It was after a supportive letter from Gov. Ron DeSantis was read to the crowd gathered on the Bonita Springs High School athletic field that Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson took the mic.
At the makeshift podium, Anderson attacked “prosecutors and district attorneys who are gutless and soft on crime” and “the feckless Hollywood snowflakes who think they know better how to police a community.” His fiery words were met with a roar of approval from the audience of about 100 on the cool and breezy Saturday morning of Feb. 20.
Anderson is running for reelection, but this wasn’t a political rally – it was a fundraiser held by the Robert L. Zore Foundation, a Naples-based organization that honors cops slain in the line of duty. The foundation, also known as Fallen Officers, has not only been criticized for allegedly playing partisan politics in the past, but is also having trouble meeting federal and state requirements for tax exempt status.
The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirms that it is investigating Fallen Officers, though the agency won’t reveal the nature of its probe.
The organization has yet to file tax returns for 2019 and 2020 and after four years of existence has yet to register as a charitable organization with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, according to the department’s online charity database.
Rosemary Zore and Michael Randall, the married couple behind the foundation, insist that any concerns Fallen Officers may be running afoul of laws that require charitable organizations to operate in a transparent – and politically neutral – manner are unfounded.
In a March 11 phone interview, Randall, the foundation’s vice-president, said he and his wife have nothing to hide and are simply still figuring out how to run a non-profit agency. He said that the foundation applied for and received extensions to file its tax returns.
“Our 2019 tax return is done and our accountant is finalizing our 2020 return within the next two weeks,” Randall said. “There were things we didn’t know we had to do when we started this. It’s not easy.”
The foundation is named after Zore’s father, Robert L. Zore, a Miami-Dade Police plainclothes detective who was shot with his own service revolver by a robbery suspect on Christmas day in 1983. He died the following day. Rosemary Zore was seven-years-old at the time.
It was 35 years later, in 2018, that she and her husband launched Fallen Officers, prompted by the shooting death of Fort Myers Police Ofc. Adam Jobbers-Miller that same year. The Feb. 20 event marked the second “Blue Bowl” flag football tournament in honor of Jobbers-Miller, as well as Florida Highway Patrol trooper Joseph Bullock, who was shot and killed in the line of duty last year.
“I don’t consider it a job,” Zore told FLCGA News in an interview at the Blue Bowl. “It is my passion. I do it because I love it and I do it to help the families.”
Zore said she doesn’t handle the finances for the foundation and is unaware how much money Fallen Officers generates annually.
“Yeah that I don’t know,” said Zore, who at $4,000 a month is the non-profit’s only paid employee. “I won’t know until a month from now when my accountant tells me where we are at.”
The foundation aims to be apolitical, she said, despite a controversy in California during which a local sheriff alleged Fallen Officers not only wasn’t properly registered in the state, but was also overtly pro-Donald Trump.
“When we do these events, it is just about law enforcement,” said Zore. “It’s not about whether you are red, blue or whatever. It is about honoring law enforcement only.”
A planned Naples memorial
Zore and Randall have raised funds for the police-focused non-profit by throwing monthly cover band concerts at Sugden Regional Park in Naples, putting on a handful of flag football tournaments in Florida and Texas, and hosting a gala in March 2020 right before the pandemic shut down life across the state and the U.S.
The foundation also generates revenue selling “Back the Blue” themed merchandise on its website, including a t-shirt that says, “Defend The Police – Defund The Media.”
The money raised reportedly goes to scholarships for individuals seeking police careers, financial help for cops sidelined by injuries and illnesses, and funds for a Fallen Officers memorial the non-profit wants to build at Sugden Regional Park, Zore said.
At the Feb. 20 flag football tournament, the foundation gave $1,000 each to two individuals, a young man pursuing a criminal justice degree at the University of Pittsburgh, and a young woman applying for a job with the Florida Highway Patrol.
“We also have 34 other scholarships that we will be giving out in May at our last concert that we do in Naples,” Zore said. “And if a family calls upon us, even if it is an active law enforcement officer going through some hardships like getting hurt on the job, we are here to help them.”
The first local flag football tournament honoring Jobbers-Miller took place in November 2018 with the blessing of the deceased officer’s father, David Miller, and his family. The foundation also put on a Blue Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2019 in honor of Garrett Hull, a police detective in that city who was shot and killed by robbery suspects.
“In the beginning, [Fallen Officers] gave us some donations,” Miller said during an interview at the Feb. 20 event honoring his son. “Now we try to help them with donations so they can keep doing with what they are doing.”
