall St., Suite 610, to be exact. But an Internet search makes very clear that address is just a mail drop. Still, that’s the address on FEC filings, so that live person who wasn’t hidden shouldn’t have told me Windermere, Fla.
American Coalition’s FEC filings over the two-year period say that $100,000 was paid for “PAC research and consulting”–a humorous label considering American Coalition hasn’t made any political gifts–to something called Crisis Relief Consultants. Crisis Relief in the name again! Corporate filings accessible on the Internet suggest that both Stefanides and Wood have been connected to this entity in top positions–which, if so, is not disclosed on any PAC disclosure I saw. Possible self-dealing? You decide.
As it happens, Crisis Relief Consultants also lists an address in Dallas, at 3622 S. Tyler St., about nine miles south of the mail drop address for American Coalition. A recent Google Map search showed the Crisis Relief Consultants address to be a storefront with a sign for “Set ‘Em Free Bail Bonds.” I can’t make this stuff up.
But criminal charges are not a likely outcome for those behind American Coalition. Faux charities are favored by dodgy operatives because PACs are very loosely regulated, with few conflict-of-interest rules. Almost no attention is given by watchdogs to financial efficiencies like fundraising expense or how much money goes to the mission. Indeed, the calculations are hard to come by. Someone (like me) has to download the filings and then go through scores of pages by hand with a calculator, sorting out the expenditures. This is in contrast to charities, which every state regulates to some degree with an agency empowered to sanction wrongdoing. The IRS Form 990 that charities use to report their finances calls for classification of all expenses by function, making it a lot easier to calculate financial efficiency ratios.
Some government agency–maybe a committee of Congress–ought to hold hearings on faux charities and expose them. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any indication this will happen.
Last week, I sent a long request for comment to American Coalition through its website, detailing many of the points I’m making here. I’ll update this post if I hear back.
That live person who wasn’t hidden I ended up speaking with for American Coalition had trouble answering some of my questions. She finally said I could “look at the papers” I would be mailed when I was billed for any pledge I made. Okay, I said, if I then decided the organization was not how it was represented to me–remember, the original cold caller falsely told me it was a charity–could I tear up the bill and not pay it?
Oh no, the live person who wasn’t hidden said. I would be “committed” to the pledge. Needless to say, no pledge was made.
I’m going out soon for some coffee. It’s my own crisis relief.
Some Dude, the folks running these faux charity PACs feel pretty protected, because the law is so toothless and the regulators so MIA. But have at it!
Veterans Crisis Relief Fund PAC, keeps calling grandparents saying for them to honor a pledge. The amount of that pledge changes each time “Mike” calls. I got lazy and dropped the hunt for Andrew Stefanides. If I find out what he is I could mail my research to you, I plan on sending copies to a few different news organizations. If enough news hounds call him around the same time maybe he’ll panic quit?
Howard Beckerman, I am.
Are you the same William Barrett who wrote the Forbes article on best places to retire?
P.S. If it makes you feel better you can send all your large charitable gifts through me and I guarantee that it will help people that appreciate it. 🙂