Telemarketers, a new three-part HBO documentary series, is so terrific you should watch it immediately.
The series consists of the wonderfully rough, jostling footage shot by a teenage high-school dropout with a love of film named Sam Lipman-Stern, who went to work in 2001 at a telemarketing call center in New Jersey called Civic Development Group (CDG). There he sat among ex-cons and desperate hard cases who couldn’t find work anywhere else, and he came to love them and the place and everything scummy and weird and wild about it, because of the relative freedom of the employees’ lives. As long as they met their quotas persuading people to support various charities — usually on behalf of veterans, firefighters, and the police — they were paid minimum wage and left alone.
“It was like a dysfunctional family,” Lipman-Stern recalled fondly in a recent interview. “You’d have a murderer on your right hand side and a bank robber on your left. You just couldn’t write these characters up.”
The whole CDG enterprise was a scam, with almost no money going anywhere but to the entrepreneurial creeps who led the nonprofit and were living high off 90 percent of the haul: David Keezer, Marc Keezer, Brian Pasch, Glenn Pasch, and Steve Pasch.
Those working at CDG figured the police, firefighters, and veterans were also victims of the scam, getting only their measly 10 percent of the loot. Then we see the CDG office manager learn, on camera, that the police in particular were active participants in conning money out of poor dupes. As the first two episodes gradually reveal, the police, through their Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) chapters across the country, not only took all the money they could get from the CDG swindle; they also helped set up the scam and often suggested more high-pressure elements to add to “the script.” Soon, employees were being goaded to identify themselves as actual law enforcement — all the easier to get donations.
Telemarketers quickly realized that certain segments of the population — conservatives, the elderly, small-business owners — tended to hold an unquestioning, pro-police attitude that made their jobs easy. One poor old man was taken for $84,000 in one year by telemarketers calling him weekly to get more money, to the point that even a cynical boss of one of these scam centers — shown with his face blurred and his voice distorted in the interview — seemed to feel a bit bad about it.
Needless to say, the 10 percent of the money collected wasn’t going to the families of police killed while on duty, as the script claimed — it was funding FOP perks and parties and limos to transport officers to city parades and other assorted nonsense. Presumably, it still is. Because a few months after the CDG got shut down by the Federal Trade Commission in 2010 for falsely advertising their use of donations, and ordered to pay close to $19 million and get out of the fundraising business, new companies sprung up using the CDG model. Many former CDG employees wound up working for them.
And the model was perfected. The COVID lockdown inspired a new working-from-home angle that saved on call center overhead. Down-and-out drug addicts and ex-cons — “people living on the edge” — were sought out as employees. Partly because they’d be less likely to report suspicious activity to — well, not the police, because the cops were mostly in on it too, but to some other less corrupt authority. And also because, in the philosophy of rich CDG-type bosses, desperate people make the best hustlers.
Lipman-Stern decided, with his friend and coworker Pete Pespas, that the only ones who could attack this astounding level of corruption were people like them who knew the system from the inside. So they took Lipman-Stern’s affectionate footage of the chaotic workings at the CDG call center — which showed free-for-all scenes like Pespas, a top caller who swore that working while high was the secret to his success, nodding off at his desk, then waking up to go immediately into his charity-call spiel — and began documenting their ongoing amateur investigation as well.
Both Lipman-Stern and Pespas did research into how these new call-center companies were collaborating with the FOP chapters. The endearingly confident and chatty Pespas — who bragged about how successfully he’d gotten off drugs — took on the job of interviewer, tasked with collecting further information from those in the know. His colorful, erratic, and easily distracted performance of that role leads Lipman-Stern, acting as narrator, to note, “I don’t think we realized how much Pete might suck at this.”
The most poignant aspect of this docuseries? How, despite all that Lipman-Stern has witnessed, he continues to believe in the larger system. It’s clear from his commentary that he goes on thinking that a cleaned-up call center giving, say, 90 percent of the funds it raises to the police, if they actually spent it on what they claimed, would be great. “The nonprofit space is incredible. It just wasn’t the ones we were calling for.”
He’s a true believer who could conceivably fall for the CDG-style scam himself one day, turning into another old man sending part of his Social Security money to the supposedly reformed FOP. It’s discouraging — how questioning institutional authority can sometimes only go a few inches deep.
Still, you can feel assured that this is a must-see docuseries of rare, roughhouse quality.