Charities Defrauded

A Maryland man has been convicted of wire fraud in Montana for misrepresenting himself as a Grammy-nominated saxophone player and soliciting money for a children’s cancer foundation that prosecutors say benefited only him.

Photo: AP Photo

Donald “Ski” Johnson of Silver Spring was convicted July 28 in Butte. Sentencing is set for Nov. 12.

The Montana fraud was part of an overall scheme of Johnson’s to defraud numerous organizations around the country, in some cases by promising the attendance of A-list celebrities, prosecutors said.

Charitable organizations complain that Johnson — using aliases and identifying himself as his manager — called and offered to have the “Grammy-nominated” jazz artist appear at celebrity fundraisers in exchange for travel and lodging expenses. He also offered to auction off tickets to the Grammy Awards, with the money to be split between the organization and Johnson’s “Jazz for Life Foundation,” which he said supported children’s cancer research.

Johnson’s foundation took in and spent nearly $150,000 between September 2010 and December 2013, but none of it went to any charity. Johnson used the account for personal expenses, including withdrawing cash, making a mortgage payment and buying groceries, alcohol and other items, court records said.

However, no evidence of any alleged fraudulent activity outside Montana was allowed at trial.

The Montana case began in July 2012 when Johnson, pretending to be a man named Keith Wright, called and offered Johnson’s appearance at a fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Gallatin County, prosecutors said.

“He definitely reached out to us,” Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO Neelie Burman said. “I have a feeling he just kind of Googled celebrity nonprofit events.”

The organization paid $5,700 for travel, food, lodging and greens fees for a golf tournament for Johnson and an associate, organizers said. Johnson played saxophone at a banquet and participated in the golf tournament.

The Grammy tickets were auctioned for $6,000. But before the buyer made payment, Burman received a call from someone who warned them that Johnson might be scamming them, and had done something similar in another state.

The organization contacted the FBI.

Other evidence that was not allowed at last month’s trial included Johnson’s promotion and cancellation of a 2011 cancer research fundraiser in Seattle after KOMO-TV questioned his promises that actors Michael Douglas and James Earl Jones were going to attend. Representatives of both actors said they did not know about the event, the station reported.

PayPal took a $9,300 loss when ticket buyers sought refunds after Johnson had withdrawn some of the money from his account, prosecutors said in an exhibit accompanying their trial brief.

In November 2011, the Hospice of Palm Beach County Foundation auctioned two tickets to the 2012 Grammys, offered by Johnson, for $12,000. The organization forwarded $5,500 of the proceeds to Johnson’s foundation. The winner traveled to the event in February 2012 and walked the red carpet with Johnson, but he did not have any tickets and unsuccessfully tried to sneak her in, prosecutors said.

The foundation filed a civil lawsuit. Court records indicate it was later dismissed, but it was unclear under what, if any, terms. Phone messages to the hospice foundation seeking to learn the outcome were not returned.

Johnson did not immediately return a phone message left at his marketing firm seeking comment. His public defender, Michael Donahoe, declined comment.

Court records said Johnson made similar proposals to celebrity charity events including a Christian school in Washington state, an animal shelter in New Jersey and the NFL Players Association. He also solicited donations from individuals and businesses.

Agents with the FBI and IRS interviewed Johnson in April 2014. He acknowledged he was not a Grammy-nominated artist and used Jazz for Life money for personal expenses, court records said.

A link to the Jazz for Life Foundation website remains on Ski Johnson’s webpage.