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updated: 10/9/2013 8:13 AM

$100M Navy charity fraud trial starts in Ohio

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  • The man who calls himself Bobby Thompson, right, talks with defense attorney Joseph Patituce during opening arguments in court in Cleveland Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. Thompson, 67, who authorities have identified as John Donald Cody, is charged with masterminding a $100 million multistate fraud under the guise of helping Navy veterans.

      The man who calls himself Bobby Thompson, right, talks with defense attorney Joseph Patituce during opening arguments in court in Cleveland Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. Thompson, 67, who authorities have identified as John Donald Cody, is charged with masterminding a $100 million multistate fraud under the guise of helping Navy veterans.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

CLEVELAND -- A former fugitive accused of operating a $100 million cross-country scam collecting donations for Navy veterans shifted money among various accounts and stole millions through ATM cash withdrawals and checks made out to himself, prosecutors said.

Assistant Ohio Attorney General Brad Tammaro told a jury at the opening of a trial Monday that the defendant, who calls himself Bobby Thompson but has been identified by authorities as Harvard-trained lawyer John Donald Cody, was the mastermind of the alleged scam.

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The 67-year-old defendant has been charged with defrauding donors to a reputed charity, the United States Navy Veterans Association based in Tampa, Fla. He showered politicians, often Republicans, with political donations. Last week, the judge rejected a renewed defense request to subpoena testimony from leading Ohio Republicans including U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

Joseph Patituce, the court-appointed defense attorney, said the defendant's work was legal and followed federal tax regulations governing charities.

Tammaro called the defendant a thief who was unable to tell the truth.

Nearly $3 million was donated by people in Ohio to the charity, according to Tammaro, and "that money disappeared -- gone."

Tammaro said the defendant shifted money among accounts and paid fundraising costs and a small staff. The rest disappeared in cash withdrawals and through checks, he said.

Patituce told jurors the prosecution lacked proof of the charges and hinted again that the defense would claim the defendant was involved in a secret government project.

Patituce displayed a photograph of the defendant with former President George W. Bush, and said the charity was authorized to make political contributions and had done so legally.

His client will testify on his own behalf, Patituce said.

Jeff Testerman, a retired Tampa Bay Times reporter who broke stories that helped uncover the alleged fraud, testified that he couldn't reach people identified by the charity as its accountant or internal auditor.

Under cross-examination as the defense tried to show it wasn't a one-man operation, Testerman acknowledged that several people had volunteered with the charity or served as a legal adviser.

The association's lawyer, Helen Mac Murray, identified binders full of check copies made out to Thompson, top assistants or to cash and signed by him or with a signature stamp.

Thompson said his association would not operate in nine or 10 states that required audits, said Mac Murray, a law partner of former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery. Records show their firm was paid more than $277,000 in legal fees by the charity.

The defendant disappeared for almost two years after his 2010 indictment. He was arrested last year in Portland, Ore., where agents and deputy marshals found him with fake IDs and a suitcase containing $980,000 in cash.

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