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Until recently, Las Vegas resident J. Jay Evenson advertised a presence in the nation’s capital for his libertarian outfit, Survival Force of America. He didn’t spend much time back East, but he wanted a D.C. office for occasional visits. So for years, Evenson rented “Suite 150” at 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, an address he printed on some of his anti-government screeds. “That was just a place to hang my hat when I was in town,” Evenson explains.
Evenson says he didn’t even bother to decorate the place—all he had, he recalls, was a desk from which to make phone calls. “A desk and a, yeah, phone,” he says.
The office was actually much simpler than that—and much smaller. The space was so spare, in fact, that it had no windows, electricity, or running water. Suite 150 was a mailbox. And 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW was a Mail Boxes Etc. franchise.
For those seeking legitimacy, 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW is the perfect home away from home. With an address on America’s Main Street, four blocks from the world’s most recognizable domicile, any scam artist, fringe group, shoestring cause, or “institute” can hint at cherry-paneled conference rooms, views of the Capitol, insider savvy, and the force of federal authority—all for the $15 to $35 per month it costs to rent a mail box. Add a postage deposit for the mail-forwarding service and you can radiate Washington power from the comfort of Nevada or Florida or New York.
The storefront, which became a UPS Store after its corporate name changed last year, first opened at the edge of the George Washington University campus 16 years ago. Within a year, all 450 of the self-serve mailboxes out front were spoken for, and they have been—aside from brief vacancies—ever since. A long roster of Washington wannabes have claimed those boxes. The Impotence Institute of America/Impotents Anonymous occupied Suite 292 in the early ’90s. One of the Internet’s first alleged scams used Suite 852. NASA—no, not the space agency—has long been in the “penthouse.”
“There’s no penthouse,” chuckles Harry Smith, the store’s owner, unaware that NASA used the designation. But, “If someone wanted ‘penthouse,’ we’d give ’em ‘penthouse,’” he says, later noting that the policy has changed: “We can’t really do that anymore….Now the Postal Service really wants a number.”
Most of the box holders couldn’t care less whether their address lies on Pennsylvania Avenue or on 20th, the location’s less impressive cross street: Students and itinerant residents (such as diplomats from the nearby State Department) just need a convenient place to receive mail. But some of the organizations that rely on the outpost for a credibility boost have attracted more federal attention than just the daily visits from the mailman. As many as a dozen times over the years, postal inspectors have come by to check mailbox-customer information, says Smith. Smith also encounters regular folks conducting their own inspections. “We get calls,” he says. “Usually the calls are ‘Is this legitimate?’ We just say, ‘You know, we’re just a UPS Store.’”
Status consciousness competes for elbow room in the 1,350-square-foot establishment. Two copy machines flank the doorway. Racks of greeting cards crowd the middle of the floor. Collapsed cardboard boxes and barrel-sized plastic bags of pink Styrofoam peanuts fill most of the storage shelves. Smith says he has space problems, but he never turns away a customer interested in a mail drop. To handle overspill from the mailboxes, Smith stores 90 to 100 surplus accounts in accordion files, which he stuffs into three plastic milk crates at the back of the store.
He says he has never had reason to refuse anyone’s business. Customers are asked to sign a form in which they promise not to describe their box as a “suite”; this is in accordance with rules put in place by the U.S. Postal Service in 1999, specifically to tackle fraud. But it clearly isn’t disincentive enough for many of 2020’s imaginative tenants.
“We can’t be responsible for what they are sending out,” says Smith. “I’m sure the [U.S.] post office is the same.”
United States Foreclosure
Protection Agency, Suite 959
Last month, D.C. resident Parise Johnson received a large white envelope with a border of green triangles. It was from the United States Foreclosure Protection Agency, and though it bore a postmark of Santa Ana, Calif., the return address was Suite 959 at 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. “I thought it was from the government, the way the envelope looked,” she says.
At the time, the 75-year-old Johnson was indeed facing foreclosure on her home. Inside the envelope was a mock legal document that made it appear, falsely, that she was being sued in court. Also enclosed was a letter from an entity called Foreclosure Assistance Services and a toll-free number she should call to save her house from auction. Confused and a little scared, she contacted attorney Jim Sugarman of Legal Counsel for the Elderly, who warned her against foreclosure-rescue schemes. She never contacted the organization.
A number of government bureaucracies maintain offices on Pennsylvania Avenue, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Trade Commission. The United States Foreclosure Protection Agency certainly isn’t one of them. If there is such an agency, its federal budget allocation is zero.
