Warning: The following contains spoilers for “Telemarketers” on HBO.
The HBO docuseries “Telemarketers” enters its third and final episode Sunday, ending one of the most unexpected screen journeys in recent memory – from the party offices of a seedy New Jersey call center to the office of an incumbent US Senator.
Directed by Sam Lipman-Stern and Adam Bhala Lough, the series unveils what’s really behind those seemingly endless phone calls asking for money for various charities involving many legitimate-sounding police organizations.
Lipman-Stern started working at a switchboard in the early 2000s as a high school dropout, fundraising for dodgy charities while working for a company called Civic Development Group (CDG). However, very little of the money from these telemarketing calls went to actual charities: more than 90% went to CDG’s coffers instead.
And as long as the employees brought in the money, they could do whatever they wanted. When Lipman-Stern started taking a camcorder to work, he recorded videos of people drinking, using drugs, playing pranks and more, all while making tons of fundraising calls.
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One of his associates was Patrick J. Pespas, who was considered a telemarketing legend for his ability to raise funds, even as he fell asleep after using heroin. It was Pespas who encouraged Lipman-Stern to turn his camera on the company itself and find out just how deep these scams were.
Pretty deep, as it turned out.
Over the course of the three-part series, Lipman-Stern and Pespas morph into scumbags Woodward and Bernstein and unravel how the world of telemarketing really works – until Pespas dumped Lipman-Stern and the project sometime in the early 2010s. Lipman-Stern then moved to Los Angeles where he held various jobs including videographer shooting weddings, bar mitzvahs and foot fetish videos. Years passed, but his days at CDG and his time at Pespas stayed with him forever.
“I was always kind of obsessed with history. I would dream of telemarketing, of being back in the CDG office,” Lipman-Stern said. “I was always obsessed with making something out of it. When Pat disappeared, it kind of stopped. I always thought maybe someday, maybe before I die, something has to come out, someone has to see this stuff. Because it was just so wild.”
Sam Lipman star in Telemarketers.
It was during this hiatus from the project that Lipman-Stern reached out to Bhala Lough, a cousin he didn’t really know and who is a documentary filmmaker. CDG’s footage and telemarketing scam investigation was fascinating to Bhala Lough, but it was the people, the characters, that really made it special. Bhala Lough had a contract with the production company Rough House Pictures by David Gordon Green and Danny McBride; They appeared as executive producers.
Bhala Lough brought the project to Uncut Gems filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie. Bhala Lough initially thought of them to direct the project – they had previously directed the documentary Lenny Cooke, which was also based on archival footage – but instead they also signed on as executive producers through their company Elara Pictures.
It was Safdie who came up with the three-episode structure. The first is most deeply rooted in Lipman-Stern’s old recordings of the party days at CDG. The second follows Pespa and Lipman-Stern’s investigation of CDG and a series of copycats who emerged after the Federal Trade Commission shut down the company in 2009 and used their research as a lens into the persistent, ever-evolving field of telemarketing scams. Sunday’s finale, made up largely of footage shot since production resumed in 2020, sees Lipman-Stern reunited with Pespas to finish the job.
“In the end we focused on the buddy movie style because Pat was such a great character. And Sam was obviously the Robin to his Batman,” said Bhala Lough. “And then the goal was: Can we find Pat? When I got to the project, Sam didn’t know where Pat was. He was like, “Last I heard Pat was pumping gas on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.” And I was like, “Really?” That’s great. Let’s find him.’”
When they found Pespas, they were relieved that he was fine, sober, and caring for his ailing wife. And he was determined to pick up their investigation exactly where they left off years ago.
“You can see how pleased he is with these tests,” Safdie said. “The best moment is when his wife says to him, ‘You’re happy, aren’t you?’ And he’s like, “Oh, it’s the best.” That little pop and you’re like, “Oh my god.” “That’s so amazing for Pat.”
“The fact that the documentary explores Pat makes you feel like you’re really close to him and then you trust him,” Safdie said. “You feel like it’s really good for him to do that and you cheer him on.”
