By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - An Ohio jury convicted a man of running a fake charity for U.S. Navy veterans that raised nearly $100 million from donors in 40 states, finding him guilty on 23 counts including identity fraud for using a false name in the scam, a judge said on Thursday.
John Donald Cody, known by his alias of Bobby Thompson, faces up to 66 years in prison, prosecutors said.
His was the second-largest U.S. charity scam prosecuted after the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy case in the 1990s, in which victims lost $135 million, according to Daniel Borochoff, director of CharityWatch, a philanthropy watchdog group.
A Cuyahoga County common pleas court jury reached the guilty verdict on Wednesday, and Judge Steven Gall announced the decision on Thursday.
Though charged as Bobby Thompson, authorities say the man was actually Cody, 66, a Harvard-trained lawyer and former member of the U.S. Army's military intelligence unit. He is a cold-case fugitive wanted by federal authorities since 1987 on accusations of embezzling from an estate, they said.
He had also appeared on a Federal Bureau of Investigation wanted poster for espionage, but the FBI declined to discuss that case.
"After weeks of testimony by dozens of prosecution witnesses, the defense rested without calling anyone to the stand because there is no defense for the scam that John Donald Cody pulled on Americans in the name of our country's veterans," said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
Prosecutors said Cody ran the U.S. Navy Veterans Association (USNVA), a bogus charity headquartered in Tampa, Florida.
Authorities say he fled Florida using fake identities after Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeff Testerman began digging into his past in 2010 and failed to find anyone else connected to USNVA.
Cody was photographed with prominent politicians like U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona and former President Goerge W. Bush, and used the photos to promote his fake charity, according to Borochoff.
"No one has ever made a bigger mockery of veterans, politicians and charity as Bobby Thompson did with his U.S. Navy Veterans Association," said Borochoff.
Cody's co-conspirator Blanca Contreras is serving a five-year prison sentence in Ohio for her role in this scam after pleading guilty in June 2011.
Cody's attorney Joseph Patituce asked the judge for a mental assessment of his client before sentencing. Cody had been acting erratically toward the end of the trial including hitting his head on a cell wall until he bled and arriving at court partially undressed with his thick grey hair unkempt.
Patituce told reporters after the verdict his client will appeal and may claim ineffectual assistance of counsel given the short time he had to prepare - 30 days compared to three years for prosecutors.
Sentencing was scheduled for December 16.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Daniel Trotta, David Gregorio and Andrew Hay)
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