The man behind an out-of-state charity that claimed to help local foster kids may have raised as much as $150,000 in Tucson before he recently left town without accounting for the cash, one of his former assistants says.

A second ex-assistant, who oversaw the Tucson operation for about a month this summer, says local shoppers and diners dropped a total of $4,000 to $8,000 a week into cash donation jars set up outside stores and restaurants across the city.

The man who controlled the money, Bruce Landau, founder of the now-defunct Southern AZ Foster Kids, left town last month having spent virtually nothing on local foster children and now seems to be broke, according to the former assistants.

They said Landau, 63, recently wrote them thousands of dollars worth of bad checks for back wages. They eventually got paid only after Landau’s 91-year-old father intervened to cover their wage claims, they said.

Landau, who set up a near-identical fundraising outfit in Las Vegas within days of leaving Tucson, declined to answer most of the questions he was asked for this story. But in an email Friday, he disputed that he was out of money or needed his family’s help to pay off former staffers.

“That is so untrue. We are not broke and I am not getting help,” he said, contradicting the contents of text messages one of his ex-staffers shared with the Arizona Daily Star.

In the texts, Landau directed the ex-employee to “check with my dad” to get her overdue back pay and provided his father’s home phone number in Ohio. The Star confirmed with directory assistance that the number in the text belongs to Landau’s father.

Asked in a previous interview if his Tucson operation had ever topped six figures, Landau said it was “nowhere near” that much, but he has declined for months to say how much money he raised or to provide a financial statement.

Landau’s table solicitors — who kept half of all the money they collected without disclosing as much to donors — were a regular sight outside dozens of local businesses from March to August.

Some business owners now say they were too trusting and failed to check if Landau’s charity was legitimate before allowing his solicitors on site.

Landau said his Tucson operation was a branch of his San Diego-based nonprofit, the California Helping Hands Foundation. The foundation is banned from fundraising in that state for failure to file charity tax returns for the past two years, the California Attorney General’s Office says.

Despite the fundraising ban, the California Helping Hands Foundation just last week posted a help-wanted ad on craiglist San Diego seeking table solicitors to collect donations outside businesses in that state.

The San Diego site is being run long-distance from Ohio by Landau’s nephew.

Bounced paychecks

The former assistants recently interviewed by the Star spanned the entire period Landau operated in Tucson. One worked remotely from San Diego and the other drove back and forth from Phoenix.

Neither had control over the money Landau took in. Their job was to contact local businesses for permission to solicit and to enter into a database the total donations made at each site. Unlike Landau’s table solicitors, who were paid based on what they took in, the assistants were supposed to receive weekly salaries.

Dana Bintliff, 39, of Phoenix, who oversaw the Tucson operation in June, said she thought she was doing something good by going to work for a charity but quickly figured out things were not what they seemed.

“I left a corporate job with benefits thinking I was going to go work for a nonprofit and make a difference,” she said. She became suspicious, she said, when Landau couldn’t cover her paychecks even though database entries showed him taking in $4,000 to $8,000 a week.

Landau promised her a salary of $1,100 a week, she said, and when she quit owed her $3,300 he couldn’t pay. At one point, Landau texted her his father’s Ohio home phone number, she said, but she ended up recovering most of the money from a different relative.

Landau’s other administrative assistant, who worked for him the entire time he was in Tucson, said Landau bounced “nine or 10” of her $680-a-week paychecks during that time, leaving her credit rating in ruins. She said his father covered her final paycheck.

The 21-year-old from San Diego asked not to be identified in this story for fear of jeopardizing future employment. Her status as one of Landau’s employees is known to the Star because Landau previously referred reporters to her when she still worked for him.

The woman said she once tallied the donations in Landau’s Tucson database to try to figure out why he was having so much trouble paying her. She said the total she came up with was “around $150,000” but added she doesn’t know for sure if every database entry was recorded accurately.

Lin Leclair Turner, a longstanding member of Tucson’s foster-care community, was shocked to hear from a reporter how much money Landau’s employees said he raised here.

