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    An American scam made in N.J. — HBO’s ‘Telemarketers’ exposes Jersey phone schemes

    Patrick J. Pespas is slumped over in his gray cubicle, nearly passed out with his headset on.

    As he gradually dozes, the shock of white streaming through his dark hair is in danger of hitting his desk.

    Pespas is down, but he’s not out.

    “Hellloooo!” he abruptly proclaims, waking himself up by greeting the person on the phone.

    Somehow his drowsy state does not prevent him from making calls at Civic Development Group, a New Brunswick telemarketing company. He’s one of the top-performing employees in the riotous Jersey boiler room despite his sleepy, scruffy appearance … and pretty well-known drug addiction.

    This moment betrays little of what is to come.

    Over the course of the next 20 years, Pespas, with the help of fellow telemarketer-turned-documentary filmmaker Sam Lipman-Stern, would become a whistleblower and gonzo investigative reporter seeking the truth behind the very telemarketing scams he worked — the ones that fleeced Americans of hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of police, firemen and various charities.

    The story of Pat and Sam’s alternately sobering, hilarious, dogged, inconsistent and illuminating quest, the docuseries “Telemarketers,” premieres Sunday, Aug. 13 on HBO (and will be streaming on Max).

    Sam Lipman-Stern started working at the telemarketing company when he was 14. Eventually he began filming his unconventional workplace.

    While telemarketing has long been seen as a scourge and a nuisance, the two friends would discover the callers and the company they worked for weren’t the only ones betraying the public’s trust. Their investigation implicates a wide network of police groups as willing participants in the scams.

    “It’s so easy to demonize the telemarketers because no one likes telemarketers,” Lipman-Stern tells NJ Advance Media. “It was pretty shocking to find out how wrapped up these police organizations were with CDG and with this industry. They’re hand-in-hand in this thing. It’s really wild.”

    The director, 36, grew up in Highland Park. He was 14 when he began working as a telemarketer at CDG in 2001. Eventually he started filming the operation that would become a model for phone scams across the country.

    He directed the three-part documentary with his cousin, filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough, 44. The extremely New Jersey tale boasts a team of high-profile executive producers including Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie — “Uncut Gems” directing duo the Safdie Brothers — and Danny McBride, star of HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones.”

    Patrick J. Pespas, left, and co-worker Sam Lipman-Stern in the CDG days. They embarked on a long quest to expose how their employer depended on misleading people. What they found went way beyond their expectations.

    “Telemarketers Gone Wild” would be an apt title for the beginning of the docu-series.

    The place was the stuff of giddy film comedies — the office manager compares the freewheeling daily vibe to a cookout.

    Lipman-Stern had dropped out of high school when he met Pespas, now 54, at CDG.

    At the time, he was mostly interested in painting and filming graffiti, but his parents required him to find a job. All he needed was his working papers to start working at the call center, a haven for “unemployable” ex-cons and people on probation.

    Employees could smoke joints and get a tattoo in an office chair as long as they were meeting their quotas. Pespas, a beloved member of the staff from Plainfield and North Plainfield, would do heroin in the bathroom, then “smash the list” of calls he had to make. The telemarketing scripts were so much a part of him — like the “J” in “Patrick J. Pespas,” which he never missed — that his mouth uttered the words even as he passed out from the drugs.

    Pespas at work as a telemarketer at CDG. Drugs were part of his routine as a top-performing employee.

    Lipman-Stern, who can also be seen doing drugs in CDG footage, filmed himself making calls. He turned his camera on the workplace antics and deployed footage that a co-worker filmed in the ‘90s, when CDG established its “charity” calling model.

    “Originally, we started filming just kind of office shenanigans and all the crazy stuff happening in the office,” Lipman-Stern says. “And then it kind of transitioned into focusing more on Pat as a character, Pat’s story.”

    For all the chaos at CDG, there was also a distinct sense of camaraderie. Pespas accompanied Lipman-Stern on graffiti breaks behind the building. He would always comment on the unsettling nature of their work.

    “One day I remember him just being like, ‘We gotta tell the world what this place really does and tell the story behind the phone call when people get called and asked for a donation to the police,’” Lipman-Stern says.

    “Shenanigans” were a regular occurrence at CDG.

    He recalls being fueled by news stories about self-serving charity scams, where he’d hear the names of groups they used in their call scripts.