Meanwhile, many telemarketing companies have transitioned from raising funds for charities to raising funds for political action committees, which have even stricter regulations. One of the most disturbing moments in the film is when one of the filmmakers receives a robocall during filming, where the recorded voice on the other end of the line is from someone they know is dead.
“The most surprising thing for all of us was how the scam had evolved in the eight years since we dropped the investigation,” Lipman-Stern said. “It had evolved into something that was a lot less regulated, a lot wilder and more dystopian.”
Pespas is an eccentric detective. At one point, he refuses to get on a plane, resulting in the entire production driving across the country to give a scheduled interview. In another heartbreaking yet hilarious moment, Pespas approaches the national head of the Fraternal Order of Police at a convention, hoping to confront him about state and local FOP lodges’ involvement in phone solicitation scams. But Pespas calls the man by the wrong name and misses the possible interview.
“We just let Pat be Pat,” Lipman-Stern said. “We let everything flow naturally and just document everything. I think that was the most important thing. Just document it. Okay, he screwed up the name. We won’t worry about that.”
“I always felt like everything we got on camera with Pat was gold,” said Bhala Lough. “I never felt like that was a problem for the show… You can see how human Pat is. He leads with his heart.
“There is something beautiful, something poetic about it. As a professional documentary filmmaker, I’ve tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. Because the special thing about it is that they do it. If you were on CNN or whatever and misrepresented the guy’s name, you would be fired. But for me it is exactly the opposite.”
Patrick J. Pespas in Telemarketers.
The story’s supposed finale comes as Pespas meets with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has long championed efforts to take on the telemarketing industry. The meeting was moderated in part by Ann Ravel, former Chair of the Federal Electoral Commission and another interviewee in the film.
“When we started doing these interviews in Episode 1 with people from the inside [CDG] In the office, we didn’t know what we were doing at all,” Lipman-Stern said. “All of the interviews he had conducted culminated at that moment with Senator Blumenthal. I think that was Pat at his best. At that moment we were all really proud of him because he was just ready. The best way to see his progression from where he started to where he is now is in this interview.”
Pespas excitedly begins his monologue at Blumenthal, explaining in breathless haste everything they have uncovered, while the senator looks increasingly confused at the man in front of him.
Blumenthal hands Pespas to his staff, who in turn quickly end the meeting. A potential action moment becomes something of an anti-climax. Except for the fact that Pespas and Lipman-Stern had found their way from a dirty New Jersey phone bank to a meeting with a US Senator. Regardless of the outcome, that’s an achievement in itself.
“We checked them out, an 80-page documentation of this scam and what we found out. We’ve asked a few times and never heard back,” Bhala Lough said of the outcome of the meeting. “We were hoping that Senator Blumenthal would vouch for Pat in some way and help bring him before Congress to testify on these things, particularly the PAC issue.
“That was our goal. We weren’t just playing airs or trying to make a scene,” said Bhala Lough. “Because we went to every regulator, and we went to everyone, the FTC [Federal Trade Commission]the FEC [Federal Election Commission]the FCC [Federal Communications Commission], the IRS, they all told us the same thing: “Congress needs to change the rules.” We hope that happens. We’re hoping the senator calls us and says, ‘I saw the show. Let’s talk.'”
In a statement to The Times, a Blumenthal spokesperson wrote, “We always welcome information and complaints about wrongdoing and consumer abuse.” Senator Blumenthal has long been a leader on this matter and we will continue to call for accountability against scammers and telemarketers, particularly anyone who posing as non-profit organizations and charities.”
“It’s the culmination of this whole adventure and it doesn’t end the way you imagine. It’s like, ‘This went pretty wrong,'” Safdie said. “You don’t know what to make of that.”
“Even though it didn’t go perfectly for a normal documentary, this one succeeds at the same level as you would have expected,” he added. “And not only that. They made a film about it, and it will now do the work they originally wanted to do. It will get people’s attention and they will start calling their senators and trying to change things. So they did it.”