And it desperately needs to publish a phone tree. Vito, who recently answered the toll-free number, said that he worked for Foreclosure Assistance “Solutions”; the United States Foreclosure Protection Agency, he said, simply mailed out the forms. He passed the call to Whitney, who said she was in charge. Whitney refused to disclose where she was located or what time zone she was in. Nor did she disclose the name of “Corporate,” to which she said she would refer a request for comment, which was never answered.
Challenged on her D.C. bona fides, Whitney responded: “How do you know we’re not there?”
Guild of Professional
With a job description evocative of a time when coopers and wainwrights lined dusty Main Streets, the horseshoe-fitters of America crave a little more respect. Even the respect conferred by a well-placed postal box. According to Henry Heymering, president of the Guild of Professional Farriers, he and his colleagues have labored under the popular but false impression that they’re brutes with a “size-44 chest and size-6 head.” “Yes, image means a lot,” Heymering writes via e-mail, explaining his organization’s prestigious Washington address.
The guild claims to be an “elite group with the most stringent professional qualifications of any farrier group in the U.S.” Perhaps too elite: The guild has only 25 members. That means no offices. But Heymering didn’t want to locate the group’s official home in Frederick, Md., simply because he happens to live there. “If the mail drop were in any state it would tend to give the flavor of that state to the group’s image,” he writes. “D.C. is more…neutral …and more ‘official.’ Searching for Mail Boxes Etc. in D.C., I found the one on Pennsylvania Ave. …sounded familiar somehow.”
Heymering wasn’t averse to using the “time-honored fiction” of labeling his humble file folder an office suite. But the word didn’t fit on the address line. So he uses a simple “#800.”
“If someone assumes we actually have office space on Pennsylvania Ave., that’s OK. We’re not interested in advertising that we don’t have offices…but don’t mind owning up to it.”
United States Student Government Association, Suite 465
Following allegations of corruption, partisan hostility has recently divided the national student-government community. The National Association of Student Councils, based in Reston, Va., has been sponsoring student-government activities for decades. But last year, an apparent rival organization, the United States Student Government Association, appeared on the scene. The USSGA, based at 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, has been allegedly scamming schools nationwide since May.
A membership in this new organization is $349 or $149, depending on the invoice you receive. But for school bookkeepers who, for whatever reason, pay the bill, the outlay may be more than the price of a few textbooks. In January, between 30 and 50 schools from 17 states reported to the group that administers the National Association of Student Councils that they’d been cheated: Checks sent to USSGA headquarters at 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. were cloned, and the schools were charged twice.
The USSGA attributes the problem to computer mix-ups. “Of course, we caught this problem as soon as possible, and we’re working on correcting it,” says a recorded voice on the group’s answering machine.
Police Protective Fund,
National in its scope, the Police Protective Fund wants the public to know it’s in Washington. “I’m the federal-government liaison, so we want to project the proper image so people know where we are,” explains Randy Anderson, the charitable group’s Bethesda, Md.–based spokesperson.
Most of the fund’s brain trust, though, is located in Texas, including its Austin-based executive director, Phil LeConte. LeConte’s online bio doesn’t tout any law-enforcement experience, but it boasts of “programming skills” learned on cop shows such as Hunter and 21 Jump Street.
The charity’s primary mission is to “promote effective and safe law enforcement,” and in 2002 it raked in $4.2 million for the cause, according to its latest Internal Revenue Service filing. But then there were the costs of doing business: Professional fundraising fees were a whopping $3.6 million. Overhead consumed over 90 percent of the budget, leaving $333,284 for program services.
It doesn’t go very far. The fund distributes a free poster by request. On the fund’s Web site, anyone can download free “survival” courses stocked with informative pointers, such as “Most terrorists are opportunists!” and “Another thing to remember, pay close attention when directing traffic.” Also available, at no charge, is a $10,000 in-the-line-of-duty death benefit, a token amount compared with the $267,000 coverage already granted by the federal government to every officer in the country, to say nothing of the supplemental coverage provided by nearly every state. And the fund also monitors law-enforcement-oriented legislation.
Sensitive to the criticism that the fund doesn’t do much with its millions, Anderson points to the group’s fundraising campaign. Whereas most charitable groups consider telemarketing a means to a charitable goal, Anderson says telemarketing is the charitable goal. “We are doing a public-relations and education program,” he says. Donors, he concedes, are not informed that most of their donation goes toward the cost of calling them.
Anderson has been in the cop business for a while. In the early ’90s, government officials in several states reportedly targeted a similarly low-performing charity run by Anderson called the Chiefs of Police National Drug Task Force, citing questionable claims that it actually represented chiefs of police or fought drug abuse. In 1994,
Minnesota officials successfully banned the group from soliciting in that state for five years. “I don’t know how it’s relevant,” Anderson says of his previous project.
