By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
All I want for Christmas is to be Christmasy. You've already heard about Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.
He's the preacher publishing an online shame-list of businesses and organizations that aren't Christmasy enough for him. I'm scared I'll wind up on it. I really don't want to embarrass my family. I'm doing everything I can. But I worry. I think they may be watching me.
And yet, I cannot avoid some backsliding from time to time. It's the whole Christmas spirit thing. Are we absolutely sure it's always good?
Do we have a right to be skeptical even for a moment? Or will a mere split second of un-cheer cause someone to come along with a hot branding iron and scorch the letters NCE (Not Christmasy Enough) on my forehead?
Give you an example. Last week our only child was driving to California, a thing he seems to do an awful lot of. We got a call at home, and it popped up on Caller ID as "Texas Highway Patrol."
In hindsight there may have been some additional initials at the end of the name, but "Texas Highway Patrol" is what we saw on the phone.
A very grave-voiced man introduced himself as "Trooper Mark Smith of the Texas Highway Patrol (mumble)." He demanded to know my wife's name. She told him. She put the phone to her shoulder and said, "It's the highway patrol."
So we figured our son was dead. Or if we were lucky, in the hospital. She handed the phone to me.
At that point, "Trooper Smith" launches into a pitch for money, something about children and the deaths of police officers and the season of giving and so on.
Picture me. I am conflicted. Think of me with a little state trooper in a Santa Claus hat on my right shoulder saying, "Be of good cheer, Jim. Or else." And then on my other shoulder, imagine a wicked little state trooper with a pitchfork giving me ideas for things I could say to this guy about his mom's relationship with the football team.
I control myself. I tell him I cannot commit to anything, not one single thing, until I know more about the outfit. But I do get off the phone in one civil piece. Figure they will call again. By then I will have looked them up.
The question is this: In an age when badge fraud has become a national scandal, what real self-respecting police organization would even try to raise funds this way?
Badge fraud is the term of art for sketchy telemarketers who associate themselves with law enforcement. And, you know: 'Tis the season. Now is when they all call.
So, let's see here. The guy was actually calling from the Texas Highway Patrol Association, not the highway patrol division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. The Texas Highway Patrol Association or THPA is a private organization located in San Antonio.
The THPA was founded in 1995 by former Texas legislator Lane Denton, a Democrat who represented Waco in the House from 1971 to 1977. The same seat was later occupied by his wife, Betty Denton.
From 1986 to 1990, Denton was the chief executive officer of the Department of Public Safety Officers Association, a legitimate law enforcement professional organization in Austin. In 1990 Denton was fired by the DPSOA and accused of embezzling more than $67,000 from the organization's coffers.
Both Denton and his wife were charged with crimes and were convicted in separate trials. Neither went to jail.
Oh, by the way, how are we doing on Christmas spirit so far? I should still be nice to "Trooper Smith," right, when he calls back, because, well, it's Christmas, damn it. Right? Right. I'm on it.
While former State Representative Denton was on probation, he needed something to do, so he founded the Texas Highway Patrol Association to compete with the DPSOA, his former employer. Compete how, I don't know, because the DSPOA, the legitimate group, got out of the home telephone solicitation business years ago when it turned sleazy, answering my question: What legitimate police organization would even do this stuff any more?
The counsel to the DSPOA is Dallas attorney Bob Gorsky, who is sort of a statewide legal hero to cops. He told me to be sure to point out that the DPSOA has no connection with or similarity to the THPA.
"The Department of Public Safety Officers Association is a legitimate organization," Gorsky said. "It has over 3,000 current and retired DPS employees as members. Most of its members are sworn police officers."
Over the course of several days, I tried to track down working phone numbers for the THPA, so I could get its story. Its phone mail tree is so circular, so impenetrable, so totally unreachable that it might make another man angry. But not me, because I've got good cheer coming out my nose.
I was able to leave voice messages and send e-mails to a couple of places. I did not hear back from anyone.
Lots has been written and reported on TV about the THPA over the years. None of it good. But I don't want to rely on other people's reporting.