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Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund: An Uneven Split

Aiding Former Hartford Officer


November 23, 2008

The appeal arrives on the personalized stationery of Mrs. Stephanie Lawlor, an emotional plea for contributions to a legal defense fund for her husband, former Hartford cop Robert Lawlor, who was indicted on "trumped-up charges" in the 2005 shooting death of 18-year-old Jashon Bryant.

The heartfelt note cites Lawlor's service in the Marines, his merit awards from the Justice Department and his close calls he was stabbed once and shot at twice on the mean streets of the city.

The entreaty, suggesting donations starting at $25, is capped with a color photograph of a beaming Robert Lawlor, surrounded by his wife and six smiling daughters "who may not see their dad again for the next 20 years!"

Lawlor's request has landed in mailboxes all over the country. And it is a fund drive that works.

The nonprofit behind the note, the Virginia-based Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, has already sent $45,000 to Lawlor and his attorney, with thousands more expected.

But to come up with all that cash, executives at the nonprofit are counting on Stephanie Lawlor's letter to generate vastly more money in donations to cover steep fundraising costs, hefty executive salaries and other administrative expenses.

Tens of thousands of Americans have contributed to the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund after reading letters like Stephanie Lawlor's. But while those donations total millions every year, the fund spends only pennies on the dollar directly assisting officers facing criminal charges, state and federal filings show.

Over the past five years, the charity collected more than $13 million, primarily through direct-mail pitches. But most of that money more than $9 million went right back to the professional fundraisers hired by the nonprofit legal defense fund.

Last year, for example, the group spent 81 cents on fundraising for every dollar collected, according to federal tax forms. After other expenses, the defense fund last year devoted only about 8 cents on the dollar to charitable grants, the tax forms show.

That grant money about $275,000 was less than the group's co-founders paid themselves in salary and benefits for the year. David H. Martin, a Washington lawyer who serves as chairman, collected $156,000, while Alfred Regnery, publisher of The American Spectator Magazine, received $81,000 for the part-time job of secretary-treasurer. In addition, the charity paid $54,000 into retirement accounts for Martin and Regnery.

In a telephone interview earlier this month, Martin said the charity is at the mercy of expensive mail solicitations. "It's hard to raise money through direct mail. Why? Because postage is so expensive," he said. "It's just a killer."

Martin said he believed the group's fundraising efficiency had consistently improved in recent years. But federal filings suggest just the opposite, showing the cost of raising money increasing each of the last five years, from about 60 cents in fundraising costs for every dollar raised in 2003, to 81 cents last year.

At the same time, administrative costs have soared, particularly for salaries and rent. For years, the legal defense fund was run out of Martin's law office. But the nonprofit now subleases space at Regnery's financially strapped American Spectator. The initial rent in 2003 was $9,000 a year, but the nonprofit agreed last year to increase its payments to $42,000 a year about a third of the total rent for the American Spectator's space. Martin said the rent covers a large amount of storage space and offices for himself and a clerk, and he said he thought the rent was fair.

And even as the charity devoted only a small fraction of its budget to grants, not all of the money doled out went to help accused officers. Instead, the charity's executives have sent a sizable and growing amount of cash to a small number of universities and conservative policy groups not mentioned in their fundraising pitches.

The charity's biggest beneficiary last year, for example, was not a police officer, but the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a national campus-based think tank that promotes "limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy, and moral norms."

The Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund sent $75,000 to the institute last year, part of at least $360,000 the defense fund has pledged. Regnery, secretary-treasurer of the defense fund, is chairman of the institute's board of trustees. The charity has also given tens of thousands of dollars to the Federalist Society, described by The American Conservative magazine as a "training ground for young conservative lawyers"; to the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University in Virginia, a leading center of conservative and libertarian legal studies; and to a project at McDaniel College Martin's alma mater.

Martin said the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund takes a long-term view of its goal of helping police officers, and that its founding documents permit it to spend donor money to "improve citizens' understanding of how tough it is to be a law enforcement officer, and to present the opposite view of many academics, who view almost any action a police officer engages in as police brutality."

