Dialing for dollars and the law

February 05, 1993

Telephone solicitations are intrusive, annoying and, indeed, intimidating to many people. Even more so when the voice at the other end represents law enforcement officers. Over the past two years, the secretary of state's charities division has taken action against seven fraternal law officer groups.

The Maryland Troopers Association is now under fire again for its phone campaign to sell jellies and food seasonings, plus a bumper sticker that identifies the motorist as a supporter of MTA.

This organization, one of some 70 similar police/trooper/sheriff groups in the state, legally agreed in 1991 to stop its paid solicitors from posing as troopers and from claiming that proceeds were going for charity work. Their new phone script approved by the secretary of state was supposed to avoid those misimpressions.

The MTA argues that people are asked to buy a product, not donate money, and that the only beneficiaries are the 2,000 members and their families. Therefore, the group doesn't have to register with the state, which requires disclosure of how it spends the proceeds, how much it pays professional fund-raisers and other details that help the public decide the worthiness of such solicitations.

The group knows full well that people don't buy their $30 food packages for the products themselves. MTA knows it is the law-enforcement cachet, not the irresistible products, that influences people to buy. You can bet that the Moose lodge or Masonic temple wouldn't come close to making a sale on 10 percent of its calls, like the MTA reportedly does.

Other law-enforcement lodges solicit donations for tickets to "holiday shows" for children, or encourage associate ' memberships that provide bumper stickers, presumably for talismanic effect in case of future contact with these law officers.

Whether or not these groups are legally required to register with the secretary of state, they are taking advantage of the public that invests them with their extensive authority and use of force.

Associations of law-enforcement officers, even though private clubs, should not be allowed to solicit the public by telephone for money, whether as a donation or for products. The same principle should apply to other fraternal groups, such as firefighters or teachers, that derive their public standing from government employment.

At the least, the state should amend the law to require registration of financial information by any group that hires telephone solicitors for sales or contributions. Fire and police groups got an exemption to the registration law several years ago.

Secretary of State Winfield M. Kelly Jr. warns the public to check out phone solicitations before buying or contributing. His office makes available to the public financial reports from registered organizations. It's one way to fend off the strong-arming of the public by public servants.

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