Court Overturns Conviction Of Police Union President For Fundraising Activities

Edward Christensen was the president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization, one of several labor organizations that represents deputies in Harris County, Texas. Part of the Organization’s funds were raised through telemarketing, with one of the telemarketers used by the Organization being Ron Kowalsky.

During the course of the telemarketing program, Kowalsky and his employees mentioned the Organization’s support for different programs, such as drug awareness and Toys for Tots. The Organization never had official permission, authorization, or recognition to solicit donations for Toys for Tots, which is a program trademarked by the United States Marine Corps. It did, however, donate toys to the program.

As part of the telemarketing program, Christensen sent letters thanking donors to the Organization. One of the letters stated that “every year at this time, the Harris County Deputies’ Organization lends a helping hand of support to the Toys for Tots program. This program provides toys for children of families who cannot afford to do so, and to those children who have no family.”

The amount of funds the organization expended for Toys for Tots was substantially less than the amount of funds received from the telemarketing solicitations. For example, during four months in 2000, the Organization received $20,515.00 for the Toys for Tots program. After paying Kowalsky 75 to 80 percent of these funds, the Organization kept approximately $4,000 from these checks.

The Harris County Attorney’s Office sued Christensen and the Organization for fraud. The civil lawsuit ended in a $125,000 settlement, part of which was forwarded to the Toys for Tots program. The State of Texas criminally prosecuted Christensen for theft. When Christensen was convicted of theft, he challenged his conviction in the Texas Court of Appeals.

The Court reversed Christensen’s conviction, finding the evidence insufficient to establish the crime of theft.
The State argued that Christensen benefited from the effort because he used a credit card that belonged to the Organization to cover his expenses while performing work for the Organization and received a stipend of $1500 for his services as president. The State argued that since the funds for these benefits were drawn in part from the telemarketing organization, Christensen personally benefited from the inaccurate representations concerning Toys for Tots.

The Court was unconvinced. The Court found that the Organization’s board “paid Christensen the stipend for his work as president of the Organization and allowed him to use the credit card to cover expenses for that work. It is undisputed that Christensen never received any funds that were not authorized by the Board. No evidence shows that Christensen received any funds that had not been authorized by the Board.”

The State argued that without regard to whether he personally stood to benefit from the telemarketing operation, Christensen nonetheless could be found guilty of theft if it could be shown that he participated in acts of deception. The State contended that the evidence showed that Christensen was a former Marine and was familiar with the Toys for Tots program, that he signed the letter that began the Toys for Tots telemarketing, and that he knew that the telemarketers would be telling contributors that the Organization supported Toys for Tots.

In the eyes of the Court, this evidence was insufficient to establish that Christensen was deceptive. The Court concluded that “no implied or expressed promises were made concerning the amount of support the Organization would give to Toys for Tots. Rather, the representations in the letter and type of telemarketing that Christensen authorized were simply that the Organization would support Toys for Tots, which it did. The issue here is whether Christensen intended to deceive complainants into making a donation. No evidence shows an intent by Christensen to do so.”

Christensen v. State of Texas, 2007 WL 1953894 (Tex.App. 2007).

This article appears in the October 2007 issue