TRENTON (MERCER)– The Trenton Fire Department was dispatched to 221 East Hanover Street just after 6:00 pm tonight on a reported building fire. A resident of one of the apartments called 911 and said he could see flames coming from the window. Firefighters arrived on scene and confirmed the fire, calling the “all hands.” The fire was placed under control shortly after. No further information is available.
TRENTON, NJ (MERCER)–Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced today that a lawsuit filed by New Jersey, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), 38 states and the District of Columbia has permanently shut down a charitable fundraising scam operation that made 1.3 billion deceptive fundraising calls – the bulk of them illegal robocalls – while collecting more than $110 million dollars from trusting donors.
A complaint and series of settlement agreements filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan center on deceptive fundraising activities by Michigan-based Associated Community Services (ACS), as well as a number of related defendants. ACS and the other defendants have agreed to settle claims by the FTC, New Jersey and the other participating states and jurisdictions that they duped generous Americans into donating to charities that failed to provide the services they promised.
Under the settlements announced today, money surrendered by the defendants will eventually be contributed to one or more legitimate charities that support causes similar to those for which the defendants solicited. Those causes include supporting homeless veterans, victims of house fires, breast cancer patients, and children with autism, among others in need of assistance.
“The conduct of these defendants was outrageous, as they took advantage of the trust and compassion of people in New Jersey and across the U.S. by persuading them that they were raising money to aid some of our most vulnerable Americans,” said Attorney General Grewal. “In collecting more than $100 million in donations nationwide – most of which went into their own pockets — the defendants hammered hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents multiple times per hour with disruptive and annoying robocalls. In fact, the investigation showed that New Jersey residents were among the most frequently targeted by this sham operation, and we’re proud to have worked with the Federal Trade Commission and our partners in other states to end it. We’re also glad to join an effort that will see the defendants’ ill-gotten funds redirected to charities that do great work on behalf of those in need.”
The lawsuit names as defendants ACS and its sister companies Central Processing Services and Community Services Appeal, as well as their owners Dick Cole, Bill Burland, Barbara Cole, and Amy Burland, and ACS senior managers Nikole Gilstorf, Tony Lia, John Lucidi, and Scot Stepek (collectively, the “Associated Community Services defendants”).
In addition, the complaint names two fundraising companies allegedly operated by Gilstorf and Lia as spin-offs of ACS: Directele, Inc. and The Dale Corporation (which, collectively with Gilstorf and Lisa, are the “Directele defendants”).
According to the complaint filed today, the defendants were fully aware the organizations for which they were fundraising spent little or no money on the charitable causes they claimed to support. In some cases, that amount was as little as one-tenth of one percent. The defendants kept as much as 90 cents of every dollar they solicited from generous donors on behalf of the charities.
New Jersey was a favorite target of the bogus fundraisers, as ACS placed nearly 68 million solicitation calls to New Jersey residents between 2016 and 2019 – a number surpassed only by the scam operations’ call volumes in California, New York and Texas.
Of the calls to New Jersey targets, more than 125,000 individuals were called more than three times a day, more than 422,000 individuals were called two or more times in an hour, and more than 12,000 were called three or more times in an hour.
“These predatory fund raisers profited by robocalling thousands of New Jersey residents, just to exploit their trust and that of compassionate people all across the country,” said Division of Consumer Affairs Acting Director Kaitlin Caruso. “More than one million New Jersey residents give to charity each year, supporting causes they believe in. We at the Division of Consumer Affairs take a dim view of those who would prey on that generosity, and are committed to holding accountable any individual or group who does so.”
That case resolution – announced on September 15, 2020 – closed down the deceptive fundraising activities of multiple companies controlled by Mark Gelvan, a Florida resident who once lived in Montville, New Jersey. Gelvan’s network of sham charities claimed to use donations to help homeless veterans, retired and disabled law enforcement officers, breast cancer survivors and others in need, but kept most of the funds raised.
“Deceptive charitable fundraising can be big business for scammers, especially when they use illegal robocalls,” said Daniel Kaufman, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC and our state partners are prepared to hold fraudsters accountable when they target generous consumers with lies.”
The ACS complaint filed today alleges that the defendants began making their deceptive pitches no later than 2008 on behalf of numerous organizations that claimed to support a number of causes that well-meaning individuals were enticed to help fund through the defendants’ high-pressure tactics.
In many instances, the complaint alleges, ACS and later Directele knowingly violated the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by using soundboard technology in telemarketing calls.
With that technology, an operator plays pre-recorded messages to consumers instead of speaking with them naturally. Each soundboard operator routinely handled three calls at once, allowing the defendants to contact more would-be donors much more frequently than a live agent working in a conventional telemarketing setting.
Use of such pre-recorded messages in calls to first time donors violates the TSR. Use of the technology in calls to prior donors also violates the TSR, unless call recipients are affirmatively told about their ability to opt out of all future calls and provided a mechanism to do so.
The defendants did not make that disclosure.
