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Dallas police sergeant collected millions for fallen officers; A fraction went to the families

By NAOMI MARTIN AND ARIANA GIORGI | The Dallas Morning News | Published: August 18, 2018

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — After five police officers were gunned down in Dallas on July 7, 2016, tens of thousands from around the world reached out to help the widows and children of the slain men.

Money flooded into City Hall. Officials struggled to organize and distribute it, so they turned to the Assist the Officer Foundation, a long established charity run by the Dallas Police Association, to handle the cash and checks.

But in the years since the killings, millions ended up at two other charities – the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation and the Texas Fallen Officer Foundation – run by a charismatic but largely unknown police sergeant named Demetrick Pennie.

Most of that money never made it to fallen officers' families, a Dallas Morning News investigation has found. Instead the bulk of it went to three telemarketing companies, one of which is owned by Pennie's friend. Tens of thousands of dollars went straight into Pennie's pocket.

Officers' families received only 22 percent of the total $3.2 million donated to Pennie's two charities in 2016 and 2017, according to the groups' most recent IRS filings.

Pennie's expenditures run counter to best practices established by the Better Business Bureau that recommend charities spend no more than $35 of every $100 from donors on fundraising costs such as telemarketers.

Last year, for every $100 donated to Pennie's Texas Fallen Officer Foundation, just $5 went to families, while $74 went to telemarketers, $15 to cash reserves and $6 to travel, meals and expenses for Pennie and his team.

The figures for the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation were slightly better. For every $100 donated last year, $10 went to fallen officers' families, while $48 went to telemarketers, $25 to cash reserves and $17 to travel, salaries and other expenses.

The bureau says at least 65 percent of a nonprofit's spending should go toward fulfilling its core mission. Last year, the Texas Fallen Officer Foundation and the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation allocated just 6 percent and 13 percent of their spending, respectively, toward helping families.

That's far out of line with other big-city police charities that share the same mission, a News analysis of IRS filings shows.

Meanwhile, the charity work is benefiting Pennie.

Last year, Pennie was paid $43,300 from funds donated to the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation, IRS records show. That's in addition to his $89,400 police salary. The foundation also paid $37,900 to its vice president, Sonia Godinez. The charity spent $12,600 on travel, although records do not state who traveled where.

In interviews, Pennie defended his salary, saying it allows him to dedicate more than 20 hours per week to his charity work. He also defended his spending on fundraising, saying his nonprofits are only a few years old, so telemarketing is a cost-effective way to bring in money that otherwise wouldn't be raised. He said the telemarketing companies bear all the cost of the work, and his charities are guaranteed 20 percent of total donations. And, Pennie said, if donors ask, the telemarketers are required to tell them how much will go to the charity.

"We need a constant revenue stream coming in," Pennie said. "Doing the barbecues and stuff like that wasn't working. Having the fundraisers doing the phone soliciting – that works best for what we need."

Pennie pointed to the impact that he's had – not just cutting checks, but holding events for families who have lost officers, like taking them to watch movies, going to Medieval Times and throwing a Christmas party.

Experts in nonprofit management agreed that young organizations may have to rely on telemarketing in the beginning to raise money. But two experts who reviewed IRS filings from Pennie's charities said they were troubled by how little the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation and the Texas Fallen Officer Foundation spent toward their mission of putting money into the hands of police families.

"This is crazy," said Erica Harris, a Villanova University professor who studies nonprofit accounting. "They're spending all this money to call up people to try and get more money and then they barely use any of the money to do what they say they're going to do."

While telemarketers can raise lots of money, experts say they can be an inefficient use of cash and unfair to donors who are unaware that most of their money is actually going back to the telemarketing companies.

"That is a violation of the charitable ethos," said Doug White, a philanthropy adviser and former head of Columbia University's fundraising management program.

From food stamps to Fox News

A father of four, Pennie, 40, has a thoughtful face. He wears black-rimmed glasses and his brow can furrow with concern when he talks. He became a Dallas cop in 1999 after serving in the Army. The military was his escape from a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in north Houston where he was raised by his grandmother on welfare and food stamps.

The main mark against his service as an officer came just a few years into his career. He went home to visit family and accidentally shot himself in the leg while inspecting a pistol that a friend bought on the street and believed to be malfunctioning, Pennie said. Pennie made a full recovery and now supervises the police evidence room.

Pennie's otherwise unremarkable police career is highlighted, though, by a recent foray into political activism. In 2016, he filed a high-profile lawsuit against former President Barack Obama and the social movement Black Lives Matter, claiming they incited violence against police officers.

