The Hummel Report

Investigative Reports That Get Results

A Rhode Island 501c3 Non-Profit

License to Collect

A retired police lieutenant tried unsuccessfully for five months to get a refund for a special law enforcement charity license plate that never materialized because the nonprofit pushing for it could not sign up the minimum 900 vehicle owners.  This week: Jim Hummel explores why the nonprofit organization - and not the Division of Motor Vehicles - holds thousands of dollars in deposit money from motorists who want to purchase the special plates.

SCRIPT:

The Rhode Island Law Enforcement Memorial Benefit Fund license plate is one of more than a dozen special charity plates authorized by the General Assembly over the past 15 years, aimed at raising money and awareness for various non-profit organizations.

Silva: ``They took care of me for 25 years now it was my turn to pay some back.’’

Richard Silva retired as a lieutenant from the East Providence Police Department in 1992. The law enforcement charity aspect of the plate is what caught his attention in the spring of 2016.

Silva: ``The fact it was something to do with law enforcement, it was a memorial fund. I didn’t know exactly what they were going to do, but at least I thought I should support it.’’

According to its website the organization’s mission is ``to honor fallen law enforcement in the state of Rhode Island, through awareness and education, thereby making it safer for those who serve.’’

So Silva sent a check for $41.50 in the May of 2016 to the Division of Motor Vehicles - $20 of which would go to the fund - then waited for nearly a year after his check was cashed without hearing anything. As it turns out the law authorizing the plates requires that a charity organization has to have 900 people sign up and pay. The money, though, is not held by the state, but the charity organization.

Silva: ``I never heard from them, and I thought well I know they needed 900 plates, I thought well maybe it’s going to take awhile to get it, didn’t give it much thought, but as time went by, which was about a year later, I said, `Gee I haven’t heard from anybody about it.’”

Silva brushed off his detective’s hat and began asking questions and sending letters to both the DMV and the organization. The head of the law enforcement memorial fund, James Rossi finally sent Silva a letter last fall, saying the organization had only been able to get 200 people to sign up and was suspending its efforts.

Silva: ``With the letter was a form that I could fill out and send back to him whether I wanted to make a donation to the organization or get my money back. And I said, it’s taken a year and a half, there’s something not right so I want my money back.’’

Silva filled out the form in September - with no response and no refund. So he sent a registered letter that the organization signed for in November. At the end he threatened to quote: ``file a complaint with the appropriate authorities.’’

Three more months went by and no check.

Silva: ``I said: You know what? I’m sick of being stalled and all this stuff. I mean, I paid the money when I wanted it. And I want my money back, that’s the bottom line.’’

Craddock: ``What it comes down to is sometimes these organizations have grand ideas but they don’t have the marketing behind it to get out there.’’

DMV Administrator Walter Craddock said signing up 900 people takes effort and volunteer organizations, like the law enforcement memorial benefit fund, sometimes fall short. Craddock said that Silva, and many others, mistakenly believe the checks go to the registry instead of the non-profit organization.

Craddock: ``The money is sent to the charity, they collect it, they hold it. When they meet their 900 minimum then they turn it over to us and then we order the plates and begin the process. All of this is done mostly through the charities, they do all of the preliminary legwork. We just have an input on making sure the plates are there and making sure they’re turned over to the right people.’’

Silva wants to know why the state doesn’t hold the deposit money.

Silva: ``It’s something to consider but I have to very honest, the amount of work that goes into it, I don’t have the staff to be able to dedicate to doing projects like this on a regular basis.’’

The law enforcement memorial fund gave donors the option of a refund or letting the organization keep the money to help build a memorial in a yet-to-be-announced location.

Silva: ``My thing was I didn’t want to make a donation to that, to somebody who completely ignored me for six months. What are they going to do with the money? The $41.50 was not the idea, the $41.50  that I paid them, is he’s not giving it back to me. And it’s mine, it’s not his. He’s getting nothing for the $41.50. He did nothing for me.’’

Within a week of our contacting Rossi, the organization began returning checks and Silva received his late last week.

Rossi told us the non-profit is staffed with volunteers who receive no compensation and the intention behind the plates was a good one. Silva said he was most irritated because he and Rossi are both police officers.

Silva: ``That’s the last group of people that I would do that to. I wouldn’t do it to anybody, but I certainly wouldn’t do it to another policeman. I mean I thought we were all brothers, but apparently we’re not brothers because he just left me out in the cold.’’

Rossi says all of the refund checks should be going out this month.

Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.