The cause is honorable: Raising money for officers who put their lives on the line for their communities.
But the trail of debts and ill will left by a Pennsylvania events management company has some Minnesota participants in its fundraisers crying foul. They accuse Officers Down 5K LLC of preying on the loyalties of law enforcement families to sponsor running events where vendors got stiffed and little money was left for beneficiaries — including the family of an Aitkin County deputy who was shot in the line of duty.
Officers Down and its owner, Thomas John “TJ” Burke, have managed at least three races in Minnesota since 2016, among roughly two dozen around the country. Local hosts in all three Minnesota communities say they had problems.
Officers in the East Grand Forks Police Department say they’re still waiting for their full cut of the proceeds from a race. With three other local agencies, the department hosted an Officers Down 5K event last May to raise funds for two local lodges of the Fraternal Order of Police. East Grand Forks officer Ben Deckert said they’ve pretty much given up hope of getting the rest of their money — about $1,785.
“Being in law enforcement myself, it is very concerning that a company whose entire philosophy is supporting law enforcement is acting in such a manner,” Deckert said.
Officers Down 5K participants in Aitkin, too, say Burke’s company left them hanging. Shirts Plus of Aitkin, a family-owned operation, is in litigation with Burke’s company to recoup more than $12,000 it claims he owes them on a contract to be his national bib sponsor and exclusive printer.
Burke’s company is in small-claims court in Pennsylvania, records show. And a former Air Force jet mechanic in Vermont, another Officers Down 5K vendor, turned to YouTube to vent her frustration.
“You don’t do that to people,” Marianne Sheehan tells the camera. “You don’t do it to veterans and you don’t to it to firefighters.”
In Marshall, Minn., an officer said his group has hounded Burke for a full breakdown of the costs and revenue from their run last May. They want to better understand why an apparently successful event raised just $877 for the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association.
In an interview, Burke chalked up the problems to growing pains. The company expanded too quickly, he said, and the events became too expensive.
“We are basically borderline bankruptcy,” said Burke, who lives near Pittsburgh. “We’re just really behind because we’ve had some financial issues.”
Burke’s lawyer, Ryan Mergl, said Burke has been honest with everyone. They sent an e-mail to most of his customers and partners to explain the situation, Mergl said, and Burke is working a security job to help meet the company’s obligations.
“We apologized to everyone and said we intend to honor our obligations,” Mergl said.
Burke’s company has a “bona fide business dispute” with Sheehan, the vendor in Vermont who made the video, Mergl said.
Former police officer
Officers Down 5K partners with local organizations, typically law enforcement groups, to throw the running event fundraisers. Its services include creating an online registration; arranging for T-shirts, signs and timers; and helping set up and take down equipment. The local organization finds sponsors and solicits donations, arranges for food, activities or demonstrations, and gets a cut of the proceeds to donate as it wishes.
Burke, who no longer works in law enforcement, was once a part-time patrol officer in Sharpsburg, Pa. He started Officers Down 5K in 2012, corporate records show, one year after filing for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy. He also established a foundation, although it is not listed with the IRS as a tax-exempt 501c3 nonprofit.
Some of the local groups that have worked with Burke said they didn’t sign a formal contract with Officers Down 5K setting terms, but relied on verbal agreements. They felt comfortable dealing with Burke, they said, because of his law enforcement background.
Aitkin resident Krista Olson, whose husband is a Minnesota state trooper, said she first contacted Burke after Aitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Sandberg was killed on duty, and a relative suggested using Officers Down 5K for a race to honor him. Sandberg was shot and killed in a St. Cloud hospital in 2015 by a suspect who was there for treatment.
Olson and Sandberg’s widow belong to Backing the Blue Line, a group of law enforcement wives and partners in Minnesota. Olson said she threw herself into organizing the fundraiser for Sandberg’s family, arranging a state patrol helicopter to land at the event and having a K-9 demonstration, among other things.
Turnout was strong, she said, and more than 1,000 people ran. But later she noticed locals were having a hard time getting paid. Sandberg’s widow, the beneficiary of the Aitkin run, didn’t receive her check until five months later, Olson said. The total — $6,218 — seemed surprisingly small, Olson said, because the event raised more than $46,000.
When she asked Burke why the event’s expenses were so high, he gave her a generic financial breakdown that didn’t answer her questions, she said.
Mergl, Burke’s lawyer, said he saw the breakdown and said it accurately reflected the percentage the Aitkin group was supposed to receive.
‘A side of furious’
Olson said she had actually worked for Burke for a time, helping organize races in other states and find national sponsors. The focus became memorial races in communities where an officer was killed. Olson said she was always paid, but some vendors were not. Olson eventually quit, and now she says she feels “devastated” that she connected people with the company.
“Heartbroken and disappointed, with a side of furious,” she said.
“The one good thing that came out of this entire event is all the people that knew Steve and came to support Kristi and Steve,” she said. “And it was a completely perfect day.”
One of the highlights was a custom flag made of wooden fenceposts from the Aitkin area, which was presented to Sandberg’s wife and daughter. It was made by Anoka craftsman Joe McAllister, who has made nearly a dozen flags for Burke’s events.
McAllister said he had to hound Burke to get paid. The money eventually arrived, he said, but Burke became rude and abruptly canceled $1,000 worth of orders.
“It kind of shook my faith in humanity at the time,” McAllister said.