That raised Pennie's profile, particularly in conservative political circles. He has been interviewed by commentator Tomi Lahren, NRA TV, Fox News and Breitbart. He told a Republican Party gathering in Plano in June that the public assistance his grandmother relied on actually served "to keep us in the hole we were in."

The activism drew attention from fellow cops, many of whom frown on officers seeking media coverage for themselves.

But through his charities, Pennie has developed a public profile as an advocate for officers.

The Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation did not begin with Pennie. It was started in 2009 by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. But it fell into disarray and lost its tax-exempt status after officials didn't file the necessary paperwork, Pennie said.

Pennie took it over in 2015, the same year he founded the Texas Fallen Officer Foundation.

That was the year Pennie reached out to Marcus "Mark" Fredde, the owner of telemarketing firm Statewide Appeal. Pennie asked if Fredde would have his telemarketers raise money for both of Pennie's charities.

Bringing Fredde's company in saw serious money flow into the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation for the first time in years. In 2015, donors gave the foundation $75,632. But the increased money coming in from donors wasn't a windfall for the families of fallen officers. About 72 percent of donations went to telemarketing expenses, records show. After internal expenses, just $9,135 was distributed to families.

Then came July 7, 2016. Five officers were killed and nine more were wounded in a gunman's ambush during a march downtown against police brutality.

From every corner of the world, donations came to Dallas. Tens of thousands of envelopes, many containing checks, arrived at police headquarters and City Hall. Dozens of boxes overflowed. City officials signed a contract with Assist the Officer to collect and distribute all the donations.

IRS filings show that Assist the Officer received about $12 million in donations that year. Each family of the five officers who died was allocated a significant portion of that money.

A handful of the thousands of checks that came to Dallas and that were handed over to Assist the Officer were actually written to Pennie's Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation, according to court records.

Pennie wouldn't learn about those checks until January, when a lawyer for Assist the Officer delivered him about three dozen checks worth a total of $12,000.

Based in large part on that, Pennie filed a lawsuit in July accusing Assist the Officer of a criminal conspiracy to steal money intended for his nonprofit. In court records, Pennie alleged that Assist the  Officer chairman Frederick Frazier wanted to hurt Pennie's charity because he believed "the ATO should have a monopoly over charitable fundraising for fallen officers."

"You're not supposed to put anyone else's money in your bank account," Pennie said. "That's criminal."

In a statement, Assist the Officer officials called Pennie's assertions "untrue and unsubstantiated." They said they "immediately" contacted the Fallen Officer Foundation and returned the money when they learned of the mistake. The attorney for Pennie's charity even thanked them.

In 2016, the year of the July 7 shootings, the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation received far more donations than it ever had. By year's end, donors had given nearly $1.4 million. Pennie distributed $570,800 to 86 recipients. IRS records were unclear on exactly who the recipients were. But Pennie said he delivered $50,000 to each of the five families who lost an officer on July 7 and $25,000 to each wounded officer's family.

The following year, the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation would bring in another substantial haul, $800,000. Of that, just $82,000 was distributed as charity. It went to 35 recipients, records show.

By this time, Pennie's way of doing business was sparking controversy in police circles.

'Money, fame and attention'

After July 7, Pennie handed out checks according to a system he and his board devised. If the slain officer left a widow, she received the money. If the officer was single, Pennie gave it to a parent.

In the case of Patrick Zamarripa, a 32-year-old officer killed on July 7, the situation was more complicated. Zamarripa had been with his girlfriend, Kristy Hoover, for five years. They had a 2-year-old daughter and cared for Kristy's son from a prior marriage, Hoover said. But they weren't legally married.

Zamarripa's parents, meanwhile, were divorced. Pennie said he learned that Zamarripa's father, Enrique "Rick" Zamarripa, was the officer's emergency contact. Zamarripa's mother was not, Pennie said.

Pennie planned to give all of the $50,000 to Rick Zamarripa, he said. But Rick insisted that Pennie give half of it to Hoover to take care of Patrick's daughter. Rick Zamarripa promised he would use his half of the donated money to take care of his granddaughter.

That didn't sit well with Hoover. She felt all the money should go to her for care of her child. And Pennie struck her as unresponsive to her needs, unlike the phone calls checking on her and the kids she received from the Dallas Police Association and its Assist the Officer charity, she said. Pennie said he called to check on Hoover and invited her to multiple events.

"Honestly, I think they're just after money, fame and attention," Hoover said of Pennie and Rick Zamarripa.