Today’s complaint also alleges ACS made harassing calls, noting that ACS called more than 1.3 million phone numbers more than ten times in a single week and 7.8 million numbers more than twice in an hour. More than 500 phone numbers were called 5,000 times or more.
The ACS defendants were the subject of 20 prior law enforcement actions for their fundraising practices. They stopped operating in September 2019.
Defendant Nikole Gilstorf purchased Directele and The Dale Corporation in October 2019 and, with defendant Tony Lia, the Directele defendants allegedly continued their deceptive fundraising and illegal telemarketing practices.
In addition to alleging violations of the TSR, today’s complaint alleges the defendants violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, the New Jersey Charitable Registration and Investigation Act, and the Federal Trade Commission Act, among other laws in the participating States.
The terms of the settlements, which are currently pending court approval, are as follows:
Associated Community Services Defendants
Each of these defendants will be permanently prohibited from conducting or consulting on any fundraising activities, and from conducting telemarketing of any kind to sell goods or services. In addition, they will be prohibited from using any existing donor lists and from further violations of state charitable giving laws, as well as from making any misrepresentation about a product or service. The defendants will also be subject to the following monetary judgements:
Associated Community Services, Inc.; Community Services, Inc.; Central Processing Services, Inc.; and Richard “Dick” Cole are subject to a monetary judgment of $110,063,843, which is suspended due to their inability to pay.
Community Services Appeal, Inc. and Barbara Cole are subject to a monetary judgment of $110,063,843, which is partially suspended due to inability to pay. Barbara Cole will be required to turn over the proceeds of the sale of a vacation home in Michigan.
Robert W. “Bill” Burland and Amy J. Burland are subject to a monetary judgment of $110,063,843, which is partially suspended due to an inability to pay. Amy Burland will be required to turn over $450,000.
Directele Defendants and ACS Senior Managers Scot Stepek and John Lucidi
Each of these defendants will be permanently banned from any fundraising work or consulting on behalf of any charitable organization or nonprofit organization that claims to work on behalf of causes similar to those outlined in the complaint. They will also be prohibited from using robocalls for any form of telemarketing, using abusive calling practices, or making misrepresentations about a product or service. In addition, the defendants will be required to clearly and conspicuously disclose when a donation they are requesting is not tax deductible.
In addition, the two corporate defendants—Directele Inc. and The Dale Corporation—will be required to cease operations and dissolve. The defendants will also be subject to the following monetary judgments:
Scot Stepek will be subject to a monetary judgment of $110,063,843, which is partially suspended due to an inability to pay. Stepek will be required to sell a ski boat in his possession and turn over the net proceeds from the sale.
Directele Inc., The Dale Corporation, Nikole Gilstorf, and Antonio Lia will be subject to a monetary judgment of $1.6 million. Gilstorf and Lia also will be subject to a judgment of $110,063,843. The judgments are partially suspended due to an inability to pay. Gilstorf and Lia will each be required to turn over $10,000.
John Lucidi will be subject to a judgment of $110,063,843, which is partially suspended due to an inability to pay. He will be required to turn over $25,000.
Other state agencies joining in today’s complaint and settlement with New Jersey and the FTC include the Attorneys General of Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Also joining are the Secretaries of State of Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Tennessee, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Utah Division of Consumer Protection.
Deputy Attorney General Monisha A. Kumar, of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section of the Division of Law’s Affirmative Civil Enforcement Practice Group, handled the ACS matter on behalf of the State.
TRENTON (MERCER)– Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that a woman was sentenced to 50 years in state prison today after being convicted at trial of first-degree human trafficking and other charges for forcing a girl, 17, to engage in prostitution at hotels in Mercer County, N.J.
Ashley Gardener, 32, of Trenton, was sentenced to 50 years in state prison, including 20 years of parole ineligibility, by Superior Court Judge Darlene J. Pereksta. Gardener was convicted by a Mercer County jury on Oct. 24, 2019 of conspiracy (1st degree), human trafficking (1st degree), facilitating human trafficking (2nd degree), promoting prostitution of a minor (1st degree), promoting organized street crime (1st degree), and endangering the welfare of a child (2nd degree). She was sentenced to 25 years in prison with 20 years of parole ineligibility on the first-degree human trafficking charge, consecutive to 25 years in prison on the first-degree promoting organized street crime charge. Gardener received concurrent sentences of 15 years, eight years, and eight years, respectively, on the charges of promoting prostitution of a minor, facilitating human trafficking, and endangering the welfare of a child. She will be required to register under Megan’s Law and will be subject to parole supervision for life.
Deputy Attorneys General Katherine Morris and James Ruberton tried the case for the Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau, Human Trafficking Unit. The lead detective was Detective Rodrick Jones of the New Jersey State Police, supervised by Detective Sgt. John Cipot.
Gardener and co-defendant Breon Mickens, 28, of Trenton, were charged in an investigation by the New Jersey State Police and Division of Criminal Justice, assisted by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence Police Department, New Jersey Department of Children and Families, and U.S. Marshals Service New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force. Mickens pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy and was sentenced to five years in prison in November 2019. The investigation began when the victim escaped from a hotel where she was forced by Gardener and Mickens to engage in prostitution.
