On Oct. 24 of this year, Larry Spann of Montgomery, Alabama, got a strange piece of mail.
The letter, typed in old-timey Courier New font, was from the Citizens United Political Victory Fund and signed by its vice president for governmental affairs, J.T. Mastranadi. It opened warmly.
“Dear Mr. Spann,” it said, “Thank you so much for speaking with my assistant, Betty Johnson on the phone a few weeks ago. As you recall your conversation, you were gracious enough make a $20.00 commitment to Citizens United Political Victory Fund…You asked Betty to send you a letter to confirm your conversation, and include a postage paid envelope for you to mail in your generous pledge. Betty went ahead and did as you requested.”
“Maybe our letters have crossed in the mail,” the letter added, “but as of yesterday morning we have not received your $20.00 pledge.”
Just one hiccup: Spann says he has never talked to anyone from Citizens United, ever—much the less promised to give them twenty bucks.
“I thought it was a lot of crap,” he told The Daily Beast in his thick Alabama drawl.
Spann’s letter, which his son Andrew sent to The Daily Beast, is another example of Citizens United fundraising practices that may raise ethical questions.
Reached for comment, Mastranadi defended the mailer and said Spann had, in fact, promised to give the group twenty dollars. As evidence of that, he emailed The Daily Beast a heavily redacted PDF that looks like a call log from InfoCision, a telemarketing company based in Ohio which contracts with Mastranadi’s group to make fundraising calls on its behalf. That PDF said that an InfoCision “communicator” named Betty Johnson called Spann on September 15 at 3:14 p.m., and that he pledged to give the group twenty dollars.
“The gentleman you spoke to is thoroughly mistaken in his recollection,” Mastranadi told The Daily Beast. “The letter he was sent is a polite follow-up to his recent $20 pledge.”
Spann said that’s nonsense. And, to make the case, he provided The Daily Beast with his phone records for the month of September 2016. They indicate that he didn’t answer any phone calls on September 15.
The Daily Beast informed Mastranadi of this via email, and he didn’t respond. Representatives for InfoCision, which apparently provided the document to Mastranadi, didn’t return multiple requests for comment.
Spann told The Daily Beast that he thinks the Citizens United Political Victory Fund is trying to prey on elderly people by telling them they made promises that they didn’t actually make——a charge Mastranadi denies.
“I just wish they’d quit picking on retired folks,” he said.
He said that elderly people suffering from memory loss would likely be confused by letters like the one he got.
“They don’t know and think, ‘Well maybe I did talk to them and I’ll write a check and send it,’” Spann said. “That’s what I really don’t like, that’s why I say they need to cut the junk or fire folks. Anyone over 65 ought to be immune from this junk because you got Alzheimer’s and dementia, you’ve got people with mental issues, and they’re picking on them.”
Spann isn’t the only person who feels that way.
Last month, Jennifer Bell, who writes the blog Drowning in Junk Mail, told The Daily Beast that an elderly relative of hers——now deceased——had an experience similar to Spann’s. Her relative received a letter from Citizens United claiming that she had mailed them a $50 check but it that got lost in the mail.
“If you can see it in your heart to re-send your $50 in the included postage-provided envelope it would be a blessing to us,” that letter concluded.
Bell said her relative, who was then suffering from dementia, had been hospitalized for months when that letter came in the mail and that she never sent Citizens United that $50 check.
InfoCision, which Mastranadi says elicited a $20 pledge from Spann, has previously faced scorching criticism for unethical fundraising strategies. In 2012, it paid the Ohio Attorney General’s office $75,000 as part of a settlement. A press release about the settlement from the Attorney General said the company may have broken the state’s law regarding charitable solicitations, including by “making misleading statements.” InfoCision denied that it had broken any laws but submitted to two years of tighter scrutiny from the state.
That same year, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, InfoCision settled out-of-court with a group of former employees alleging it failed to pay them the minimum wage and overtime compensation.
Stephanie Ocken, a former InfoCision employee, told the paper that callers working there sometimes harassed elderly people.
“The thing that upset me the most [was that we] hammered these people [over the phone],” she said.
“Some of these people are so old, and [we] would hassle them and hassle them and hassle them,” she added.
InfoCision telemarketers also have a history of misleading the people they call. In an eye-popping 2012 report, Bloomberg found that some charities which hired InfoCision allowed their callers to tell the people they called that upwards of 70 percent of the money they contributed would go to charity. The truth, however, was that InfoCision kept upwards of 80 percent of what people gave; in many cases, the lion’s share of their donations went to a for-profit telemarketing company.
That has been the case with Citizens United, too. Bloomberg’s report found that from 2009 to 2011, InfoCision callers raised $14.7 million for the group——and kept $12.4 million of it.
Citizens United isn’t the only right-of-center entity to work with InfoCision. Ben Carson’s presidential campaign paid the group $2.4 million in the final three months of 2015, according to FEC filings, and more than $5 million total over the course of his campaign. It also got paid millions by American Solutions for Winning the Future, a now-defunct, tax-exempt political group helmed by Newt Gingrich.
So InfoCision might irritate senior citizens. But for right-wing groups looking to make an easy buck——well, InfoCision is music to their ears.