Last year, Anderson says, the Police Protective Fund streamlined its sizable expenses. He estimates that the group has boosted program services to 30 percent of the budget. “If you consider it was 10 percent the year before, that’s a 300 percent increase,” he says.
If so, it’s not the kind of achievement you’d want to publicize, says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. Lowering overhead to 70 percent “would still bring them up to an F.”
Center for Public Policy Analysis,
Former congressional staffer Philip S. Smith maintains two D.C. “offices.” His Center for Public Policy Analysis, a national-security and foreign-policy think tank whose full-time employees are “me, myself, and I,” lists its address as Suite 318 at 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. His lobbying firm, Philip S. Smith & Associates, uses Suite 381 at 611 Pennsylvania Ave. SE—another UPS Store and the only other commercial mail drop on Pennsylvania Avenue. The eye-catching letterhead “shows you’re a player,” Smith says.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Afghan warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose militia ruled an area north of Taliban-controlled Mazar-i-Sharif, reached for his satellite phone and dialed up Smith, a longtime American associate of his. Smith had promoted Dostum throughout the ’90s as a relatively moderate alternative to the lunatics in Kabul. Now that it seemed likely that U.S. war planners would turn their attention to Afghanistan, Dostum needed Smith to again lobby Washington for American support. The general’s men were hungry. So were his horses.
“Was he brutal? Was he ruthless? Did he kill people? Yes,” explains Smith. “Afghanistan is a nasty place, about as nasty as it gets. But here you had a guy who wanted to kill Taliban and was fighting Taliban before 9/11.”
Central Asia represents only part of Smith’s portfolio. Perhaps his signature cause is helping the families of veterans of the former anti-Communist forces in Laos, which the CIA supported during the Vietnam War. The vets, most of them members of the Hmong minority, ended up on the losing side. Many Hmong families immigrated to America after the war, many others languished in refugee camps on the Thai border for years until given sanctuary in the United States in 2003, and many remain in Laos.
Dostum’s history of brutality—including allegations that his forces murdered hundreds of captured Taliban prisoners in 2001—would seem at odds with Smith’s campaigns against the Laos dictatorship. But Smith says his interaction with Dostum is strictly about national security. (“He’s a feudal lord—that’s his fiefdom,” says Human Rights Watch’s Sam Zarifi, speaking of Dostum’s rule of northern Afghanistan. “But he’s not the worst of the bunch.”)
“The truth is that in the human-rights area, there’s just not a whole lot of money for the underdogs,” Smith says of his low-rent addresses. “Yeah, we get things done, and we’re for real,” he adds, “but we operate in a very mobile fashion, in a virtual method, and we do utilize Starbucks, Kinko’s, and the Rayburn [House Office Building] cafeteria. We have what you’d call low overhead.”
Para-Link offered just the thing for those with dreams of couch-bound upward mobility. Through spam and newspaper ads, this alleged scammer marketed online training courses for paralegals. It also promised to find at-home paralegal work for successful graduates of the program—all for just $395 to $495. But those who bought in allegedly didn’t get any real training, nor any work. In 2000, the Federal Trade Commission accused the Sarasota, Fla.–based company of cheating customers out of $1.6 million, and Para-Link later agreed to shut down.
Citizens for an Alternative
Tax System, #423
Since 1990, Citizens for an Alternative Tax System have campaigned for the eradication of the federal income tax and with it the whole Internal Revenue Service. But don’t call them crazy. They suggest a more rational alternative: a national retail sales tax to be collected by the states. Glenn Wahlquist, director of the group’s national office, says headquarters are actually located in a house in Manassas, Va., not in D.C., and he intends at some point to take the expensive step of reprinting the group’s stationary. The mail drop is “really not doing much for me and what we have going,” says Wahlquist, “because it’s not a plus to have a D.C. address with our clientele and what we’re trying to do.”
Association, Suite 852
A decade ago, when the Internet playground was still reserved for scientists and college kids, a recent Georgetown University grad named Maximillian Robbins hatched a populist plot. He formed the International Internet Association, a nonprofit that promised to provide free access to anyone with a computer and a telephone connection. Web watchers sniffed a possible scam, what would have been one of the Internet’s first.
For one, the IIA asked for credit-card numbers for what was supposed to be a free service. Orders took forever to be filled. And, as many pointed out, the group’s Washington address, Suite 852 at 2020 Pennsylvania NW, wasn’t even its real address. The IIA worked out of Hackensack, N.J., in the headquarters of a telecommunications company called International Discount Telephone. At the time, the company was the IIA’s sole funder.
