An exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the HBO critically acclaimed documentary Telemarketer$ and how the NJSPBA’s more than 30 years of efforts advocating to clean up the unsavory tactics being used by companies working for New Jersey-based and national police organizations inspired the hit show
By Mitchell Krugel
HBO’s resounding, revealing, remarkable documentary “Telemarketer$,” reached a moment that stopped the remote-flipping 47 minutes into the hour-long Part 2 that premiered on Aug. 20. Telemarketer$ stars and documentary-makers Pat Pespas and Sam Lipman-Stan bravely walked past that unmistakable PBA sign off Main Street and toward the front doors of the union’s Woodbridge headquarters.
“Come on, let’s go talk to the PBA. They’ll say something,” Pespas confirms to Lipman-Stern, a film major at Temple at the time and the cameraman/director for this project. Lipman-Stern had been conversing with then-PBA Second Vice President John Hulse in 2016 about telemarketing’s barrage on the public using law enforcement’s good name and good work to generate multi-millions in donations. Something they had excruciatingly experienced during their years working for the outrageous Jersey-based telemarketing firm Civic Development Group (CDG).
After trying so many different sources to get the inside stories – many of them FOP-related – these Jersey boys sat with Hulse in the PBA’s main conference room, camera rolling, going through his telephone-book sized file folder filled with nearly 30 years of evidence he collected showing the dark side of donation-muscling. Including the NJ FOP State Lodge’s efforts accumulating $6 million per year in contributions. Most of that came from CDG, where Pespas, a recovering addict, and Lipman-Stern, then a 14-year-old high school dropout, worked among ex-cons, drug-users and other assorted unsavory characters.
“When I dropped out, my parents said I had to get a job. But McDonald’s wouldn’t hire me. Burger King wouldn’t hire me. My buddy tells me about this office that’ll hire anybody,” recalls Lipman-Stern, who grew up in Highland Park in Middlesex County. “The first time I walked in the office, I remember one manager pointed to this one guy my first day. I’m 14, I’m a kid. He pointed out to this one guy that’s in episode. ‘Mr. Smythe,’ we called him. Mr. Smythe is a very odd looking character. He’s very eccentric. The manager points to him. He’s like, “Hey, Sam, you see that guy right there?’ He is like, ‘One day I will bet good money on it, that guy is going to come in here with AK-47 and shoot up this entire office.’ That was my first fucking day at CDG, man.”
Now a flourishing filmmaker living in L.A., Lipman-Stern looked very Spielbergesque in his ballcap and stubble when Zooming with Hulse a couple weeks following “Telemarketer$’“ rave-making run. He chatted in what turned out to be a part behind-the-scenes look and part after-credits scene-sharing of his masterpiece that reported the dealing from the bottom of the deck in telemarketing the PBA had been finding since the early 1990s.
“Insight we could never prove,” Hulse praised.
“Telemarketer$’” infotaining look at how telemarketing’s praying on the public by essentially impersonating law enforcement – “They taught me how to sound like a cop or how to sound like a cartoon caricature of a cop,” Lipman-Stern noted – was born at CDG and augmented with scripts articulating that donations helped the FOP keep communities safe. It validated the PBA’s relentless efforts to warn the public with the omnipresent “Don’t Donate By Phone” billboard that started under past President Mike Madonna, continued with past President Tony Wieners and still is vital today under President Pat Colligan, who has been battling as the Franklin Township Local 154 State Delegate in the early 1990s.
The episodes of this PBA analy$i$ document the PBA’s journey to spread consumer warnings and protect the fundrai$ing functions of its Locals and members. As well as the “Telemarketer$” journey.
It all climaxed with the Hulse interview in Part 2 that Lipman-Stern said really ignited him and Pespas to scour the country looking for FOP leaders all the way up to the current national president who could explain what the organization had been doing with CDG. And that interview clearly portrayed Hulse’s passion for doing so much of this legwork to keep law enforcement’s fundraising on the up-and-up.
“This has been my forever thing because it’s so bad, it’s so criminal,” said Hulse, whose telemarketing file still includes the phone message Lipman-Stern left to inquire about doing an interview. “I think one of the things that really rubbed us the wrong way is that we were getting blamed for it because we are the best known law enforcement organization in the state. We were experiencing all these complaints, and it was easy to recognize that the telemarketing was starting to hurt our reputation and our relationship with people.”
