Sunday, May 24, 2015

Victims in Tollefson's alleged charity scam want refunds, not criminal charges

Don Tollefson.
Don Tollefson. Natalie Hope McDonal

WHEN DON TOLLEFSON called Michelle Keane about 10 p.m. one night last winter and asked for her credit-card number, Keane gladly obliged.

Anyone else, she would have been suspicious. But it was Don Tollefson, the former TV sports director known for his charity work. A Hall of Fame member of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia.

In a city where local television personalities enjoy celebrity status, Tollefson had built up decades of goodwill.

"He sold himself pretty well," Keane said. "We'll never be that stupid again."

Keane, of Blue Bell, Montgomery County, was among a group of 12 people who had agreed in January to purchase package deals to the Nov. 3 Eagles-Raiders game in Oakland. Tollefson said the money would support a charity for wounded war veterans.

Eagles tickets, airfare and a hotel room for $750 a couple seemed too good to be true, Keane thought. Then again, it was "Tollie." What could go wrong? She agreed to let Tollefson charge the $4,500 for the ticket packages to her credit card.

But when Keane, the aunt of a Navy SEAL, checked her statement, she discovered that the money hadn't gone to the wounded-vets charity, as Tollefson had said it would. It went to Winning Ways, a charitable organization set up by Tollefson that isn't registered with the IRS.

"He said he was really sorry, but that because the Eagles management had changed, things were getting a lot more complicated and confusing," Keane said.

The Eagles beat the Raiders, but Keane's crew lost their money. They never got the tickets, airfare or hotel rooms. And, it now appears, the money didn't even go to the cause they thought they were supporting.

"I don't want him to go to jail," Keane said of Tollefson. "I just want a refund."

Sources tell the Daily News that Tollefson's charities have been raising eyebrows for more than a decade, going back to his days at Fox 29, and the multijurisdictional criminal probe into the alleged scam has already expanded beyond the Eagles road-trip snafu.

The investigation now involves the IRS and a grand jury, according to a source recently contacted by a law-enforcement official working the Tollefson case. Websites for most of Tollefson's charities have gone dark.

"It's a monster right now," said Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Ryan Hyde, who specializes in complex white-collar cases, of the Tollefson investigation. "We've talked with more than 100 victims. It's a sizable amount of money."

Hyde declined to confirm or deny whether a grand jury was investigating Tollefson, but he said authorities are looking into past allegations of theft.

Keane is among at least dozens of Eagles fans who say they were duped by Tollefson, 61, this season. In mid-October, as victims began coming forward, Tollefson checked into an inpatient facility for what his lawyer and longtime friend, Michael McGovern, said was psychological treatment and a "substance issue." Tollefson was released in mid-November.

"I cannot emphasize enough: If there were mistakes made, these were honest mistakes because of a lack of organization, and they will be corrected," McGovern said yesterday. "I think people are tarring and feathering Don, and I really don't think it's fair or it's accurate."

But a former Fox 29 employee recalled people contacting the station, saying that Tollefson owes them tickets. Tollefson left Fox 29, where he served as sports director, in 2008. He previously worked for 6ABC.

"When I first saw these stories, I wasn't surprised," the source said.

Another ex-employee of Fox 29 said rumors about Tollefson's charities were common when he worked there: "It kept coming up over time, that there was a lot of shady dealing. I think, overall, he has a good heart and just took a wrong turn someplace. It's sad."

"I always thought that was kind of murky," a third former Fox 29 employee said of Tollefson's Winning Ways charity.

The questions go back further. Tollefson also failed to deliver money to a cancer patient at least 10 years ago after Winning Ways raised money in conjunction with a player from the defunct women's soccer team, the Philadelphia Charge, according to a source who attended the fundraiser.

"She never got the money," the source said. "This has been going on for a while with him."

None of at least four charities associated with Tollefson - Winning Ways, One Child Saved, Employ Young Adults and tixr4kids.com - appears to be registered with the IRS. The website for One Child Saved has been taken down, but a cached version of the site says One Child Saved and Winning Ways are 501(c)(3) nonprofits and that all donations are tax-deductible.

"In order for it to be tax deductible at all, they would have to have an IRS determination," said Greg McRay, chief executive of the Foundation Group, which assists nonprofits.

The site tixr4kids.com, which is written mostly in all-caps, says it was founded by Tollefson in 2011. Visitors are asked to provide free tickets and to contribute money through a PayPal link. It says donations will help "in a variety of ways," such as scholarships for inner-city children and field trips.

"YOU CAN HELP US ADVANCE THOSE PROGRAMS IN A VERY BIG WAY!!" the site says. It includes Tollefson's phone number and email address, and inspirational quotes from Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson.

Anne Gordon, the Eagles' senior vice president of media and communications, said Tollefson hosted an in-stadium halftime show between 2009 and 2012, but that the team was not involved with his charities or trips, as he claimed. She said he did have access to free tickets, though.

"The Eagles regularly provide area charities with tickets to help with their cause. Over the years, Don's charities were occasionally beneficiaries of this as well," Gordon said.

Gordon said the team is cooperating with authorities in the criminal investigation. Fox spokeswoman Claudia Russo declined to comment.

Tollefson has, in fact, participated in a lot of legitimate charity work over the years. McGovern estimates that he's raised millions of dollars. Tollefson has often been seen taking children to sporting events, too.

"He was somebody that walked the walk. He would show up for anything and put considerable time into any good cause," said Roger LaMay, the former general manager and news director of Fox 29 who hired Tollefson. "He was a trooper when it came to going to events."

But investigators are trying to determine how some of that money was spent. Tollefson's off-the-grid charities do not appear to have filed the paperwork typically required of nonprofits.

"Don is a sports legend in Philadelphia. Most of us would have helped in any way possible," emailed Joseph Tryon, chief executive of Hatboro Federal Savings, which donated $5,000 this year to Tollefson's Employ Young Adults. The news release announcing the donation has been removed from the Web, as has the charity's page.

"We were told he took children to the Super Bowl and other sporting events," Tryon's email read.

Jim Terra, a retired construction worker in Northeast Philly, said he and his wife are out $500 they gave Tollefson as part of an Eagles trip to Denver that fell through.

"One girl spent almost $5,000 for her family to go. Grandkids and everybody else," Terra said. "He gave me the impression that airlines and hotels were donating a lot of this stuff, that this is really helping out the kids."

McGovern said he has been contacted by more than 60 people who say they support Tollefson. They don't believe he would have committed fraud in the name of charity.

"There were organizational failures on Don's part in coordinating tickets and things of that nature, out of neglect. Not malice, not avarice and certainly not criminal conduct," McGovern said.

"I would bet my house," he added, "that he would not unjustly enrich himself when he is so committed to his mission in life: to help others."

 


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Blog: ph.ly/DailyDelco

Daily News Staff Writers benderw@phillynews.com, 215-854-5255
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