By Lynn Arditi
Published September 20, 2009
PROVIDENCE – Raising money for charity can be tough, but Rhode Island police organizations have found one business that’s always willing to contribute.
Asian massage parlors or ” spas” in Providence which police and local watch-dog groups maintain are often fronts for brothels, have for years donated to police association charities –– and conspicuously displayed their support by plastering stickers with police logos on their doors and windows.
They spread like wallpaper over the front door of a spa near a bus stop on North Main Street, in plain view of the waiting riders. At another spa on Admiral Street, police stickers decorate the plexiglass receptionist window, along with logos noting that the spa accepts all major credit cards.
Some resemble police badges with the name of a police union –– Providence, Cranston, Warwick and Barrington among them –– while others sport the five-pointed star trademark with the letters “FOP.”
They read: “We Support the Providence Lodge #3″ and “We Support Cranston Police Union IBPO Lodge 301″ and “R.I. Troopers Always There When You Need Them.”
“Every day they call,” said a middle-aged Korean woman who answered the door in late July at Lily Spa, on Admiral Street, at a busy intersection across from a CVS drugstore. “Even this morning, they call me.”
Representatives of the police organizations expressed surprise and dismay about the stickers and vowed to make sure that fundraisers for their organizations avoid contacting these spas in the future. The president of the Rhode Island Troopers Association went further, and ordered that the most recent $100 donation from a spa immediately be refunded.
In recent years, Rhode Island spas advertising erotic services in alternative weeklies and online sex guides have multiplied. “Hot Asian Girls!” reads one of the 21 ads for spas in Rhode Island, including 14 in Providence, that filled two pages of the “adult services” section in last week’s issue of The Providence Phoenix.
During the first half of the decade, the police regularly raided the Asian-run spas that had begun to pop up in downtown Providence, some just blocks from City Hall.
From 2000 through 2006, the police launched a series of sting operations in which undercover detectives posed as customers and reported being solicited for sex. Police said these spas were linked to human-trafficking in which women, often illegal Asian immigrants, were being held in what they described as slave-like conditions.
But Rhode Island has no law against prostitution that occurs indoors, and the prostitution charges were routinely dismissed in court. The police tried going after the spas for offering “massages” without a license, but then the spas began to apply for massage licenses or to recast their services as “body rubs” or “body relaxation.”
A documentary about Rhode Island’s spas, entitled Happy Endings?, presents the Korean women in the spas not as slaves but sex workers whose main fear is being arrested.
“I got the feeling they just gave [ to police organizations] because they were asked,” said the filmmaker, Tara Hurley, who interviewed women at three city spas. “They didn’t want to turn down police because they’re police.”
SOLICITATIONS FROM POLICE organizations have become so commonplace that some spas for years have saved the receipts because the contributions are tax deductible, according to Robert L. Helgran, who testified at a Senate hearing last June against legislation to criminalize indoor prostitution. Helgran, 52, says he subleases a converted factory on Derry Street to a company which owns Central Health spa.
Helgran moved to Rhode Island 17 years ago, after spending just over a year in a Florida prison during the late 1980s on felony convictions for grand theft and burglary. He later married a Korean woman who managed Central Health. The Providence police arrested his wife during a raid in late 2005, but the case against her was later dismissed, said Helgran’s lawyer, Michael J. Kiselica.
Helgran, whose wife died in 2007, says that Asian spas make easy targets for telemarketers because the women who work there have limited English skills and fear the police.
“A lot of times when they call they say ‘state police’ or ‘Providence police,’” he said, “and the girls will get nervous.”
Kwang Olson, a 53-year-old receptionist who was answering phones at Central Health last July, said she’d often get calls for donations.
“It’s (the) local police station,” she remembers the callers would say. “We always need the donation …”
Olson said she’d arrange for the caller to pick up a check, usually for $100. She wasn’t sure whether or not the man who picked up the check was a police officer, she said, since he didn’t wear a uniform.
The Fraternal Order of Police is the world’s largest law-enforcement organization, with more than 325,000 members nationwide, according to the national organization’s Web site. The national FOP serves as the umbrella for more than 2,100 lodges around the country. These tax-exempt organizations raise tens of thousands of dollars each year for charities, including youth sports, food banks and hurricane-relief efforts.
FOP lodge officials in several communities said they had no idea that the companies they’d hired to raise money for their annual campaigns were soliciting from the spas.
“I’m not sure it would be appropriate for us to be taking solicitations from these spas,” said Kenneth M. Cohen, president of Providence FOP Lodge 3. The Providence lodge, he said, hasn’t done a fundraiser in two years.
“If we were still doing it,” said Cohen, a retired police officer, “I would tell them to stop.”
In Warwick, Patrolman Alfred A. Melucci, Jr., treasurer of the Warwick Police FOP Lodge 7, said he, too, didn’t realize his lodge had received contributions from the spas until a reporter told him about the stickers and a receipt from the lodge for a $150 donation from Downtown Spa in 2006
“Those are not the kind of organizations,” Melucci said, “that we would like doing business with.”