Cut to the PBA
If only “Telemarketer$” could have shown Hulse working his way through the file he accumulated. He is like a detective working through a cold case who knows the culprit and just needs one little break to make the arrest.
It includes an email received on Sept. 29, 2009, detailing, among other evidence:
- “As part of the Professional Management Consultant Agreement, CDG places the name of the charity on the outside of the call center.”
- “CDG claims that 100 percent of the funds go directly to the organization.”
- “They just found a new technical way to do what they have always been doing – and are actually being even more dishonest.”
Hulse pauses to recall a couple of pieces in the file that seeing again that brings a little smile on his face like somebody seeing an heirloom in a scrapbook. The first is the “Don’t Donate By Phone” billboard artwork and poster with the PBA logo on it pictured smack in the middle of this issue’s cover. The second is a piece headlined “New Jersey State PBA Consumer Warning” that reinforces “The N.J. State P.B.A. and all of its 360 Local Associations throughout New Jersey Do Not Utilize Telemarketing Schemes for any purpose whatsoever.” Another is a press release he wrote for Locals to use that includes the statement, “Efforts are being pursued by the PBA to end telemarketing by groups chartered for the representation and benefit of law enforcement officers in New Jersey.”
“I have a stack of paper of complaints that I would print out about people calling into the office about telemarketers who between somehow referenced and straight up lied about being the PBA,” Hulse shared. “We tried combating it because with the FOP, I monitored their newspaper, and they were very frank about the fact that they ran their organization at the time through telemarketing funding.”
Cut to sorting through the folder
The PBA walked the walk when Madonna initiated the effort for a PBA bylaw prohibiting telemarketing. No other NJ law enforcement organization has followed that lead, but Hulse is hopeful that the documentary and the PBA’s 30-plus years of labor may finally make them think again.
The bylaw has been in effect for more than 30 years. But the PBA still receives calls today from angry citizens demanding to please be taken off their call list. And the file includes many emails from citizens asking if the calls they received could be a scam.
And there are some like the July 29, 2010, email passed along from former Monmouth Beach Local 332 State Delegate Tom Walsh, who reported that a resident had received a call from a telemarketer and made a donation. According to the email, the telemarketing company said that somebody would come by right away to pick up the cash. The resident thought something was fishy, reported it to the police department who sent officers out to the house. They wound up running the person who came to pick up the cash and found he was a parolee/registered sex offender.
There are police reports from several departments that detected similar acts. Officers would respond to a location where a check was supposed to be collected and find a person of interest sent to make the collection.
The file also includes phone messages from the attorney general’s office wanting to talk to the PBA about the Garden State Law Enforcement Law Enforcement Officers Association’s telemarketing tactics. And from the Division of Consumer Affairs.
The PBA tried to take legislative and judicial measures to change the game. The union wrote a bill establishing the “Law Enforcement Charitable Integrity Act” banning telephone solicitation on behalf of law enforcement personnel.
The bill had sponsorship in both the Senate and the General Assembly. Hulse joined Wieners and then-PBA Executive Vice President Keith Dunn in testifying before committee to present the evidence to support the act. But the FOP led testimony that the act violated the First Amendment, which prevented it from being passed.
Additionally, the PBA made a PowerPoint-enhanced presentation to representatives from the attorney general’s office under Governor Christie. But they didn’t even get a response to that, let alone have any action taken.
“CDG was making millions and millions, and that’s what was pushing us to go after them,” Hulse explained. “Like here is another article from 2008 that the State PBA is warning the public. That’s when we put out that announcement with the consumer warning. The [FOP] went wild about us going after the telemarketing.”
Cut to examining more evidence
A flyer made the rounds in the late 2000s that landed at the PBA office advertising “The NJFOP Fundraising Center seeks FOP members to work as telephone fundraisers.” A picture shows men with headsets at computers. The promo offered $15 to work “from our Ocean, NJ offices.” CDG had a big office in Ocean, which reportedly was one in the same building with the NJFOP Fundraising Center.
“I believe Sam is the one that let me know the only thing they did was just rope off a corner of that room at CDG and call it the FOP section,” Hulse added. “And then they said, ‘OK, now we work directly for the FOP, so 100 percent of the donation goes to the FOP and the FOP pays us to do the solicit marketing.’”
FYI, a 2007 Consumer Affairs report documented that that FOP took in public contributions of $4,276,716 and had fundraising expenses of $3,513,720, presumably to CDG. That left the FOP with $762,996 for its discretion.
