Houston Union Agrees to Return Charity Funds never Given to Toys for Tots

A Houston-area deputies union has agreed to hand over funds it raised, ostensibly for the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Fndtn., but which union officials pocketed.

The settlement of the deceptive trade lawsuit filed last year by County Attny. Mike Stafford and Attny. Gen. and senator-elect John Cornyn was agreed to by State District Judge Bruce Oakley on Nov. 8. The Harris County Deputies’ Organization admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to pay $60,756 to Toys for Tots, and $63,500 in civil penalties and attny. fees. Union fund-raiser Ron Kowalsky was ordered to pay $100,000, including $70,000 to Toys for Tots. Telemarketer John Merritt will have to pay $50,500, with $20,000 going to the charity. In total, the union, Kowalsky and Merritt will have to pay $274,756, with $150,756 going to Toys for Tots

From 1998 until Dec. 2000, the union used telemarketers who told donors that they were collecting on behalf of Toys for Tots. But acc. to Asst. County Attny. Roberta Lloyd, union officials never informed the Marine Corps of their fund-raising. Only after the investigation started did the deputies union donate a mere $1,700 in bicycles to Toys for Tots.

Ed Christensen, president of the union, claimed that Kowalsky and Merritt used Toys for Tots without the knowledge of himself or anyone else in the union hierarchy. But evidence in the civil suit includes “thank you” letters to donors that Christensen himself signed in 1998, ‘99, and 2000. When shown these letters, Christensen claimed to have never seen them, and that if he had signed them, it was on the advice of an attny. Harris County D.A. Chuck Rosenthal is considering criminal action in the matter. [Houston Chronicle 11/9/02]