By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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.
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.
I was able to learn by examining tax records that Denton is now proprietor of a separate for-profit entity called "THPA Services," which is not required to divulge its governance or financial details. THPA Services publishes a magazine and sells advertising for the THPA.
The documents I looked at showed some things about the relationship between THPA Services that I would call curious, even though I know 'tis not the season to be curious.
I am mighty curious, for example, about the fact that in 2006 THPA Services had an income of $1,121,422 but ended the year with only $81,263. And on top of its income, THPA Services benefited from a $637,973 loan from THPA.
Whenever a high-profile police death occurs, these people get on the horn and start asking people for money, supposedly to help the families of the fallen officers. Denton has claimed in some news accounts that THPA has distributed as much as $100,000 to families of fallen officers over five years.
Maybe. The only records I can find show gifts of about $10,000 to a couple families in a year. And I guess, at a rate of $20,000 a year over five years, yeah, that's $100,000.
But in 2008 alone, the most recent year for which I could find federal tax records, the THPA collected $1.74 million in contributions. The same year they spent $1.17 million on salaries and other compensation.
The only two named staff members with salaries that I could find on the books that year drew a combined total of about $350,000 in salary and bonuses—not too shabby. But the records show "other salaries and wages" coming to $798,367.
What other salary and wages? Christmas or no Christmas, I would like to know about the eight hundred large. I call and call. No answer. See, now I'm just not really cheerful. My best efforts are failing me.
Help me with this. Holidays approaching. These people call us up with a Caller ID that says "Texas Highway Patrol something or other" when our kid is on the road. The guy on the phone, the telemarketer who says he is "Trooper Mark Smith," starts out in deliberately scary-bad cop tones.
I realize nobody's perfect, and at this time of year more than ever we should be forgiving. Anybody could be the head of a legitimate organization and then steal $67,000 and then start another organization and then set up a private company that doesn't have to report its income and then not return phone calls. I am completely understanding.
It could have happened to me, but I decided to go into journalism. Funny how one little thing makes a difference.
The Office of the Texas Attorney General has been pretty aggressive in going after badge fraud scammers and has brought indictments against one who ran something called the "Sheriff's Journal." The OAG has looked at the THPS and concluded it operates within the law.
The Better Business Bureaus of Houston and San Antonio have declined to give THPA their recommendation and have criticized it in the past for spending too little money on actual charity, but they stopped issuing a report on THPA a year ago when THPA stopped filling out their questionnaires.
I am not saying they are crooks. I am saying that an awful lot of the money they collect goes to the private entity headed by Lane Denton. And when they call and the Caller ID tells you it's the Texas Highway Patrol something or other calling, it's not the highway patrol. You don't really have to answer, and you don't really have to give them your name.
Here is my point. I'm not even mad at the Texas Highway Patrol Association. Why be mad at them? It's like getting mad when you go inside the tent at the county fair to see the half-alligator half-man and he turns out to be a fake. At some point in life you have to learn not to go in the tent.
I'm not against Christmas. But people use Christmas. I mean, look: People use the blood of dead cops. The world is filled with really good people, but the world is also filled with really bad people.
Like the THPA, Pastor Jeffress is using Christmas. This whole thing with his Joe McCarthy list of known traitors to Christmas is part of building his own personal brand so he can compete with all the other Christian televangelist tycoons.
All right, I admit it. The spirit has left me. Slap the cuffs on me, haul me away to the Christmas Calaboose. Maybe I can get away from carols sung by mice and find somebody to play poker with. In peace and goodwill.