The non-telemarketing, fundraising initiatives never pitched for donations by reasoning, “We need your assistance to continue to support member officers, which in turn helps them provide loved ones with safe neighborhoods, towns and cities.” As the FOP did in a letter sent to a New Jersey Supreme Court justice that was forwarded to the PBA.
The FOP, Garden State Law Enforcement Officers Association, NJ Law Enforcement Officers Association and others solicited that their telemarketing and fundraising efforts supported the Police Unity Tour. Outside of members riding the Tour, that support was news to Unity Tour Founder Pat Montuore.
“A lot of people out there bastard us without written permission,” Montuore confirmed. “And we don’t telemarket. We had a deal way back when with PBA President Mike Madonna that we would not use telemarketing so we could allow PBA members to communicate to their community the best way they could, so it wasn’t burdensome to the unions, and therefore creating inequities or for nefarious reasons.”
Lipman-Stern and other CDG telemarketers explained how they were provided scripts that explicitly stated they were calling for the FOP. These included rhetoric that became the culture of pining for education grants, continuing education grants, bullet proof vest drives, crime prevention yearbooks and selling shields knocking off the PBA’s state-certified version.
Ironically, some of these organizations would produce an income report like that NJ State Law Enforcement Officers Association in 2008 that showed $278,909 in direct public contributions and $232,954 in fundraising for total revenue of $460,255. And total expenses of total expenses: $460,255. Do the math.
“According to what I could gain from just reading their propaganda and stuff, not a lot was going to any charities,” Hulse submitted. “I’m sure some was, there’s no doubt, because that’s how they made themselves legit, if you will. But I have one of these shields in my desk and it was given to me by someone, and I said, ‘Well, why are you giving me this? I’m not an FOP member.” He said, ‘This was in the car that the guy used to get away after murdering [Lakewood Local 71 member] Chris Matlosz.’”
Cut to Sam in California
And now back to the show.
Lipman-Stern said the breadcrumbs that led he and Pespas to the PBA were quotes from Hulse in the many, many articles they read when researching whether there was a documentary out based on what they had seen at CDG. They were not the only ones who were grateful the road led to Woodbridge.
“I know, John, you haven’t talked to the folks at HBO, but everyone loved you,” Lipman-Stern greeted Hulse on the Sept. 14 Zoom. “Everyone loved the interview. You have fans at HBO, and all the filmmakers are fans.”
One of the key facts he added about how “Telemarketer$” came through production led to revealing how important the integrity of the information was to HBO. He shared how HBO Legal required fact check after fact check, and that everybody who appeared in the show had to be asked twice about their comments.
Like the CDG caller featured in episode two, who Lipman-Stern said is still the No. 1-caller in New Jersey. He added that this caller raped a girl and stabbed her in the heart. His background also indicated that he was convicted of other rapes in the 1980s and was released from prison after serving 30 years.
“I am all for redemption, but that guy should not be on the streets,” Lipman-Stern continued. “He’s the best caller, calling for the police right now in Jersey. Literally, right now. He’s still working.
I can’t say who he’s working for because it is part of the legal thing.”
Behind the scenes, “Telemarketer$” started with Lipman-Stern as a self-proclaimed kid with a camcorder, the one in his group of friends who was always filming. When he saw at CDG that he was working with a murderer on his left and somebody who was in bankruptcy on his right, he thought this would make for great video.
“At first I’m just thinking, man, someone needs to write a book about this place,” he described. “You never knew when a fight would break out in the office or the FBI, I remember one time, pulled someone out. Here we are calling on behalf of the biggest police organization, as they call themselves, in the world.”
The whirlwind that led to “Telemarketer$” started with Lippman-Stern shooting videos at the CDG call center and posting them on YouTube. Pespas “starred” in some of those, and they made such and impact that CDG demanded Lipman-Stern take them down or he would be fired. Just before CGD was shut down the first time.
Cut to Pespas and Lipman-Stern taking the plunge
The remote-flipping stopping element of “Telemarketer$” – at least for PBA members – came with Pespas knocking on doors of FOPs in New Jersey, Florida, Houston, Chicago and other venues trying to get them to explain why they would work with CDG. And how much money they were making. And whether that money was actually going to the beneficiaries the telemarketers had pitched.
“Anyone that’s involved in it does not want to talk about it,” Lipman-Stern reported. “But if you don’t want to talk about something, maybe you shouldn’t be involved in it.”