    “They would never dive into any depth in the story,” says Lipman-Stern, who worked at CDG for seven years.

    That became the mission, to tell the story behind the usual script on scammy telemarketers — “the ultimate goal being hopefully for people to learn about this industry and be able to get their donations to real, good charities rather than going into the pockets of businessmen and also, a lot of times, scam charities,” he says.

    It’s hard not to root for Pespas in the series. But the endearing telemarketer, who had a long bout with drug addiction, could prove unreliable. At one point during the 20-year span between when they decided to launch an investigation and when they finished the documentary, Pespas dropped out of Lipman-Stern’s life for eight years.

    Still, for all the delays, there was a little kismet involved in realizing their vision.

    Sam Lipman-Stern worked at the telemarketing company for seven years.

    After experimenting with graffiti videos and raucous CDG office footage that he posted to YouTube, Lipman-Stern went on to make rap videos and book freelance video jobs via Craigslist. He also worked on short-form videos for Vice, Complex and Rolling Stone.

    He never met his cousin and co-director, Adam Bhala Lough, until he moved to Los Angeles in 2016. Lipman-Stern went to see Adam at the suggestion of his mother, who worried about him being alone on the West Coast.

    It just so happens that Bala Lough is quite an accomplished director, starting with his feature film about graffiti artists, the 2002 Independent Spirit Award-nominated movie “Bomb the System.” (His other films include the Lil Wayne documentaryThe Carter”). He works in the documentary division of Rough House Pictures, the Danny McBride production company behind the hit series “The Righteous Gemstones,” “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals.”

    Pitching “Telemarketers” was a breeze, he tells NJ Advance Media.

    “The guys loved it right away,” Bhala Lough says. “There was no need to convince them.”

    Director Sam Lipman-Stern, left, Patrick J. Pespas and co-director Adam Bhala Lough at the premiere of “Telemarketers” last month.

    The CDG office, housed in an unassuming New Brunswick warehouse, regularly generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.

    But it produced something else, too — a blueprint for lucrative telemarketing schemes.

    Pespas, Lipman-Stern and their co-workers would make calls on behalf of the Fraternal Order of Police in New Jersey and many other states.

    In one scene, Pespas calls asking for donations to help the New Jersey State Law Enforcement Officers Association, using officers killed in the line of duty during his pitch.

    He was often high on drugs, but his job was rarely in jeopardy because he made so much money for CDG. With a certain innocent twinkle in his eye, Pespas could charm just about anyone. He worked the same kind of magic soliciting endless donations for police unions and firefighter groups.

    CDG calls would go out on behalf of police as well as paralyzed veterans, volunteer firefighters and children with cancer. Telemarketers would sell a story and get people to open their wallets, with the promise of police stickers in recognition of their support. They even had scripted rebuttals if people gave reasons why they couldn’t donate.

    From left: “Telemarketers” executive producer Benny Safdie, directors Adam Bhala Lough and Sam Lipman-Stern and Patrick J. Pespas.

    Just 10% of each donation would be marked for charity — the rest would go to CDG.

    “They would always tell us ‘10% of something is better than 100% of nothing,’” Lipman-Stern says.

    The director and Pespas hoped that an insider’s view would be the ticket to a searing investigation. But what they found went far beyond the scheme they thought they knew, even after the federal government took action.

    In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission shut down CDG. Company heads Scott Pasch and David Keezer were hit with a lifetime ban from soliciting charitable donations and were forced to pay an $18.8 million settlement for deceiving consumers by telling them that 100% of their donations would go to charity for police, firefighters and veterans. The settlement set a record for the largest FTC consumer penalty.

    Pasch and Keezer had to surrender their two $2 million homes in Monmouth Beach and Warren Township along with Van Gogh and Picasso paintings, luxury cars, boats, jewelry and more.

    The Warren home that CDG co-owner Scott Pasch had to turn over to authorities after the Federal Trade Commission shut down the Civic Development Group telemarketing company and slapped the owners with an $18.8 million settlement.

    Pespas, wondering why the millionaires never faced jail time, synthesizes their approach. They weren’t satisfied with taking 90% of people’s donations — they wanted 100%.

    At first, CDG employees were prohibited from impersonating police officers on their calls. But the company, which dominated the telemarketing industry and had offices nationwide, later opened the New Jersey FOP Fundraising Center in Ocean Township, where telemarketers were permitted to say they were the FOP and that 100% of donations would benefit police.