“There’s a certain legitimacy of having a nonprofit in the nation’s capital, and I was from there,” says Robbins, explaining the drop-box gambit. “[R]unning something out of New Jersey seemed shadier than running something out of D.C.”
Despite media skepticism, requests for service poured in, Robbins says. The credit-card numbers, he explains, were initially an attempt to verify that each user was getting only one account. But when the tide of requests proved too much for the IIA’s systems to handle, the charitable model changed. International Discount Telephone decided it couldn’t meet the IIA’s burgeoning client base, says Robbins, without making some money for itself.
So the company started charging the credit cards of out-of-state users 20 cents a minute if they used IIA’s 800 number in connecting to the Internet. According to Robbins, the cost was outrageous, many users decided to dial up using their own regular long-distance service, and that became an opportunity for International Discount Telephone to pitch its own, discounted long-distance service.
“There was a way to make a lot of money behind it,” says Robbins, “but there was also a very altruistic aspect, in that IDT fronted the money long before they knew they would make anything back.”
Today, Robbins is living in Prague, where he says he’s working on a new software venture and trying his hand as an art broker.
Tiny Business of America,
At merely half a cubic foot in size, Suite 408 seem to have been a comfortable fit for former tenant Tiny Business of America, a group founded in 1993 to promote the interests of the smallest of small companies. But although millions of American businesses met membership requirements (25 or fewer employees), Tiny Business was apparently never more than a speck on the Hill. Today, it’s seemingly nowhere to be found.
International Lifestyle Association, PMB 2269
Someone’s got to keep things swinging. With a board of directors that includes “Champagne” Daniels of Castaways Travel and “Scarlet” of Scarlet Fever publications, the International Lifestyle Association seeks to “create a more tolerant world where people can pursue their dreams and fantasies without fear or ridicule.”
Regional Chamber of Commerce, #850
Regional chambers of commerce are fiercely provincial promoters of their respective corners of the world. You won’t find, say, the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce boosting Fairfax County. But, beginning around December 2002, an outfit simply called the Regional Chamber of Commerce seemed to be everywhere. The Regional Chamber phoned up countless businesses around the country, and the caller would simply ask to verify the business’s current mailing address. Many assumed it was their own local chamber, or maybe the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
Correspondence would follow. In short order, the Regional Chamber of Commerce would mail the business an invoice for $389. Some, believing a usual membership was up for renewal, paid the bill without a second thought, says Stephen Bokat, general counsel for the U.S. Chamber, which fielded dozens of complaints. Businesses that didn’t pay received second and third invoices, and then a final notice, warning that the outstanding debt would be turned over to a third-party collection agency.
“They were sending them dunning notices, which takes a lot of chutzpah,” says Bokat, “and all these invoices had the address of 2020 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
The offices of the U.S. Chamber, one of America’s most powerful lobbying organizations, are located opposite the White House. The offices of the “regional” group, which Bokat had never heard of before the complaints started coming in, were apparently only a few blocks away. Bokat decided to confront the mystery chamber in person. “We’re at 1615 H, so it’s not like a long walk,” he says. “I didn’t know where it was. I thought maybe there was an office there, that we’d bang on their door.” But Bokat discovered a Mail Boxes Etc. instead.
Bokat then called the phone number that appeared on Regional Chamber invoices. The guy on the other end wouldn’t say much, though he did reveal the group’s real location: Canada. A warning went out to local chambers, Bokat informed the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and he says he hasn’t heard any new complaints since last summer.
Following their exit from the White House, some former Clinton and Gore appointees (and campaign staff) felt a little too far removed from their accustomed hold on power. The online alumni group they started helped shorten the distance between past and present: According to its bylaws, the ClintonGoreAlumni.org shall maintain a “principal office” at 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, #255. “It was easily accessible to a lot of other people’s offices, and it was on Pennsylvania Avenue, which is kind of a marquee address,” explains Mike Fourcher, a former chief of staff in the Energy Department’s policy office, the alumni group’s first treasurer. “Anyone who could be part of the organization would be aware that 2020 Pennsylvania Avenue was a Mail Boxes Etc.,” he adds.
Just inches away from ClintonGoreAlumni.org lurks
one of the previous administration’s most dedicated pains in the ass. In the ’90s, George Primbs was “director of special operations” for the Clinton Investigative Commission, an activist group that pulled pranks such as offering peaches—“for impeachment”—to White House staffers lunching outside the Old Executive Office Building. Primbs’ targets have changed with the times. After Sept. 11, Primbs sought a Web-based platform for his “pro-military” sentiments. Unfortunately, war.com was taken, and he says the peacenik music label that owned it wouldn’t sell. “It was kind of a lousy use for the domain name,” complains Primbs. “I’m sure that had a lot of war people confused.”