Warwick police raided a spa on Post Road last April after an undercover detective who went there for a massage was offered sexual services for an additional $60 to $140. Although Rhode Island has no law against indoor prostitution, the police were able to obtain a warrant under the state law against pandering, which generally makes it illegal to operate a house of prostitution, or receive the proceeds from prostitution, both felonies. But prosecutors in Rhode Island have been unsuccessful in enforcing the pandering laws.
Police questioned three Korean women at the spa and concluded there was no evidence that they were victims of human trafficking and made no arrests. The spa has since closed.
Police associations often hire professional fundraisers to collect their charitable donations. FOP officials in Warwick and Providence say that for years they used Focus Marketing, of Johnston. Focus received 60 percent of the money raised; the other 40 percent went to the FOP, Melucci said.
In December 2008, after several police departments received complaints about Focus Marketing’s solicitations, investigators from the state Department of Business Regulation, accompanied by Johnston police, seized the company’s records and equipment.
State regulators found that the company’s fundraisers were collecting donations without the permission of some charities. In some cases, the charities were not registered with the state. The department issued an emergency order, on Dec. 22, 2008, suspending the company’s fundraising license. The company has since shut down.
“COME TREAT YOUR BODY…” reads an ad for Lily Spa in the most recent 2008 issue of Cranston Police Union’s Public Safety Guide, a booklet of safety tips thick with ads from a variety of businesses. Stripped across the bottom of a back page, next to ads for a lawyer, a home improvement company and a taxi service, Lily Spa advertises “Dry Sauna””Body Shampoo” and “Oriental-Style Body Rub.”
The union’s president, Cranston Police Detective Sgt. Stephen Antonucci, said he didn’t see the ad until a reporter called.
“Something like that,” he said, “would probably cause me to raise a red flag.”
The union, Lodge 301 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, contracts with TCI America, based in Seekonk, to do its fundraising, he said. “We get checks,” Antonucci said, “but it’s kind of more a hands-off approach.”
Barrington’s police union also hires TCI America to do its fundraising, said the union’s president, Sgt. Kevin Igoe. “We do a fundraising booklet for ads,” he said. “I’ve never seen the booklet.”
TCI America (also known as Telco Communications Inc.) is a “national leader in police and fire fighter fundraising for over thirty years,” according to its Web site. The company employs 35 people and had sales in 2008 of $2.9 million, according to the online business directory Hoovers.org.
On its Web site, TCI provides a checklist which organizations should review prior to a fundraising drive, including informing the account executive and sales manager of any “unique situations.” For example, it reads, “Should certain businesses not be called?”
The executive who handles the TCI America account for the Cranston police union did not return several phone and e-mail messages requesting an interview for this story.
Spa ads also have turned up in “The Rhode Island Trooper,” the official publication of the nonprofit Rhode Island Troopers Association, a membership organization of state troopers “dedicated to the improvement of the law enforcement profession …” The magazine’s spring/summer 2009 edition features articles on topics such as state police promotions, construction of a new state police headquarters and investigating fraud. The back of the magazine contains a directory filled with ads for area businesses. Under “pools & spas” is a thumbprint-sized listing for “Lily’s Spa.”
“I’m embarrassed that it’s in there,” said State Police Trooper John M. Allen, president of the R.I. Troopers Association.
In the 2007 issue, three ads for Asian spas in Providence showed up in the Trooper magazine.
“We thought we addressed the problem,” Allen said. “Obviously we still have an issue…”
He declined to identify the company that does its fundraising. “They’re a reputable company,” he said. “This is my fault, it’s not the company’s fault.”
Allen said earlier this month that he’d instructed a trooper to drop off a $100 check at Lily Spa to reimburse the business for the listing.
ON THE SECOND FLOOR of a well-kept office building on South Main Street, in Providence, a Korean woman relaxed on a couch in a lounge at Downtown Spa. She reached into a box of papers one afternoon and pulled out a fundraising letter from the Providence Police Association. It reads:
During the month of September the Providence Police Association sent you a letter regarding our annual police drive for 2007. This is a major source of funds for the death and sickness benefits that are paid to our association members and their families…We will be greatful [sic] if you could continue your generous donation this year…
In the letter’s upper left hand corner is a photograph of a uniformed police sergeant.
“I don’t know how my letter got there,” said John E. Egan Sr., a retired Providence police sergeant. “I would never go to a place like that. Never, never, never.”
Egan, the association’s 76-year-old president emeritus, says he stopped raising money for the association after he retired from the force in 1993. Before that, he said, he’d go door- to-door to merchants in downtown Providence selling tickets to the policemen’s ball and handing out letters requesting donations. The association was allowed to solicit only in person, he said, never on the phone.
“I’d give them a letter and a ticket ( to the ball) if they wanted to buy it,” Egan said. “Half the time they’d buy a ticket and not even go.’
The Warwick FOP Lodge 7 stopped doing any fundraising after the economy tanked.
“You shouldn’t be raising money,” said the Warwick lodge’s president, Sgt. Peter G. Johnston, “with people losing their jobs.”
And if they start up again, he said, the lodge would not accept any money from the spas.
“We’re police officers,” he said. “I don’t think I need to explain much more than that.”
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