Pennie's payment to Rick Zamarripa started a friendship between the two that has helped Pennie promote his charities.

The two also became co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Obama, Black Lives Matter and a host of others they blamed for inciting violence against officers and a "race war" in America, including Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, activist Al Sharpton, left-wing super donor George Soros and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The lawsuit endeared Pennie to conservative media.

Pennie had previously garnered headlines for his response to then-Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell, who posted on Instagram a drawing of a hooded man slitting a police officer's throat. Crowell accepted Pennie's invitation to Dallas to meet officers. That fall, he donated his first game paycheck – worth about $35,000 – to one of Pennie's foundations.

Meanwhile, Pennie and Rick Zamarripa developed a routine of speaking together at events for fallen officers.

In June 2017, Rick Zamarripa posted a picture of a silver bracelet in a Jared jewelry box saying it was a gift presented to him by the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation. Pennie said he presented other families with similar gifts.

In June of this year, Pennie and Rick Zamarripa made a pitch before Dallas County leaders for approval of a $500,000 bronze statue of a police officer hugging a woman and child. The Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation is raising money to build the statue and place it downtown. During the meeting, County Judge Clay Jenkins asked his staff to add a link directing people to donate to the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation on his page on the county's official website. The link is there today.

After Zamarripa's mother and girlfriend found out about the statue, they were incensed that they had not been told about it.

Patrick's mother, Valerie Zamarripa, wrote on the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation Facebook page: "Sgt. Pennie is not a man of his word. He has done nothing except kiss Rick Zamarripa's butt to get rich and famous off of my son's death. ... he promised to keep us informed, but never has. ... This is my son too!"

"Where is all the money ur foundation collected?" she asked. "What did you do with it??"

Patrick Zamarripa's girlfriend also wondered why Pennie provided nothing to Patrick's mother.

"Why is Pennie not making sure his mom is taken care of as well as his father?" Hoover asked.

Rick Zamarripa said his focus was his granddaughter. He was upset that Assist the Officer did not immediately release the money to the family. Those funds, totaling more than $1 million, have been held pending a court case pitting Rick Zamarripa against Hoover to determine who should receive the money.

"I'm not trying to do nothing wrong," Rick Zamarripa said. "I just want to make sure everybody gets their fair share out of all that money that came in, especially my granddaughter."

Growing closer to telemarketing companies

Soon after he took over the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation in 2015, Pennie decided to hire telemarketing companies to help him grow his donor base. He reached out to Statewide Appeal, a telemarketing company with an office in Denton, after hearing the firm did well raising money for other law enforcement groups.

The telemarketing worked. Statewide Appeal and two other telemarketing companies – With Community Services and Southwest Public Relations – brought in a total of $970,732 and $484,555 last year to Texas Fallen Officer and Dallas Fallen Officer, respectively, IRS records show. The foundations kept about 20 percent of the money from donors, and a smaller percentage still actually went to cops' families, records show. The telemarketers With Community Services and Southwest Public Relations didn't return calls seeking comment.

"That's a pretty poor return on the effort," said White, the philanthropy adviser. "If people knew that, they'd probably be less likely to give."

During this time, Pennie said he became friends with Fredde, the owner of Statewide Appeal. In an email, Fredde said he had donated thousands of dollars to Pennie's foundations after seeing his passion and ethics.

Fredde said his callers are up front with potential donors about being a "paid fundraiser calling on behalf of" the charity. If the donor asks how much will go to programs, he said, the caller must explain that 20 percent of gross funds collected will go to the foundation. The rest will be used by Statewide Appeal "to cover all fundraising expenses such as payroll, postage and printing, telephone bills and office rents," Fredde said.

"The profit for my company ends up being substantially less than the guaranteed 20 percent that Dallas and Texas FOF both receive," Fredde said. He said that he takes on all the risk on behalf of the charity. "If a donor were to be given all the information about how the breakdown works, I do not feel they would think this form of fundraising to be misleading."

Pennie said that he anticipates not having to rely on telemarketers to the same extent in the future because the organization will grow. He said the telemarketers he uses send him the contact information of each donor they connect with, allowing him to build a donor list to cultivate.

In 2016 and 2017, Pennie's foundations paid 41 percent of all donations to telemarketing companies – double the amount donated to officers' families.

Pennie described Fredde as a friend, and said he is among the best in the fundraising business. In April, Fredde posted photos of himself and Pennie attending a police memorial march in New Jersey. Fredde said he paid for his own trip.

