DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - It's one of the most heart-warming stories of the Christmas season. They call it Shop With a Cop.
Officers use donation money to go toy-shopping with disadvantaged children. But an undercover FOX 5 I-Team investigation revealed how one police group misled the public for years, a list that included this television station.
A lot of counties put on a Shop With a Cop event. This investigation focused on the DeKalb County Fraternal Order of Police.
"Just put down here at the bottom Shop with A Cop," the man who looked like Santa Claus told an undercover FOX 5 I-Team producer. Joe Penn was getting a $100 donation for a program he said desperately needed help.
"It's a continual program," he told our producer as she wrote the check. "They continually get kids into DFACS and foster care. One hundred percent of the money that you donate goes to that program."
Wrong. What the people at the DeKalb Fraternal Order of Police didn't tell the public was their phone solicitors kept 25% of every donation they got. According the charity's 2013 tax return, the last reporting year available, they raised about $240,000. Of that, nearly $100,000 went into the pockets of the solicitors. And the remaining $140,000? The F-O-P says only $23,000 went to needy children.
Twice a year Gary Sanders said he gave $200 for Shop with a Cop, thinking all of his money went for disadvantaged kids in DeKalb County.
"I would consider it stealing," Sanders said after we told him less than 10 percent of the donations got spent on children. "You tell me you're going to put x amount of dollars that we're donating toward children and then a fraction of it goes? I'm going to say that's stealing."
Solicitors called year round asking for help with needy kids. When a FOX 5 I-Team producer showed up asking about a job, he was told they spend about $200 on each needy child for Shop With a Cop. But if they worked hard, solicitors could make $400 each week.
"What I used to do with some of my people is put a picture of a Corvette up there if they wanted a Corvette," phone room manager Joe Swirble said, motioning to a wall. "If they wanted a boat, I'd put a boat over here. And what they do is as you're talking to that person just look at that boat."
The DeKalb FOP told the FOX 5 I-Team 53 kids took part in the Shop with a Cop program last Christmas. At $200 each, that would be $10,600. President Jeff Wiggs said they also help with back-to-school supplies, but couldn't say how much they actually spent.
Wiggs said he was not bothered by the low number from 2013.
Randy: Is that being honest with people?
Wiggs: Sure it is, because there again, that's just in that year.
Actually, the previous two years were even worse. Barely six percent of all the money raised for children in 2011 and 2012 actually went to children.
But Wiggs insisted his group wasn't fooling anyone.
Randy: You can justify that?
Wiggs: Well, there again you're getting caught up on numbers. This lodge needs repair. I've got a leaky toilet in there that's just flooded the bathroom this morning. We're not frivolously spending money.
Randy: If you're not going to spend the money on the kids, why aren't you telling donors that?
Wiggs: You've got a short amount of time to get your foot in the door.
Randy: So you say kids.
"I just think these kids are being used, exploited and it's not right at all," said former DeKalb FOP solicitor Marilyn Williams.
Last Christmas, Marilyn said she showed up at Wal-Mart to watch the Shop with a Cop program herself.
"I was appalled because I didn't see but about 40 kids and I expected to see officers and kids, the parking lot jammed with officers and kids shopping. It wasn't what I thought because so much money was being raked in every day."
Finally, we saw a name in the phone script they use that bothered us personally: FOX 5. Here's what phone room manager Joe Swirble told us.
"We do our big one for Christmas. And FOX 5 Atlanta televises it for us so the people know that. Actually they put us on their website as a link, too, the cops walking the kids through the store."
Retired DeKalb police officer Wiggs said he didn't know our TV station was part of his paid solicitor's sales pitch.
"We want to run a clean ship," he said. "We're the Fraternal Order of Police and you know we're going to do the right thing. But we gotta know there's wrongdoing before we can do that."