    After the FTC forced CDG to shut down, Pespas and Lipman-Stern could have packed it in and stopped their investigation.

    But they kept talking to sources in telemarketing and realized they only had half the story.

    First of all, other copycat telemarketing operations were using the same model to solicit donations for various FOP associations. In the series, Pespas goes undercover when he’s hired for a work-from-home gig at one of the companies. Lipman-Stern stands out of sight near his computer screen, filming his dodgy employee orientation.

    The revelation that it wasn’t just telemarketing schemers but also police groups themselves who made it possible to dupe people gave the investigation new purpose. FOP beneficiaries — real police at lodges in various states — weren’t just looking the other way as CDG cashed in by using their name, they were actively engaging in the scams.

    The master bedroom in CDG co-owner David Keezer’s Monmouth Beach home in 2010. The FTC liquidated the property as part of the $18.8 million settlement.

    Lipman-Stern and Pespas would learn that even the 10% promised to charities during their time at CDG was further whittled down by organizations that received the money, meaning the stated beneficiaries received little or nothing.

    Telemarketers” points out that the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association was also a big CDG client in the ’90s.

    John Hulse, then vice president at the Woodbridge-based organization, tells the filmmakers that while the group doesn’t currently use telemarketers, the New Jersey FOP actually presented officers with the opportunity to become telemarketers at CDG (he shows them with a related flyer).

    One anonymous source who ran a telemarking operation alleges that police took bribes in connection with the scams. He leads the filmmakers to Jersey telemarketers who work remotely, including a man convicted of homicide and one who successfully impersonates police by phone when he’s not doing drugs (his employer considers the drugs a plus — someone on crack can get what they want out of people, he says).

    The investigation ramps up in the second half, sending the former telemarketers on the hunt for interviews with police in Florida, Texas and a national FOP convention. Pespas and Lipman-Stern also interview a U.S. senator and former chair of the Federal Election Commission, Clifton police and the charity-tracking organization Charity Navigator, based in Glen Rock.

    Patrick J. Pespas, hot on the trail of the truth.

    The thrill of the madcap investigation is made all the more entertaining for its rough edges, like when Pespas messes up the name of an official he’s trying to chase down or gets kicked out of a McDonald’s (he needed Wi-Fi).

    One unforgettable moment arrives when Pespas and Lipman-Stern interview David Vladeck, the former FTC director who was instrumental in getting CDG shut down. They want to know why police groups were not held responsible or named for their part in the telemarketing operation.

    “Why can’t the government just stop this?” Pespas asks.

    “Because police unions are incredibly powerful … So who wants to be on the other side of the Fraternal Order of Police?” Vladeck replies.

    The filmmakers are stunned.

    “The energy definitely shifted in the room when he said that, because that was the first time we ever heard that,” Lipman-Stern tells NJ Advance Media. “We’d been investigating for so long and for him to … actually say it … our minds were blown, we were definitely shocked.”

    While Pespas flaked out on some interviews and dropped out of the investigation for years, he was the glue holding the documentary together, Lipman-Stern says.

    “I always obsessed over it,” he says of the passion project. He wanted to finish the story, even if he had to release it for free.

    Pespas wasn’t available for an interview, but Lipman-Stern says he’s well.

    “Pat’s actually doing really good now,” he says. “He’s been in recovery. He plays a lot of guitar, he does antiquing. I’m really proud of him.”

    The director says trying to stop telemarketing scams is like cutting off individual snakes on Medusa’s head, especially since political action committees entered the scene. But one development sounds a particularly grim note.

    In one scene, Pespas and Lipman-Stern get a telemarketing call from an old co-worker.

    A deceased old co-worker.

    The chilling reality is that before he passed away, the telemarketer’s employer recorded his voice and recycled it for robocalls. This practice, and the prevalence of artificial intelligence, means these companies no longer have to steadily employ telemarketers. It’s also just plain creepy.

    “He’s calling as we speak,” Lipman-Stern says. “His ghost.”

    Telemarketers” premieres 10 p.m. ET/PT Sunday, August 13 on HBO, continuing August 20 and 27. The series will be streaming on Max.

    Thank you for reading. Please consider supporting NJ.com with a subscription.

    Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at akuperinsky@njadvancemedia.com and followed at @AmyKup on Twitter.

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