Turner, a board member with the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, said that much money could have done worlds of good for local foster kids, covering the cost of things like tutoring, braces, school supplies, social events, music lessons and extracurricular sports.

Few questions asked

Local business owners who saw Landau’s employees set up outside national chain stores assumed — wrongly — that his charity must have been checked out thoroughly.

That’s what happened at Dickman’s Meat & Deli, which has stores on East Broadway and North Oracle Road.

General manager Dan Dickman said he thought Landau’s outfit was legitimate because he’d seen his solicitors stationed outside a local Sam’s Club.

He figured Walmart, which owns Sam’s Club, had scrutinized the organization.

“We learned a big lesson on this one,” Dickman said.

Landau’s solicitors often set up outside local Walmarts, according to his former employees. Managers at Walmart and most other stores typically OK’d the visits with few questions asked, they said.

Walmart’s Arkansas-based headquarters took weeks to respond to interview requests from the Star and would not answer questions about the company’s vetting practices for charities.

Instead, Walmart spokeswoman Tara Aston emailed a quote on behalf of the corporation: “Our stores are heavily involved in their communities and frequently work with charitable organizations, and we have policies in place to ensure their legitimacy. We appreciate this being brought to our attention and will work with law enforcement however possible.”

The lack of oversight was costly, financially and emotionally, to locals like retiree Jack Pence of SaddleBrooke, who made a $100 donation to Landau’s outfit at Village Bakehouse restaurant, 7882 N. Oracle Road.

“I guess you could say I have a soft spot for kids who don’t have a mother or father to come home to,” Pence said.

The solicitor behind the donation table assured Pence the money would be well spent and gave him brightly colored pamphlets with photos of children swimming and playing, he said.

“It was like a kick in the gut,” he recalls, when he later read a story in the Star that raised questions about the charity’s legitimacy.

Because Pence — unlike most donors — paid with plastic, he said he was able to get the charge reversed by complaining to his credit-card company.

Paulette Griggs, owner of the Village Bakehouse, said Landau’s solicitors seemed legitimate, so she allowed them to set up a table. After that, his employees called constantly about visiting again.

“They would call and insist and my managers would feel bad for them,” she said.

She was concerned her customers were feeling harassed and told the solicitors they couldn’t be there as often.

Griggs said her staff had good intentions, but in hindsight, said the eatery should never have allowed Southern AZ Foster Kids to set up a table even once.

“I will not be doing anything like that again, unfortunately,” she said.

Landau told the Star when he left town in August that he intended to come back in early September to host a twice-postponed trip to the Reid Park Zoo for foster families. Instead, he postponed it again and said he now intends to do the zoo trip in October.

Some Tucsonans told the Star they contacted the state Attorney General’s Office to complain about Landau’s activities. Katie Conner, the agency’s spokeswoman, said she can’t comment on whether Landau is under investigation, but said anyone with concerns can call the Tucson office at 628-6648.

Vegas venture

Two days after Landau left town Aug. 21, a help-wanted ad nearly identical to the ones he used in Tucson and San Diego popped up on Craigslist in Las Vegas, only this time, his stated cause was disabled children instead of foster kids.

A phone number listed in the Las Vegas ad is the same one Landau used for his Tucson operation and included his first name, Bruce, alongside the number.

A Facebook page and a Twitter account also were created for the new venture called Special Kids Las Vegas, which is said to be raising money “to bring special needs families together to celebrate at different free events throughout the year.”

As of Tuesday, the Facebook page listed about half a dozen Las Vegas stores and restaurants where donations had already been collected.

All the online sites for the Las Vegas entity were taken down Tuesday, shortly after people from Tucson’s foster-care community learned of the new operation and started posting consumer warnings on the Las Vegas Facebook page.

Landau declined to talk about the Las Vegas operation.

“I’m not answering any more of your questions,” his latest email to the Star said.

“I’m gonna move on from this.”

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or calaimo@tucson.com. On Twitter: @AZStarConsumer. Contact Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar