Last week, Hidalgo County District Attorney René Guerra asked the Texas Department of Public Safety to temporarily suspend its practice of using airborne snipers to fire at fleeing vehicles. Guerra made the request after DPS trooper Miguel Avila, riding in a helicopter, fired at a pickup truck he thought was carrying a drug shipment. Actually, the truck was full of immigrants suspected of entering the U.S. illegally. Two Guatemalan immigrants were killed.
One of the most difficult and controversial challenges for police officers is chasing a fleeing vehicle. Police are supposed to catch criminals. But a lot can go wrong in a high-speed chase — especially in the deadly cat-and-mouse game DPS troopers play with drug smugglers in Texas border counties.
DPS Director Mike McCraw has asked the FBI to investigate the shooting. But there are already resources available to the public that show why an incident like this near the border was probably bound to happen.
Two years ago, we found and wrote about a little-known resource: A DPS database that keeps track of every vehicle pursuit troopers are involved in. The database is available to the public through the state’s open-records law, and I teamed up with Brandi Grissom at the Texas Tribune to get a copy of the data and analyze it.
We received data for nearly 5,000 chases that occurred from January 2005 to July 2010. The database was packed with details about every DPS pursuit in Texas, showing factors like how each chase started, how it ended, and how many people were injured or killed.
One thing that jumped out at us was the high number of pursuits in Hidalgo County on the Mexican border. Between 2005 and July 2010, troopers in other Texas counties chased vehicles, on average, about 20 times. In Hidalgo County, DPS troopers chased vehicles about 30 times more often — 656 pursuits. That’s far and away the most in Texas:
The Texas attorney general’s office announced yesterday that it has sued the Texas Highway Patrol Museum, a nonprofit telemarketing organization based in San Antonio that raises millions of dollars in the name of helping state troopers.
I had always been curious about the museum, which is housed in a brick building at St. Mary’s and Alamo streets but attracts few visitors. In October, we examined the museum’s tax records and found that only a fraction of the nearly $12 million in revenue raised by the museum’s telemarketers actually went towards the charitable causes it touted. For every dollar raised, less than a penny was spent on Department of Public Safety troopers and their families.
Attorney General Greg Abbott’s lawsuit reveals new details about what, exactly, donors’ money was spent on. State investigators obtained financial information and credit card statements from the museum, and found employees had paid for cigars, liquor, vacations, meals and “exorbitant” vet bills for an “office cat.” The lawsuit describes an organization with few controls over how money was spent, and an absentee board that seldom asked questions.
Here’s an annotated copy of the lawsuit:
In our last story, I interviewed Scott Henson at the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, who had received a telemarketing call from the museum in August. Scott wasn’t happy that the caller initially claimed to be with the Texas Highway Patrol — as if the caller were really with the Department of Public Safety. “This group is about as much about helping troopers as buzzards are about helping roadkill,” Scott wrote at the time. He called yesterday’s lawsuit “way past time.”
The museum’s assets have been frozen and it’s been closed since Friday. Its lawyer, Kim Brown, called the lawsuit “heavy handed” and said the expenses were justified.
What about the cigars?
Prizes for telemarketers, he said.
Drinks for office parties.
The office cat?
The vet bills for the cat were unavoidable.
The lawsuit lays out more expenses for trips, meals and cars that the state describes as wasteful spending. But Brown said the museum is hardly a fly-by-night organization that defrauds people. The small museum has operated in San Antonio for years, he said, and while it has high overhead costs, it does spend money on charitable causes.
The attorney general is seeking to dissolve the nonprofit museum and its related entities. The next step is a hearing for a temporary injunction that has yet to be scheduled.
Here’s a searchable library of all primary documents we’ve obtained about the museum. If you’ve had any experiences with the museum or its telemarketers, feel free to contact us.
Many thanks to Rick Casey, Bruce Kates, and the staff at KLRN’s Texas Week for having me on their show to talk about the Texas Highway Patrol Museum and its little-known purpose as a telemarketing operation.
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.
Vianna Davila wrote this story about the 10th anniversary of a deadly ambush that killed two deputies and a state trooper in Atascosa County. But I thought her video was especially well done. Without sensationalizing the tragedy, it lays out what happened in a straightforward, sober tone, told in the words of a deputy who was there. Powerful stuff.