HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - Former Philadelphia sportscaster Don Tollefson portrayed himself as an incompetent, but not criminal, businessman as he went on trial on Tuesday on charges that he tricked people into buying fraudulent sports travel packages, local media reported.
Matthew Weintraub, chief prosecutor for the Bucks County district attorney’s office, said in opening arguments that Tollefson, 62, used his fame to prey on the public’s trust for personal gain, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Tollefson, who is acting as his own lawyer, told the jury in the county’s Court of Common Pleas that he did not intend to defraud any of the more than 200 people who bought his travel packages in the belief that the proceeds raised would benefit local charities.
“The money ran out because I‘m a bad businessman,” the Inquirer quoted Tollefson as saying at the trial.
From 1975 until 1990, Tollefson achieved fame and popularity as a sports anchor for WPVI Channel 6 Action News, an ABC affiliate. He later worked for the Fox affiliate in Philadelphia and for the Philadelphia Eagles NFL football team.
He originally pleaded guilty to three felonies and two misdemeanors in the scheme, which prosecutors say brought him about $340,000 that he spent to buy drugs and other items.
But he withdrew his plea on Dec. 15 after saying he had found religion and received divine guidance urging him to fight to clear his name.
He also fired his lawyer, Sharif Nabil Abaza, who had urged him not to withdraw his guilty plea, and won permission from Judge Rea Boylan to represent himself.
Boylan appointed Robert Goldman, a prominent local criminal defense lawyer, as standby counsel to advise Tollefson during the trial.
Tollefson also rejected a prosecutor’s plea deal the day before the trial began, according to local media reports. The agreement would have required him to make substantial restitution and serve seven months in a state prison and 17 months in a drug treatment program.
If convicted on all counts, Tollefson faces up to 37 years in prison. He has said he believes the accusations against him should be addressed in civil litigation, not in a criminal trial.
Prosecutors say Tollefson’s scheme included selling fraudulent travel packages to the 2013 Kentucky Derby and previously to an Eagles-Cowboys away game while hosting an April 2013 charity run in Bucks County.
Editing by Jonathan Allen and Lisa Von Ahn