Actually, it was Pespas who suggested what they had seen at CDG could become something more than a YouTube video. And when as a film student at Temple Lipman-Stern reached out to the PBA and talked to Hulse, that vision became a dream come true.
“Ironically enough, it was Pat who was like, ‘Hey, Sam, we’re involved in some dark stuff here. Let’s expose this because we’re the only ones that can.” The 10 o’clock news once in a while would do a little short. But if they would get the call from the police or something, they would never dive into it. It was really Pat who told me, “Hey, man, let’s make this an investigation.’”
Helped by data from the PBA, Pespas and Lipman-Stern developed the questions they felt needed to be asked. The answers that they hoped the FOP could provide for the public.
in 2021, Lipman-Stern had the chance to pitch this series to HBO. As it turned out, the president of HBO documentaries had been a telemarketer.
“I think our battle originally was to tell the story fully for the first time, where, as humanly as possible, people could watch it and really learn the story behind the calls,” Lipman-Stern revealed. “For me, one of the things that where I felt like this story really needed to be told was these telemarketing companies. They’ll call for police organizations or police unions. Most of those groups in our research are total scam.”
For years, Hulse has been presenting the PBA’s findings: to the state legislature, the attorney general, on 101.5FM when the subject came up and as a source for many, many, many stories in the Star-Ledger, The Record and other news outlets. Lipman-Stern read those or heard those, and, as he previously noted, that’s what led to the conversations with Hulse and ultimately the interview in 2016.
But the Aug. 12 Zoom was the first time the two had seen each other since then. And it was an incredibly revealing conversation about “Telemarketers$,” what it achieved, what is still to be achieved, how that can be done and what it means to the PBA and its members.
Seems to be a great episode to culminate this report that has been more than 30 years in the making. So take a listen, so to speak:
John: We’ve been talking about this for so long and nobody would really listen. This feels like we haven’t won the war yet, but this feels like winning a big battle. It’s like, “God, somebody’s finally telling the story that we’ve been yelling about.”
Sam: I remember you were the first person I talked to that really knew a lot about the subject. All the callers love the documentary. It’s just the owners that aren’t happy about it. The word’s getting out there, man. I don’t know where it’s going to go from here. I mean, Pat wants to testify in front of Congress. I don’t know if you saw, but (Connecticut) Senator Richard Blumenthal just put out a press release where he’s trying to take on the telemarketing industry.
John: I knew the front end really well, but you showed us the back end. Those names in the documents that you’ve laid down, I knew these guys, and to think that they were involved in that. I mean, it’s finding out that Superman can’t fly. It’s like Batman really didn’t have a cape.
Sam: It was crazy. We had no idea that the whole CDG model was created with the presidents of the different police organizations. It didn’t end up in the documentary, but we interviewed one. He told us they were cooking meth in the call center. I mean, you just can’t make this stuff up. I don’t know what it is about the telemarketing industry. It’s a crazy world, man.
John: It’s still going on today. We’re still having problems. We still have people calling up about the Garden State Police Officers Association that they’re selling shields to people. The state FOP I believe stopped telemarketing. I don’t think that they do anymore. But their lodges still do, which is a shame because they’re still letting it happen.
Sam: Let’s say the government comes down on one telemarketing company like they did CDG. But then these organizations just keep doing it with another one. Or the telemarketing companies will change their name. We show in episode two. I mean, freaking, the brother of the owner of CDG opens up Residential Programs Inc. two months after CDG gets shut down. He wasn’t banned from telemarketing for life, but his brother was. Trying to regulate telemarketing is like trying to regulate Somalian pirates. It can’t be done. You just have to sink the ship.
John: We did the consumer alerts, all this kind of stuff, but I never really felt like that we got it out there enough. I want to thank you guys for what you did. It’s like your voice finally kicked in and it was like, “Thank God, somebody listened.” I hope other people listen and not fall for that nonsense. There’s a lot of history to it, like you said. I think we did do a good thing. It certainly wasn’t a wasted effort because while it has changed, it has changed for the better. And listen, we got the FOP to stop doing it, and I think they were the biggest offenders.
Sam: Part of it was telling the stories so the money could start going into the right place. Personally, I feel like I reached my goal of getting the story out to the world. People are going to watch it on HBO and learn the ins and outs and all the elements of the scam. Where it goes from here, we’ll see. Time will tell.
That’s a wrap…