, Salem, MA

December 27, 2013

Our view: Public unions should stop their misleading fundraising

The Salem News

---- — `vNo one has come out of the Salem firefighters’ fundraising scandal looking good.

The Civil Service Commission upheld the city’s firing of former Lt. John O’Leary, determining that he misappropriated funds intended for charity — though to a far smaller extent than had been alleged.

But at the same time, the commission blasted the accountant hired by the firefighters union, whose report was used as the basis of the city’s findings against O’Leary. Amazingly, the accountant, a personal friend of another firefighter, never even talked to O’Leary before filing a damning report, the commission said, and looked into only O’Leary’s actions, not those of anyone else in the union involved with the charitable fund.

The biggest lesson to be drawn from this, however, is about the sheer waste of the public’s money involved in fundraising by public safety unions, who do so ostensibly for “charity” but use the bulk of the money for other purposes. In this case, the union raised $344,000 from Salem residents and businesses, but spent nearly two-thirds of that — $215,000 — on professional fundraisers, a firm called All Pro Productions and its subcontractors.

So, if you donated $25, thinking it would be passed on to the Little League or the Girl Scouts, you were badly mistaken. Only about $8 of your donation was ever intended for charity. And even a lot of that, the commission reported, went to things like hospitality rooms, food, alcohol, holiday parties and retirement functions.

Indeed, the commission noted that the fund was not set up because firefighters wanted to help local charitable groups; it was merely a public relations tool, intended to burnish the firefighters’ image at a time when they were in a contract fight with the mayor.

Not all fundraising by public unions is as seamy as this one was, but it is undoubtedly misleading and certainly wasteful. In 2010, for example, Ipswich firefighters solicited $42,000 from local residents and businesses, and gave most of it — all but $12,000 — to the fundraising firm.

It would be far better for charities if residents wrote their checks directly to the groups they want to support, rather than funneling money through a firefighter or police union, so it could be donated — if donated at all — in the union’s name. At least they’d know that 100 percent of what they donated would go to charities, not to professional fundraising firms or to free drinks for firefighters in a hospitality tent.

Seriously, who would have donated a dime if Salem firefighters had been honest about what they were doing with the money they pleaded for?

Some departments have banned such fundraising as unseemly, and it is high time that other departments followed suit. If public safety unions genuinely want to donate money to charities, they can donate their own money.

Residents and businesses have great respect for the firefighters and police officers who risk their own safety to protect others. We are grateful for their courage, dedication and compassion — and that is why, when asked, we donate to their campaigns. But we do so believing that the money raised will go to a good cause — not to line the pockets of a fundraising firm or pay for a social event for union members.

The Salem union violated that trust, wasting money that the public donated in good faith. In the long run, their campaign did far more damage than good.