Sept. 11 Charity Investigated

Click here to read the FGF's original statement concerning this issue. - Jon


Sunday, April 13, 2008

JEFFERSON — Bergen County Harley-Davidson employee Rich Croland was lucky, in a sense, to miss a benefit concert in Carlstadt last month that promoted its upcoming Freedom Ride to Ground Zero.

The company's charity partner, Fred Parisi, was led out of the March 29 event by police officers on charges he stole $235,000 from a business colleague in Jefferson.

"I got a call, saying, 'Hey, did you see the front of the (New York) Daily News today?'" Croland said.

As a result, the arrest cast skepticism on Parisi's 9/11 Rescue Workers Foundation, the charity he was in Carlstadt to raise funds for in conjunction with the Freedom Ride promotion.

For years, Parisi, 40, of Jefferson, has claimed he was called in from a police recruiting field in Brooklyn to assist rescue efforts at the World Trade Center in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

In September 2007, he set up his foundation to assist people who suffered medical problems related to the recovery site.

But according to an affidavit, Parisi was a police recruit assigned to Floyd Bennett Field for driving training on Sept. 11, 2001.

He did not respond to the World Trade Center catastrophe; he was assigned to a traffic post at 34th St. and Madison Avenue on the following two days, NYPD roster sheets said.

"This gives legitimate foundations a black eye," said John Feal, whose FealGood Foundation replaced Parisi's as a charity partner for the motorcycle run.

"As a foundation founder, I'm not surprised," he said. "As a 9/11 responder, I was irate."

The episode illustrated an all-too-common problem, observers said: Charities that cannot support their claims or spend more funds on their operations than the people they are supposed to help.

"You can legally give just about nothing to charity, and be so-called legitimate," said Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of the American Institute of Philanthropy.

Scams related to 9/11 were more common in the earlier part of the decade, when people were "emotionally moved and throwing money at whoever would collect it," Borochoff said.

Now, "if you really are clever about ripping people off, you'd know regulators will be watching (9/11 scams) more closely," Borochoff said.

In May 2004, a pair of Sussex County men pleaded guilty to bilking a Franklin woman out of $300,000 in a phony 9/11 investment plan, claiming she would receive $1 million in return.

One of the men, of Hampton, claimed he had shot a would-be terrorist who was planning attacks.

Parisi was arrested at the benefit concert on March 29 after a 15-month investigation alleging he stole $235,000 from his business partner, Roy Jensen, at Berkshire Valley Custom Wood Designs, police said.

His arrest prompted multiple agencies to investigate Parisi's 9/11 foundation and previous fund-raising, including an effort to send his son to a baseball tournament in Europe, Jefferson Police Detective Joseph Kratzel said.

Whether Parisi's 9/11 foundation provided real help to anyone is unclear. It is registered with the New Jersey Division of Consumers Affairs, and "there are no actions that we have taken against charities that are connected to 9-11," DCA spokesman Jeff Lamm said.

The charity's phone line has been disconnected, and Parisi is lodged in the Morris County jail on bail, pending an appearance before Superior Court Judge Salem V. Ahto on April 15.

The 9/11 Rescue Workers Foundation did not take in or spend any money in its most recent report posted online with the DCA.

"It's too easy to set up a charity in New Jersey that may pass the legal muster but is far from what it should be," said John Hulse said, a Byram police officer and Sussex County delegate to the New Jersey Police Benevolent Association.

The Police Benevolent Association outlawed telemarketing after it realized too many supposed police-based foundations used pressure tactics to spend more on operations than charity, Hulse said.

"Everybody used to do telemarketing and it wasn't that bad of a thing," he said.

But things went "haywire" in the early 1990s, when "you started hearing all these horror stories," he said.

Telemarketers took in most of the proceeds, including one group that fled to Florida, he said.

"That wasn't the exception; it started to become the rule," Hulse said. "We said enough is enough."

The PBA testified before the state Legislature in hopes of banning all telemarketing related to law enforcement charities, but it was rebuffed due to First Amendment concerns, according to Hulse.

"It's our reputation," Hulse said.

"We go to great lengths to protect the name of law enforcement."

Borochoff said potential givers should fully understand where their money is going and look for a charity directors they can trust to maximize the positive effects of their donation.

Feal said he wanted to protect 9/11 workers after his left foot was crushed by steel at the Ground Zero site. He noted that his foundation has an eight-member board, two lawyers and a well-maintained Web site with media links.

Croland called him a day before the FealGood Foundation planned to reach out to the Bergen County Harley-Davidson, the parties said.

"We made lemonade out of bad lemons," Feal said.