However, Miller said he and his family were not in financial distress when Jobbers-Miller died.
“We really didn’t need [anything] financially,” Miller said. “We were taken care of very well by Ft. Myers and the state. But [Zore and Randall] do whatever they can to keep officers’ names out there.”
For the Feb. 20 event, the foundation had two sponsors that gave a combined $9,000 and collected an $800 registration fee from each of the six teams that participated in the tournament, Randall said.
“The net profit to the foundation was between $6,500 to $7,000,” Randall said. “That’s not a ton of money, but anything positive is good.”
The foundation, he said, has collected $34,000 to fund the 34 scholarships Fallen Officers will give away in May and raised $100,000 to build the memorial.
“We have the memorial funded,” said Randall. “We just don’t know what the costs for the zoning, the permitting and the construction will be. We still have to go before [the Naples City Council] to get final approval.”
Bully pulpit for Republican pols and celebs
In October 2018, Zore and Randall organized a Blue Bowl in California to honor the memory of Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, who was one of 12 people killed in a mass shooting in the town of Thousand Oaks.
But Ventura Sheriff Bill Ayub pulled his department out of the event after learning Fallen Officers had not registered with the California Attorney General’s Registry of Charitable Trusts or received tax-exempt status in the Golden State in order to collect donations, according to published reports.
Ayub also accused the Zore Foundation of having a political bent and ulterior motives after Zore and Randall added Trump-supporting celebrities to be part of the event, actor Scott Baio and singer-songwriter Joy Villa among them.
“The way it looked to me, (the event) wasn’t designed to pay tribute and honor the memory of Ron Helus, but that it was designed to elevate the status of this nonprofit,” Ayub told local newspaper Thousand Oaks Acorn. “I feel like I was misled. This certainly wasn’t what I envisioned for this event as it was laid out to me. I thought it was just a charitable football game.”
Zore said it was unfortunate the Blue Bowl for Helus didn’t work out, but that the speakers she and her husband invited were chosen not for political reasons but because they were pro-law enforcement. Ultimately the event was canceled altogether.
“They didn’t like the people we had speaking,” she said, “so they pulled out and then the officer’s family pulled out. We were left in the dark.”
Zore and Randall, who regularly post pro-Trump commentary and memes on their personal Facebook pages, seem to only gravitate to Republican politicians and celebrities for their events, as again evidenced by the Feb. 20 Blue Bowl.
Federal law prohibits charitable organizations from participating in political campaigns for or against a candidate. Politicians may attend a charity event without the non-profit risking its tax-exempt status provided the charity doesn’t express support for any political party or candidate, doesn’t engage in any political fundraising, and all political candidates seeking the same office have the opportunity to participate in the event as well, said Laurie Stryon, executive director of Charity Watch, a national nonprofit watchdog group.
“It’s too easy for charities to violate the spirit of laws that were put in place to ensure that the public charity sector is not appropriated by political interests,” Stryon said. “A charity educating the public on the importance of voting is quite different than using charity events as a forum to bash a political party it doesn’t like and imply, directly or indirectly, that attendees should vote for certain candidates over others.”
Zore Foundation fails IRS reporting requirements
The lack of any current 990 forms makes it difficult to verify how much money the Zore Foundation has raised and spent annually since 2019. Fallen Officers has only filed one tax return, back in 2018. The foundation’s 990 form shows it raised $8,410 during its first year of existence and had a negative cash balance of $1,588. At the time, Zore was not getting paid, the tax return shows.
Randall said he and Zore are not intentionally avoiding the filing of the foundation’s tax returns. He blamed delays on his accountant as well as independent contractors and vendors who didn’t submit 1099 forms. “Rose and I are new to this,” he said. “We had never done it before. We relied on our accountant. We give her everything and send her all our financial and tax records. Running a non-profit foundation is not easy.”
“Because the Zore Foundation is a small organization with little financial history, it’s hard to analyze whether the non-profit is fulfilling its intended mission,” said Charity Watch’s Stryon, adding that the non-profit has to file its tax returns in order to meet public disclosure requirements meant to ensure people are giving money to a legitimate charity.
She said the Zore Foundation also needs to expand its board of directors to at least five members, and that Zore and Randall should recruit independent directors.
“The charity lists only two board members,” Stryon said. “Two people is not a large enough board to ensure board independence – to ensure that decisions are being made in the best interest of the charity and not the interests of the two directors.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a non-profit organization that facilitates local investigative reporting across the state.