The Texas Highway Patrol Museum sits on a prime piece of property near downtown San Antonio, across the street from Rosario’s Café y Cantina. Business is booming at Rosario’s, but not so much at the museum. It usually looks empty every time I drive by or hang out in King William. I’ve been kind of curious what their deal is.
After I wrote about delays and conflicts at the Briscoe Western Art Museum last month, Express-News police reporter Michelle Mondo suggested I take a look at the highway patrol museum. It sounded interesting.
A quick Google search showed that others had asked similar questions about the museum over the years and discovered red flags. Amy Davis, a TV reporter who used to work in San Antonio and now works in Houston, investigated the museum in April 2008 and produced this in-depth report. Davis found that the museum was actually a telemarketing operation, and she interviewed a former employee who said the group spent little money on troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The KSAT Defenders produced a similar report later that year.
More recently, Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast blogged about a phone call he received from a telemarketer who said he worked for the “Texas Highway Patrol.” Henson asked if he meant DPS — and the caller said yes. It’s a big no-no to falsely claim to be affiliated with a law enforcement agency.
What does DPS, the government agency that employs state troopers, think about the museum? Not much. The agency’s website has a general warning about giving money to telemarketers — but it also has a web page that focuses on the highway patrol museum in San Antonio. DPS criticizes the exhibits, puts “museum” in quotes and warns the public not to give it money.
All this adds up to a good story that people need to know about.
The museum is a nonprofit organization, so its tax records are open to the public. Guidestar offers free access to the three most recent years of tax returns for most nonprofit organizations. The Express-News has an account with Guidestar that gives us access to even more tax returns, which offers a treasure trove of historical information about charities.
Database Editor Kelly Guckian logged into Guidestar and got me copies of everything available for the Texas Highway Patrol Museum and a related entity, the Texas Highway Patrol Association. The two organizations share the same board members, and both were founded by Lane Denton, a former state representative from Waco who was found guilty of stealing money from a different law enforcement charity.
The museum is the telemarketing arm of the partnership. It employed more than 380 people in 2009, most of whom worked at call centers in El Paso, Austin and Houston. The association provides benefits to state troopers.
A brochure states the group gives the “finest benefits possible” to troopers. But looking at a five-year span of tax returns showed that while benefits were indeed paid to troopers and their families, they were only a fraction of the total revenues raked in by the museum’s telemarketers.
I typed all the financial information into a spreadsheet. Here are the numbers:
Donors gave nearly $12 million to the museum, but the association gave only $65,300 to DPS troopers and their families. That’s half a penny for every dollar raised.
Yet when telemarketers call potential donors, they often refer to recently killed troopers by name, pull heart-strings, and lead people to believe that most of their money is actually going to help the people who need it. That happened to the friend of David Slaton, a trooper who died last year in a car accident. The telemarketing call hit her hard.
My story about the museum ran Sunday and many outraged readers responded that they had received telemarketing calls from this organization and others.
What do people with the museum have to say about all this? The employees I spoke with were friendly, and the director of marketing who oversees the telemarketing operation basically described it as a necessary evil. There’s overhead, he said, but without the telemarketing calls, no money would be coming in at all.
But there are more effective ways to help peace officers. Slaton’s friend told me she was impressed by the 100 Club of Houston, which does not raise money through telemarketers. It relies on membership donations, and according to its tax returns, it gave about $1 million in survivor benefits last year.
Rick Hartley, executive director of the 100 Club, said the group has no plans whatsoever to try telemarketing.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is unveiling a new Web site where you can soon look up the “990” tax forms of nonprofit organizations in Texas.
The 990 is a good starting point when you want to know more about a tax-exempt charity and what it does with its money. You can find out how much the organization spends on fundraising, or what it pays its top officials. Journalism students at private schools can use the 990 to get financial information about their university.
Former San Antonio Express-News columnist Roddy Stinson looked at 990 tax forms of a local Head Start provider, Parent/Child Inc. The group is a nonprofit organization that receives millions of dollars every year from the federal government to provide early education for poor children.
Another good Web site for information about nonprofits is Guidestar. You can sign up to Guidestar for free and look up three year’s worth of 990s. Examining the tax forms for multiple years, and not just one year, is a good way to find patterns, such as whether revenues are going down.
Guidestar is run by — you guessed it — a nonprofit.