“This prosecution reflects our commitment to ensure that human traffickers like Gardener face justice,” said Attorney General Grewal. “These offenders prey on vulnerable victims, forcing them into a life of sexual slavery. We will continue to work tirelessly with our law enforcement partners at all levels, as well as victim advocates, to raise awareness about human trafficking, rescue victims, and apprehend those responsible for these terrible crimes.”
“Through our human trafficking awareness efforts, we’re reminding the public that these crimes can happen anywhere, and your vigilance may save a captive victim,” Attorney General Grewal added. “If you suspect human trafficking, please call 1-855-END-NJ-HT. You are our eyes and ears.”
“I commend our trial team, the State Police, and all of the others who assisted the young victim in this case and helped us to convict Gardener,” said Director Veronica Allende of the Division of Criminal Justice. “These crimes occur largely in the shadows, outside of public view, but this victim escaped and thanks to a concerned motorist and the swift response of the State Police and partnering agencies, she was rescued and her traffickers were successfully prosecuted. This case should motivate other members of the public to alert authorities when they suspect human trafficking.”
“Trafficking anyone, man or woman, boy or girl, is a violation of basic human rights—it is appalling and indecent, and it will not be tolerated in New Jersey,” said Colonel Patrick Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “I would like to commend all of our partners in this case, from the troopers who found the victim on the side of the road to the attorneys who secured the guilty verdict, for ensuring justice was served.”
On Jan. 11, 2018 at 11:00 p.m., troopers from the New Jersey State Police Hamilton Station were dispatched to investigate a report of a young woman walking along Interstate 295 in Lawrence Township. Troopers located the 17-year-old victim, who reported that she escaped from a hotel where she was being forced to perform sex acts. As a result, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence Police Department, and New Jersey Department of Children and Families responded to assist the New Jersey State Police with the investigation.
Investigators determined that Gardener and Mickens transported the victim to hotels against her will to engage in prostitution. For three days before she was rescued, the victim was forced by Gardener to engage in sexual intercourse with approximately four to 15 men per day. The victim was deprived of food, given marijuana to smoke, and prohibited from calling her family. The investigation revealed that Gardener and Mickens forced the victim to engage in prostitution on several other occasions between Dec. 27 and Jan. 11 at various hotels in the Mercer County area, refusing to let her leave the hotel for a period of two to three days and forcing her to have sex with multiple men each day.
Sexually suggestive ads featuring photos of Gardener and the victim were placed on Backpage.com. The ads offered adult entertainment and listed a phone number to call. That number was Gardener’s phone number. Gardener would arrange by telephone for the sexual services and a price to be paid by the client, or “John.” When a client arrived, Gardener would collect cash from the client and tell the 17-year-old victim what sex acts she had to perform. Gardener sometimes would stay in the room, but other times she would leave. Mickens acted as the “muscle” for the operation. He also served as driver, receiving pay from Gardener to drive her and the victim to hotels. The victim never received any of the money from the clients.
Shortly after the victim was rescued, members of the New Jersey State Police Trafficking Central Unit and Troop “C” Criminal Investigations Office located and arrested Gardener at a hotel in Lawrence Township, N.J. On Jan. 14, 2018, the New Jersey State Police Trafficking Central Unit, Fugitive Unit, Electronic Surveillance Unit, and the United States Marshals Service New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force-Trenton Division located and arrested Mickens in Trenton.
Former Deputy Attorney General Sarah Mielke presented the case to the state grand jury. Deputy Attorneys General Morris, Ruberton, and Mielke prosecuted the case for the Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau, Human Trafficking Unit, under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Erik Daab and Bureau Chief Lauren Scarpa Yfantis. Attorney General Grewal commended the detectives of the New Jersey State Police Trafficking Central Unit who led the investigation, as well as the State Police Troop “C” Criminal Investigations Office, Fugitive Unit, and Electronic Surveillance Unit. Attorney General Grewal also thanked the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Lawrence Police Department, New Jersey Department of Children and Families, and U.S. Marshals Service New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force for their valuable assistance.
WALL TOWNSHIP (MONMOUTH)– Five juveniles are facing charges following a crash in Wall Township early Thursday morning.
The crash occurred in at approximately 1:14 am on March 4th. The Wall Township Police Department located a 2017 Audi that was reported stolen out of New Providence, after the car crashed into a telephone pole at the intersection of Allaire Road and New Bedford Road.
When officers arrived on the scene, they observed five occupants fleeing from the vehicle on foot. They were all apprehended a short distance from the scene of the crash. All five occupants of the stolen Audi are juveniles from Newark. They were charged with receiving stolen property, joyriding, obstructing the administration of justice, and multiple motor vehicle summonses.
The Monmouth County area has seen an increase in motor vehicle thefts as of recently. Wall Township Police Department is reminding residents to remove the keys from their vehicles along with all personal effects, and lock their car doors.