The charismatic head of a failed foundation pleaded no contest Wednesday to bilking museums, universities and other nonprofit groups of more than $100 million in what prosecutors called the biggest charity fraud in U.S. history.
John G. Bennett Jr., 59, who promised nonprofit groups they could double their money through his Foundation for New Era Philanthropy, withdrew his innocent plea and told the judge he would not challenge all the money laundering and fraud charges against him.
Bennett had planned to argue that a personality disorder and brain damage from two car accidents turned him into a religious zealot who did not believe his scheme was wrong. But a judge restricted use of that defense. If he wins an appeal of that decision, he will be allowed to withdraw his plea.
Bennett’s trial on 82 counts had been scheduled for next month. He now faces up to 907 years in prison and $28 million in fines.
“This plea is consistent with Mr. Bennett’s deep religious convictions and an unwavering contention from the beginning … to accept responsibility for any damage caused by the unfortunate collapse of New Era,” said his attorney, Gregory Miller.
Prosecutors said Bennett operated what amounted to a pyramid scheme, promising contributors he would double their money in six months with matching funds from anonymous benefactors who in reality did not exist. They also accused him of diverting $5.7 million to his own use.
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