AG sues Texas Highway Patrol Museum

That official-sounding Texas Highway Patrol Museum on the edge of Southtown? After an investigation into the group's dealings and finances, State Attorney General Greg Abbott claims the operation is a sham, filing a lawsuit against the museum, its affiliate organizations, and a handful of its top employees. The suit, filed in a Travis County probate court last week, claims the group for years has run a telemarketing operation illegally soliciting charitable donations in the name of helping families of fallen state troopers. In reality, the group has wasted the vast majority of donations on private trips, cigars, booze, car payments for executives, and “exorbitant pet care” for an office cat, the suit charges. The lawsuit comes on the heels of a scathing Express-News investigation into the museum's tax returns this past fall showing that it raised some $12 million from telemarketing between 2004 and 2009. Less than a penny for every dollar raised actually went to state troopers and their families, tax records showed. And Abbott's suit cites one family that never got the $10,000 benefit promised by the museum. The widow of slain trooper Matthew Myrick received only $700 from the organization after her husband died in 2006, the suit charges. The lawsuit also claims the museum and its affiliates illegally carry the “Texas Highway Patrol” moniker, intentionally misleading potential donors “by giving the perception that they are affiliated with the Texas Department of Public Safety.” In soliciting donations over the phone, telemarketers often lied, claiming they were highway patrol officers asking for donations to help fellow fallen troopers, the suit claims. Telemarketers even told donors that donating and having the organization's decal on their car “would be very helpful if stopped by law enforcement in the future,” the suit states. The group had a tarnished reputation long before Abbott's lawsuit. DPS' own website already warned citizens to stay away from the organization. “When Texas Highway Patrol Association telemarketers call you to ask for money for slain troopers’ families, or to ask for money for their museum in San Antonio, you may expect that the money you donate will go toward helping troopers’ families. Or, you may expect that their museum in San Antonio is a world-class museum representing a world-class organization,” DPS says on its website. “You would be wrong on both counts.” When learning of the telemarketing scheme, Scott Henson, who runs the prominent blog Grits for Breakfast on the criminal justice system in Texas, wrote, "What a sleazy business model. Picking on the bones of dead troopers!" Among others named in the lawsuit is Tim Tierney, executive vice president of the organizations tied to the San Antonio museum. Tierney, and the group's marketing director Ruben Villalva, both took in annual salaries of over $200,000, the lawsuit says. Tierney and another organization director drove cars paid for with funds donated to the charity, the suit claims. And on organization credit cards, top employees charged trips to Sea World and Six Flags Fiesta Texas, flights to Germany, hotel stays in Napa Valley, and visits to the Alamo Drafthouse. As for the “exorbitant vet bill” for the office cat, Tierney had an explanation for investigators. The lawsuit states, “Tierney states that it is important to keep his employees happy and that is how he justifies having the office cat as a reasonable and prudent business expense.” A Travis County probate court judge froze the organization's assets and appointed a temporary reciever to control any finances and present an audit within 60 days.