Charity Con Man Can Be Asked To Pay Restitution, Court Rules

A Maryland saxophone player who was convicted of defrauding a Montana charity could be required to pay restitution to victims of similar schemes throughout the country, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

Donald “Ski” Johnson, using at least two aliases, misrepresented himself as a Grammy-nominated artist and sought invitations to charity golf tournaments in exchange for travel and lodging expenses about a dozen times between 2011 and 2014, federal prosecutors say.

AP Photo
– Donald “Ski” Johnson

Johnson also lied in saying he worked for the music company Sony, that he represented other top celebrities and was raising money for a children’s cancer charity, the Jazz for Life Foundation, that prosecutors said benefited only him, court records said. The foundation took in and spent nearly $150,000 between September 2010 and December 2013, according to court records.

In some cases, including the Montana one, he offered to provide tickets to the Grammy Awards that could be auctioned with the proceeds split between organizers and his purported charity.

After Big Brothers Big Sisters of Gallatin Valley auctioned the tickets, organizers heard about an earlier fraud case and refunded the Grammy ticket price to the donor. In the earlier case, the purchaser traveled to California but was unable to gain admission to the event. Grammy tickets cannot be transferred, organizers said.

Johnson was convicted of wire fraud in July 2015 and ordered to pay $5,650 to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Gallatin Valley. He was sentenced to five years of probation, including six months of home confinement.

Before trial, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ruled he would not allow testimony about any other alleged fraud and only heard about the other cases during a sentencing hearing to determine a sentencing range.

But federal prosecutors argued — and the appeals court agreed — that Christensen should determine whether Johnson’s other activities “are sufficiently related to be included for restitution purposes in Johnson’s overall scheme to defraud.”

The federal Victim and Witness Protection Act allows courts to order restitution for crimes involving a scheme to defraud, including related acts for which the defendant was not convicted, the ruling said.

“The government contends Johnson’s scheme to defraud should be defined broadly to include his misrepresentations as a Grammy-nominated musician with a charitable purpose,” the court noted. “We do not decide this issue, but note that much of Johnson’s conduct may be sufficiently related to his scheme to be included in a restitution order.”

Federal prosecutors are seeking more than $70,000 in restitution, including:

—  $13,700 for the Hospice of Palm Beach County in Florida after a woman who bid $12,000 for a trip to the Grammy Awards was not allowed entrance to the event. The foundation sent $5,500 of the proceeds to the Jazz For Life Foundation.

— $11,320 to Eco Golf Tournaments

— $10,000 to Pleased Golf Inc., an organization that arranges for celebrity golfers to participate in fundraisers. It arranged a tournament with Johnson that was later cancelled.

— A gala Johnson was promoting in Seattle in February 2011, during which he falsely promised the attendance of actors Michael Douglas and James Earl Jones, cost PayPal $9,300 in proceeds from early ticket sales that were transferred to Johnson before the event was canceled and the tickets refunded, court records said. Representatives for Douglas and Jones said they knew nothing about the event.

Johnson — using the aliases Richard Simms or Kevin Wright — also pitched his participation in fundraisers for a South Carolina scholarship program, an Arkansas AAU football program, and the fundraising arm of Boston band the Dropkick Murphys, court records said. Prosecutors are seeking restitution for travel, lodging and greens fees for those and other events as well as for direct donations to the Jazz for Life Foundation.