(CLEVELAND) — An Ohio judge on Monday sentenced the mastermind of a $100 million charity scam, who had become a major Republican campaign donor, to 28 years in prison.
John Donald Cody, who operated under the pseudonym Commander Bobby Thompson, was fined more than $6 million in addition to the prison sentence for overseeing a bogus charity called the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, which preyed on people’s sympathy for American military veterans at a time of war.
The charges of theft, fraud, money laundering and the use of false identities stemmed from Cody’s stewardship of the organization, which raised millions, but when examined by authorities, offered little proof that money was used to assist veterans.
After the scheme fell apart, Cody went on the run for two years and was ultimately captured in Oregon. But even after his arrest, Cody refused to confirm his real name, going so far as to sign his name “Mr. X” on court papers.
Cody’s sentencing comes on the heels of a month-long trial, in which he offered virtually no defense. He is expected to appeal the guilty verdict.
The prosecution took weeks to build a meticulous case, unwinding the charity’s bank records and calling the association’s former lawyer to the stand. Cody initially sought to have a number of prominent politicians, including former President George W. Bush and House Speaker John Boehner, testify about donations he made to their campaigns on behalf of the veterans’ organization he claimed to oversee. But those requests were turned down.
When the prosecutors rested their case, Cody arrived in court looking disheveled. His lawyer said he had been transferred to the Cleveland jail’s psychiatric unit for observation after having been found slamming his head into the concrete wall of his cell. He announced he would not testify as initially planned.
Cody’s lawyer, Joseph Patituce, then waived his closing statement, thus declining to mount a defense.
His lawyer said Cody signed off on the strategy, which appeared focused on preserving hope for an appeal. Patituce questioned whether his client received a fair trial, given he had only 30 days to prepare and was denied access to accounting and other experts.
“My advice would be definitely to appeal,” Patituce said previously.
Cody has never revealed what happened to the $100 million he raised over years as the head of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.
At the start of the trial, his attorney had promised the jury that Cody would explain how the charity was part of a secret, CIA-blessed operation in which Cody was supposed to use the money to curry political favor. In a series of stunning photos from the mid-2000s, Cody was seen rubbing elbows with high-profile Republican figures like Bush, Boehner and Sen. John McCain.
For three years, ABC News has chronicled Cody’s case — his abrupt disappearance, the manhunt that led to his capture, and the puzzle that surrounded his identity — a mystery made all the more unsettling by his ability to gain access to the White House for an event with then-President Bush, and to pose for photographs with McCain and Boehner.
It was a tale ripped from Hollywood. U.S. Marshals who finally caught him believe Cody modeled his life after the famous imposter from the blockbuster Catch Me If You Can. A copy of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie was among the few personal possessions he kept at a Portland boarding house.
At the start of the trial, prosecutors told ABC News they believe the case against Cody boils down to a simple set of facts.
“A man that had no other source of income, had no job, no nothing…and as soon as questions are asked, he disappears with a suitcase?” said prosecutor Brad Tammaro of the Ohio Attorney General’s office. “If I don’t have a job other than as a trustee for this charity, and then I end up with a million dollars in a suitcase somewhere, there’s the conclusion right there.”
Patituce previously told ABC News his client believes he was working as part of an elaborate CIA plot to court political support and Cody’s biography appears to offer hints of past work with the intelligence community. He carries a degree from Harvard Law School and was documented to have done a stint in military intelligence. And when he was ultimately identified by U.S. Marshals, it was in part because he had appeared on an FBI most wanted poster in connection to a decades-old charge of espionage.
Patituce said his client was also expecting U.S. intelligence officials to bail him out of trouble after U.S. Marshals tracked him down in Portland, Ore., and brought him back to Cleveland to face the state fraud charges.
“He assumed that’s what was going to happen,” Patituce said. “That he would be pulled out of this by the people handling him.”
That is why, the lawyer said, Cody repeatedly refused to identify himself when he was finally captured — signing his name only as “Mr. X” when he was checked into a Cleveland jail.
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