By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post
When he got the call asking for donations to help the local volunteer fire department, Guy Poirier perked up and listened closely to the pitch.
“Which department is this for?” he asked the caller.
“Rockville,” the fundraiser said.
Funny. Because Poirier, 60, is the guy who does most of the fundraising for the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department in Montgomery County, Maryland. And they don’t do anything by phone.
He kept the caller talking.
“I quizzed them a little. Asked them what they do with the money. How much to give,” he said.
It wasn’t anyone associated with his fire department, that was obvious. But what ended up being really scary, once investigators got to the bottom of this?
Not only was it a scam. It was an arguably legal one.
“It was a PAC. It was a political action committee that said it fights for firefighter safety,” Poirier said.
Except zero cash from the Heroes United PAC, which was making calls as the “Volunteer Firefighters Association” in Montgomery County, went to any firefighters.
And, when you take a look at the PAC’s filings with the Federal Election Commission, it was hardly doing any political action, either.
Heroes United reported bagging $4.6 million nationwide during the 2018 election cycle, said Eric Friedman, director of the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection.
When Poirier sent his information to Friedman, he helped set off a three-month investigation that looks like the tip of a nationwide fraud that got a few clever guys millions of dollars given by generous donors in small — usually $40 — increments.
“These deceptive business practices are a despicable way to exploit our natural desire to financially support those who risk their lives to protect all of us,” Friedman said.
The scammers pretended to be firefighters who successfully got 164 generous people in Montgomery County to send them checks.
The checks didn’t go to the Rockville firehouse on Hungerford Drive.
The money allegedly going to Poirier, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 42 years, and his fellow firefighters was actually going to a tired, smokey-glassed building on the 1600 block of K Street in northwest Washington, D.C.
There are ferns in the lobby and a stone-faced security guard. But no volunteer firefighters.
Those people should be getting their money back thanks to a settlement agreement the Friedman’s office signed with the folks behind the scam. One of them, Zachary Bass, 55, did not return calls or emails asking for comment.
They use a telemarketing firm to make their calls, and they spoof the numbers, making it look like they are calling from a local phone number. You get those, right? We all do.
But Friedman’s investigation also found the same guys are working across the country and have told callers they were helping firefighters, veterans or breast cancer patients.
And it’s not even like donors were deceived into giving money that instead went to political campaigns they had no dog in.
In truth, all the political action that investigators found was a single, 30-second radio ad, Friedman said.
The rest of the millions went to pay telemarketers and themselves.
“The big national story seems to be that these crooks seem to register as charities,” Friedman said. “But rather than call themselves a charity, it involves less disclosure to be a PAC. You just check a few boxes on the form, just put down an address.”
It’s easier to set up a PAC than it is to rent a car, he said.
The addresses are all mail drops. Try that with Avis.
Bass, who seems to be the main guy at that D.C. office on K Street, didn’t respond to my efforts to reach him. Neither did the attorney who represented him in the Montgomery County settlement.
In the settlement, the PAC promised to stop calling residents in Montgomery County, pay the 164 donors their money back and give the Office of Consumer Protection $1,000.
Last July, a similar settlement was reached in North Dakota with the Attorney General’s office for violating that state’s robocall laws.
And also last year in Oklahoma, donors said they gave money to callers who said they were with the local volunteer firefighters and breast cancer efforts. Reporters for Oklahoma TV-4 followed all those donations, and they all came back to PACs created by Bass.
Earlier this year, Maryland former attorney Michael Worsham won a settlement from a complaint he filed against Bass when his telemarketers called him.
Worsham, a disbarred attorney who now works as a magician, is an expert in telemarketing laws. He filed (and lost) a suit against Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby for her robocalls in 2015. But in the case of the PAC, he was on the money when he sensed their calls were suspicious.
“It wasn’t a charity, it was clear that it was a PAC,” Worsham said.
His settlement was confidential, but he said it was a “small claims” amount of money he got from them.
Friedman sent a letter to the FEC this week, asking them to investigate beyond Montgomery County.
Because those few settlements are peanuts for the PAC founders.
Until the FEC steps in, the way to stop them — and this is the time of year they’re out in force — is to be especially careful and suspicious of anyone who calls asking for donations, Friedman said.
Know the difference between a political action committee and a non-profit.
Or, just go down to the volunteer fire station, meet Poirier and buy a Christmas tree from him. Or go to your local charity’s pancake breakfast or crab feast.
That’s how you know for sure where your money is going.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.