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The Wheel Deal

"Donate Your Wheels for Meals" read a recent advertisement wedged into the "Autos Wanted" section of the Sun-Sentinel's classified ads. "Don't let your neighbor go hungry." As anyone who has watched an old car deteriorate into a pile of rust in the driveway knows, the idea of unloading that burden for some higher cause has appeal. You call the charity. They tow it away, auction it, or sell it for parts to a junkyard. They pocket the proceeds. You get a tax write-off and the warm feeling that you've done something worthwhile.

It's popular. Lucrative too. One used-car lot run by a charity in Cleveland raised $360,000 last year to fund group homes for the mentally and physically disabled. In South Florida, four charities advertise for vehicle donations in the local daily papers. Two of the four are based in New York and solicit nationally.

Some of these local ads are misleading. They are also illegal. Only one of the charities is registered with the state -- the Rainbow Foundation, a nonprofit located in Davie that raises money for the mentally disabled. Representatives for the other three (United Charities of America Inc., Cars for Tots Inc., and Meals on Wheels Programs and Services) told New Times they didn't know about the state law requiring charities to register.

The purpose of registration is to protect consumers from money machines masquerading as charities. It allows donors to learn how much money a charity has collected in any given year, what proportion went to salaries and other administrative expenses, and how much was actually spent helping people.

Additionally, the law requires that a charity include its full name, its state registration number, and a toll-free Division of Consumer Services telephone number, 800-435-7352, in every print advertisement. None of the charities advertising in local newspapers did that.

Equally troubling is the deceptive wording of the Meals on Wheels ad. Some Sentinel readers spotted it and concluded that the Broward County program was seeking funds, says its chief executive officer, John Pudwell. That's a logical assumption considering that the ad talks about helping "your neighbor." "People have called me and said, 'Why didn't you tell me you needed money?'" Pudwell says.

But Meals on Wheels of Broward County does only one fundraiser annually -- selling dinners, donated by corporations, at area restaurants. The rest of its budget comes from individual donations and federal funds. The organization has never hauled used cars and boats to make money, Pudwell says.

Indeed, neither the local Meals on Wheels program nor the national membership organization for Meals on Wheels knows anything about the company that placed the ad.

"It's a fraud," Pudwell declares.

"I've never heard of them," says Enid Borden, CEO of the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

That raised New Times's suspicion. So we decided to call all the charities.

At Cars for Tots, a man who identifies himself as "Billy D" answers the telephone. The charity, he says, is located in New York state and solicits car and boat donations through ads placed in newspapers in cities all over the country. He explains that Cars for Tots helps parents who can't afford to care for their children, although sometimes, if the vehicle is in decent shape, the charity gives a family a donated car. And, he says, 60 to 73 percent of the money gleaned from donations is used to help people. The most expensive donation ever received by Cars for Tots, he says, was a boat that brought in $8000 during a raffle.

When questioned about what the "D" stands for in his name, Billy D. responds gruffly: "Just leave it at that." Then he promises to fax documentation to New Times with details about Cars for Tots, including financial information. But we never receive any communications from him. When we call back, repeatedly, Billy D. is too busy to talk. We leave messages. He doesn't return our phone calls. Meanwhile, we learn that Cars for Tots Inc. is listed as a for-profit business with New York state.

While we wait for Billy D.'s return call, we try the telephone number listed in the ad for Meals on Wheels Programs and Services, which both local and national officials have questioned. Strangely, a man who sounds a lot like Billy D. answers the telephone. "Do you have a car you want to donate?" he says. No, we seek only information. He politely explains that the New York-based nonprofit raises money and then doles it out to local Meals on Wheels programs throughout the nation, based upon need.

After further questioning, he suggests that New Times speak to the owner of Meals on Wheels Programs and Services. We ask his name. There is a long, long pause.

"Are you looking for it?" we ask. Silence. "You're looking for it?"

More silence.

Finally, he responds, "Stanley, Stanley Lord."

So New Times attempts to reach Mr. Lord or some other company representative. Again, we leave numerous messages. Finally, while listening to a phone recording late one afternoon, we are directed to call Meals on Wheels Programs and Services of Rockland County. One more phone call and we reach Executive Director Rochelle Berger. She says that her Meals on Wheels program contracts with Billy D.'s company to raise money through car and boat donations. Berger explains that she receives a check for $1500 to $2500 from Cars for Tots every four weeks or so. That represents half of the money collected, minus administrative costs, she explains (which differs from Billy D.'s version).

Does Billy D.'s company get the other half, we ask. That's her understanding. And what about administrative costs? Billy D.'s salary? Or Stanley Lord's payout? She can't provide those answers, but she promises to call Billy D. and tell him we need financials.

We call Cars for Tots again. Yes, the guy who answers the telephone explains, he is Billy D. He repeats the same information that we learned from Berger.

But Mr. D. contradicts his earlier statement that the firm raises money for Meals on Wheels programs all over the United States. This time, Billy D. explains that his company is actually soliciting donations specifically for Meals on Wheels Programs and Services of Rockland County in Nanuet, New York. Just when we are about to ask for some documentation on the fundraising activity, the sort of information that should be filed with the state Division of Consumer Services, Billy D. ends the telephone call. He promises to call back. He promises to provide the information. But again, there's no callback and no additional details.

We never had a chance to ask him about the problematic wording in the ad placed by Meals on Wheels. Apparently, the mention of "neighbor" in the classified implores us to help folks who live 1297 miles away. While the global-village definition of neighbor might include Rockland County, New York, the pitch doesn't quite pull our subtropical heartstrings.

Rockland County is located about 30 miles north of Manhattan, on the west side of the Hudson River. It has a population of 286,753. In Broward, there are almost that many people over age 65: 266,970. In Palm Beach County, there are 262,076 residents over 65 years old. In Rockland, by contrast, there are only 33,853 residents in the county in that age range.

And the residents of Rockland don't appear to need our charity. Indeed, they should be helping us. In 2000, the median family household income in Broward County was $40,324; in Palm Beach County, it was $45,062. In Rockland, the comparable figure was a nice $66,002.

Of course, there is nothing illegal about Rockland County charities soliciting donations here. But they do have to follow Florida law. Right?

Given that none of the charities listed in the Sentinel are operating according to the letter of the law, you might think the state's Division of Consumer Services would lower the boom on them. Nope. At least, not immediately. "Once it is brought to our attention, we notify them and give them a chance to get into compliance," says Sophia Campfield, a regulatory consultant with the division. If that doesn't work, the state can fine an offending charity $1000 for each violation of Florida law. But the division pursues an offender only if someone takes the time to submit documentation showing that a charity is soliciting money in the state illegally.

And Billy D.? Is his evasiveness simply a matter of distrust? "What kind of story are you doing?" he barks before hanging up during our last conversation. "I'm just asking, because newspapers never write good news, only bad news."

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman

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