He snatched up war.us when it became available, and posted a petition supporting the Iraq invasion, along with wire stories trumpeting apparent successes of the occupation and the war on terror. He set up his organization’s terrestrial headquarters at Suite 257, unaware—until recently informed by a reporter—of his new proximity to the Clinton cabal. “You would think they would have a major office with a staff and such,” says Primbs. “So I’m surprised they’re there, next to me.”
Survival Force of America,
Las Vegas–based J. Jay Evenson was until recently the editor and publisher of Bachelor’s Beat, a sex-focused National Enquirer, minus the sophistication. But when he works himself up into a give-me-liberty lather, it’s often under the banner of Survival Force of America. On the Survival Force’s Web site, Evenson offers readers his views on such matters as immigration (put Mexican immigrants to work fighting forest fires), child abduction (are healthy kids being kidnapped for their body parts?) and spelling (“unalienable” rights, not “inalienable”). Available for sale on the site is the book Break the Rules and Win, a collection of Evenson’s rants.
Reminded that the 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. address is a drop box, Evenson confesses: “I shared a desk with another guy in the D.C. area.” He called his mailbox a suite because “it just sounds nicer,” he says.
A few years ago, an Arizona court convicted Evenson on 13 felony counts of selling material harmful to minors. Prosecutors successfully argued that kids could easily get their hands on Bachelor’s Beat by dropping two quarters into a newspaper box. Evenson got off with six years of probation. But the resulting fines, which exceeded $160,000, forced him to sell the paper and shutter his limited Washington operations, which he did about six months ago.
In the end, the D.C. address earned Evenson more guff than credibility. Some radical anti-tax-movement types he knows chided him for submitting to “federal jurisdiction.” As for his other correspondents, Evenson says those who wanted to talk to him knew how to reach him in Las Vegas. He says that all he got out of 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. was junk mail.
Unclaimed Asset Bureau
In 1999, Florida’s financial services department warned residents of a mailing from the seemingly D.C.-based “Unclaimed Asset Bureau,” which offered to find your soon-to-be-forfeited assets for a $21.50 fee. The state comptroller’s office offered the same information, at no cost, through a toll-free number.
National Honor Roll,
Every year, the National Honor Roll makes a lot of kids feel pretty good about themselves. Then it turns them into marketing opportunities.
The Lynbrook, N.Y.–based company distributes surveys with blanks to be filled out—by the student, not the school—with a student’s grades, SAT scores, and various achievements. Some time later, after meeting an unknown set of criteria, the student receives a certificate in the mail for making the National Honor Roll. Then things start getting expensive.
For $15, the student gets her name and photo in a Who’s Who–like publication, enshrining her honor; the book itself costs $54.95 to $69.95. National Honor Roll tchotchkes for sale include a personalized trophy ($29.95), a personalized “goldtone” plaque ($39.95 to $49.95), and a bumper sticker and window decal ($8.95). But the biggest windfall for the National Honor Roll may be the always hard-to-come-by personal information of thousands of minors. The privacy notice on the company’s Web site indicates that student information may be released to other businesses for marketing purposes.
Lynn Romeo, chair of the National Honor Roll’s “Student Nomination Committee,” did not return calls for comment.
Federal Record Service Corp.
In the late ’90s, brides-to-be and mothers of newborns received a mailed solicitation from the official-sounding Federal Record Service Corp., based at 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. For a $15 fee, the group offered to “handle the clerical details” of getting a new Social Security card, a simple service the Social Security Administration does for free. The government sued in 1999, and in a subsequent settlement, the Florida-based owner of Federal Record Service reportedly agreed to pay $845,000 in fines and to dissolve the operation.
Last summer, Remove.org claimed in a spam to be a charity that could protect people from spam and telemarketing lists. The annual fee: $9.95. On the basis of various alleged misrepresentations, Michigan’s attorney general threatened to sue the group. Today, the remove.org Web site is no longer operational.
Not to be confused with John Glenn’s onetime employer, the National Association of Screening Agencies is the industry group for the prying firms that do background checks for landlords on prospective tenants. In a recent interview, the group’s board president, Tacoma, Wash.–based Barbara Tucci, asserted the obvious: that NASA has no employees staffing a Washington office. But she could not immediately explain how its file-folder mail drop has such excellent views. After promising to look into it, she did not return follow-up calls for comment. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Gus D’Angelo.