Recently, at the New To Las Vegas world headquarters I got a cold call from one “Ralph Bennett” soliciting money for Firefighters and EMS Fund, which lists an address in Alexandria, Va. I use quotes because “Ralph” wasn’t a person in the traditional beating-heart sense of the word. Rather, “Ralph” was a voice generated by a computer monitored by a human operator using what is known as soundboard technology. The operator chooses–sort of like a DJ–among scores of pre-recorded sound bites to entice the would-be donor.
“Ralph” went on about how his national organization helped first responders. I cut in and asked if Firefighters and EMS Fund was a charity. “Yes,” he replied. I politely challenged that characterization, suggesting with another question the outfit was simply a political action committee. A PAC most definitely isn’t a charity since, among other reasons, contributions aren’t tax-deductible and it doesn’t do what most folks would consider good works for society.
“Yes,” replied “Ralph” again.
Perhaps even he realized this conversation wasn’t going well from his perspective. “Ralph” finally said Firefighters and EMS Fund was “rebranded” and used to be called Firefighters Support Fund. Now that piqued my interest “Why was it rebranded?” I asked.
“Ralph” hung up.
Poking around the Internet, it didn’t take long to figure out a possible reason for the rebranding. Under its old name, “Ralph’s” organization had drawn negative comments for misleading would-be donors about what it does.
But for me there are two bigger issues. First, from my review of filings, only a sliver of what Firefighters and EMS Fund/Firefighters Support Fund received in contributions was spent for what I would call its stated mission of generating political support for first responders. Almost all the money went for fundraising expense, overhead and, presumably buried somewhere amid thousands of pages of filings, compensation for its operators. Firefighters and EMS Fund is what I called a “faux charity,” a PAC that hopes would-be donors will think it is a real charity. Some other commentators call such operations a “scam charity.”
Secondly, by calling me, Firefighters and EMS Fund violated a Nevada law that look effect last year. The law requires fundraisers working in Nevada for, among other causes, firefighters and public safety to first register with the Nevada Secretary of State’s office and make financial filings. I just checked with the SOSO’s website, and there is no registration for Firefighters and EMS Fund, Firefighters Support Fund or Firefighters Support Alliance, another name associated with the operation.
But don’t bet on Nevada state regulators doing much about it.
Faux charity fundraisers like the PAC model because it offers a veneer of legality. A PAC can register with either the Federal Election Commission or the Internal Revenue Service, but neither federal agency does much in the way of review. Most state regulators are even more MIA. Few outside watchdogs try to calculate their almost-always dreadful financial efficiencies because, unlike traditional tax-deductible charities, PACs don’t have to provide detailed tabulations of their expenditures by category. That forces someone like me to pour through what can be thousands of pages trying to classify expenditures by hand and adding them up with a calculator. It is probably no accident that the data is often reported on forms in all-capital letters, which are much harder to read.
But I try.
For the 15-month period January 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, Firefighters and EMS Fund/Firefighters Support Fund, which share the same tax ID number, raised about $6.1 million and spent roughly the same amount. But by my review, only about 10% of the money raised and spent went toward a political purpose, which, after all, is the point of a political action committee. I didn’t spot a single contribution to a specific candidate, although there might be.
The other 90% was spent overwhelming for fundraising, plus some overhead thrown in. Now how many would-be donors who don’t have fundraisers working in their family would be pleased to learn that only a dime on a buck goes to the cause? A PAC solicitor isn’t required to tell you this, and if you ask (as I frequently do), as often as not you’ll be told that’s a great question but to get accurate information you are given a telephone number to call that is frequently busy or out of service.
The fire department in Cambridge, Mass. tweeted a warning about Firefighters Support Fund, which was calling folks around Harvard and MIT. “We do not know where these funds will be used. Heads up!” An official Tolland, Conn., press release was headlined, “Beware of Fraudulent Solicitation for Firefighters” after the chief himself was called and was falsely told a donation to Firefighters Support Fund would solicit his own department. Similarly, in Maine, firefighters warned that Firefighters Support Fund “was not affiliated with any department in the state.” The government EMS head in Ironton, Ohio issued a “scam alert” about Firefighters and EMS Fund.
I sent a request for comment on the points raised here to Firefighters and EMS Fund, Firefighters Support Fund and its executive director, Nile Porter, and will update this post if I hear back.
Here in Nevada, Senate Bill 62, which took effect in October 2021, greatly expanded the fundraising causes required to first register with the state and submit documents before hitting up folks with their robocalls. The law went beyond covering traditional charities to reach solicitors for a variety of endeavors including “any objective that benefits law enforcement, firefighting or other public safety personnel.” The legislative history makes clear this includes PACs, and, although it doesn’t use the term, faux charity PACs.
In this minimal government state, the law has been a complete failure. Since the measure took effect last year, I have been called dozens of times by faux charity PACs. I have yet to find one that was properly registered in Nevada. But then again, the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office is the very same agency that doesn’t bother to comply with a 2013 law requiring it to post full financial statements of soliciting charities on its website.
If past experience is any indication, I’m more likely to hear from “Ralph Bennett” again rather than receive an official response to my query. Either way, I’ll be ready with more questions.