Both Pennie and Fredde said that Pennie does not receive any personal benefit in exchange for paying $772,540 to Fredde's business over two years.

But it's clear that Pennie has received some benefits from the relationship. In September 2016, Fredde created a GoFundMe page titled "Support Sgt. Pennie," seeking donations for Pennie to deal with security, travel, medical and legal costs associated with suing "some of the most powerful people in the nation" and taking on "increased threats on his life." About 66 people gave a total of $2,400.

Last year, Fredde organized an online raffle of a custom-made AR-15 rifle with the Dallas skyline on it to benefit both of Pennie's foundations.

And Pennie's personal company, Sergeant Pennie LLC, is registered with the state at the same address as Fredde's Statewide Appeal.

The death of a Little Elm officer

On Jan. 17, 2017, Detective Jerry Walker, 48, was shot in the neck during a standoff in Little Elm, a small suburb west of Frisco.

That night, officers gathered at Medical City Denton as Walker drew his final breaths. Among them was Pennie. He happened to be in the area, he said, and wanted to help so he brought eight cases of water and four jugs of Starbucks coffee.

But his presence was not welcomed by all. Some Little Elm officers grew upset that Pennie was walking around introducing himself, handing out business cards and talking about his foundation, said Little Elm police Capt. Brad Wilcox, who was there.

"He was trying to be the big shot, like, 'Here I am, I'm here to help you, I'm the man that knows everything,'" Wilcox said. "I was very upset. That's not the time or the place to push a personal agenda."

Walker had three children with his ex-wife, Wendy Bradford. At the time of his death, he was living with his girlfriend, Hali Inman, and they had recently had a baby.

Pennie quickly became close with Walker's ex-wife and encouraged her to advocate for money he said was rightfully hers and her kids, Bradford said. He helped her coordinate the burial, she said.

Bradford was angry at Little Elm Police Chief Rodney Harrison because the department had failed to properly notify her of the shooting, she said. She found out about it at work from a friend who'd seen it on social media.

Donations poured in to help the family. The Little Elm Police Department decided to use Assist the Officer to manage the money coming in because of ATO's size and reputation, Harrison said.

Because of family complications, the money was not immediately distributed to family members. It is instead being held in a trust pending the outcome of a court case.

In the meantime, Pennie and Walker's ex-wife have criticized Chief Harrison on Facebook. Pennie's online posts angered Little Elm officers still grieving their loss.

"It's crap for him to be badmouthing our chief and not knowing a dang thing what that man [Harrison] has done in the background to try to help that family," said Sgt. Stoney Ward, president of the Little Elm Police Officers Association.

Pennie also planned a fundraiser event to benefit Walker's family outside a Best Buy in Frisco. A flier circulated online showed Walker's face and advertised T-shirts to be sold to benefit Walker's family.

Someone sent the flier to Harrison. The chief was shocked to see the Little Elm police patch logo on it, as if the department was sponsoring the event. That upset the chief and his officers, since they hadn't been told about the event and weren't sure where the money was going, Harrison said.

"They were never given permission to utilize our logo," Harrison said.

The event raised a couple thousand dollars, which Walker's ex-wife received, along with a few more grand from another event Pennie held, she said. That was all the money she ever got from Pennie's charity, she said.

But he did provide her with other help, she said. He suggested she hire an attorney. He went to court with her. And he has invited her and her children to his foundation's events. Pennie said if it weren't for him, Bradford wouldn't have known she was entitled to a federal benefit for families of officers who die in the line of duty.

"He was there to help me when I needed it," Bradford said.

Inman, Walker's girlfriend, said Pennie never offered her or her 6-month-old son any funds or help.

The Home Depot shootings

In April, Dallas police Officer Crystal Almeida, 26, and her partner Officer Rogelio Santander, 27, were both shot while arresting a suspected shoplifter at a Home Depot. Almeida was severely wounded. Santander died.

Within days, Pennie worked to arrange a fundraiser centered around selling Navy blue T-shirts featuring Santander's name, the Dallas skyline, Texas' shape and #KeepPrayingForDallas.

They were sold for $30 apiece. A few officers and their spouses posted on Facebook questioning how much money would actually be going to Santander's family.

"I do not think Fallen Officer donates a significant % of funds raised," wrote Colleen Smith, a Dallas officer's wife. "So here is a chance to set things straight... How much did Fallen Officer Foundation donate to families after July 7?"

"Shut up!" Pennie replied. A minute later, he added: "Ask my families."

Pennie continues to raise funds. In May, he started a third charity, the National Fallen Officer Foundation.

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