Hartford attorney Michael Georgetti, who represents Lawlor, said the legal defense fund made the first contact, asking if Georgetti and Lawlor would be interested in having the group solicit donations.

"Of course we would," Georgetti said. "Bob Lawlor did not have and does not have the resources to defend a case like this. There are very few people who could afford to defend a case like this."

The legal defense fund has paid for ballistics and use-of-force consultants, and has helped with living expenses for Lawlor. Last year, when Georgetti had to interrupt a vacation in Italy and return to argue before the state Appellate Court, the legal defense fund sent $5,000 to cover his unexpected travel expenses.

We try to fund as much of the legal fees and the expert fees as we can," Martin said. "That's our goal. We don't always do it. But I would say in 95 percent of our cases, we cover all of the expenses."

But that is not likely to happen in the Lawlor case. Georgetti, who has asked the state Supreme Court to rule on an issue even before Lawlor's trial has begun, said the complex case has generated extraordinary legal fees and expenses. "It's already a six-figure case. And this is one of those cases that could turn into a seven-figure case," he said.

Lawlor, an 18-year veteran with the Hartford force, was working with a federal agent as part of an anti-gun task force on May 7, 2005, when he said he saw Jashon Bryant holding a gun as he got into a friend's car. The officers approached the car, and when the vehicle began moving toward them, Lawlor fired five shots, saying he feared the federal agent was going to be hit and that he believed Bryant was reaching for a gun. Bryant was struck in the head and died. Police later found cocaine in the car, but no weapon.

After hearing from 48 witnesses, an investigatory grand jury recommended that Lawlor face charges.

In her fundraising note, Stephanie Lawlor says her husband is the victim of a racially charged prosecution led by Waterbury State's Attorney John Connelly.

"All that matters to the politically connected bureaucrats here in Connecticut is that my husband is a white police officer who was forced to shoot a black suspect in the line of duty," she writes.

The charity's fundraising often includes a personal and emotional letter from the officer or a relative. To raise money for Stephanie Mohr, a former officer in Prince George's County, Md., who is serving a 10-year sentence for releasing her police dog on a burglary suspect, the defense fund's letter looked as though Mohr had typed it on a prison typewriter.

"Dear Caring Friend," the letter began, "It's cold in here. And I'm not sure if my hands are shaking from the cold, from fear, or because I'm about to cry again."

A fellow officer testified that Mohr released the dog on a compliant homeless man after another officer asked a supervisor, "Sarge, can the dog get a bite?" Mohr denied that and said she released the dog because the suspect made a motion suggesting he was about to flee.

Regardless, her 2004 mailing brought in nearly $280,000 in donations, winning the charity an award from the Direct Marketing Association.

The legal defense fund, founded after the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, supports about five or six cases at a time, generally accepting only those that receive the unanimous support of the board of directors, which includes Martin, Regnery and three unpaid trustees: former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III; former Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds and Eugene Methvin, a senior editor at Readers Digest.

The charity's officials say they are troubled by cases in which officers face criminal charges for their split-second decision under difficult and often dangerous conditions.

"An officer in a tense situation has about three seconds to decide if he uses force, and it's a difficult decision," Martin said. "We decided that it was unfair even if it's a mistake of judgment, even if an officer makes the wrong decision we decided it was wrong to criminalize that."

Back in Connecticut, Lawlor's manslaughter trial has been delayed while the state Supreme Court considers whether he is entitled to see the original application a prosecutor filed requesting the grand jury. While he waits, his bills grow.

Georgetti Lawlor's lawyer said he was not familiar with the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund's finances, but added that he does not have the luxury of worrying about the efficiency of the group's fundraising or its choice of causes.

"Both Bob Lawlor and I are just thankful that someone has reached out to us and helped us," Georgetti said. "In the world that I'm in and Bob Lawlor's in, that's what matters to me."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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