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TJ Martell Former Exec Charged With Wire Fraud in $4 Million Embezzling Scheme

If convicted, Goodwin faces up to 20 years in prison, a forfeiture of $3.7 million, and a fine of up to $250,000.

Melissa Ann Goodwin, former executive vp/general manager for the  TJ Martell Foundation for Cancer Research, was charged with wire fraud today (Jan. 18) for allegedly embezzling nearly $4 million from the music industry-supported charity over a two-year period.

As part of her scheme, Goodwin allegedly used a company credit card to secretly buy Lady Gaga, Celine Dion and Super Bowl tickets, rare alcohols and more.

According to a federal charging document filed by acting U.S. attorney Mark Wildasin in Tennessee federal court, from July 2018 to April 2020 Goodwin abused her position of total control over the foundation’s financial operations to make a large number of fraudulent charges on a company credit card, then concealed her actions through bookkeeping trickery. If convicted, Goodwin faces up to 20 years in prison, a forfeiture of $3.7 million, and a fine of up to $250,000. She has up to 14 days to surrender, according to court documents.

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Goodwin’s attorney, Worrick G. Robinson, IV of Robinson, Reagan & Young,  issued a statement to Billboard in response to the filing: “Ms. Goodwin is aware of the Criminal Information filed by the US Attorney’s Office today. Since its inception, Ms. Goodwin has fully and completely cooperated in the investigation and is accepting responsibility for her role in this offense. Ms. Goodwin will continue her cooperation to ensure the TJ Martell Foundation recovers money owed to it. There are additional facts that will come to light in the coming months that will provide more detail and clarity about this case.”

The TJ Martell Foundation for Cancer Research was formed by record executive Tony Martell in 1975, following the death of his son, T.J., from leukemia. Supported primarily by the music industry, TJ Martell holds multiple annual charitable events, auctions and campaigns with the music community in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville and Miami and has raised more than $280 million in support of medical research grants at leading U.S. institutions and helped secure more than $1 billion in additional research funding.

Goodwin allegedly obtained a foundation credit card in her name— as a sub-account of the foundation’s credit card account— to purchase approximately $3.96 million in concert and sporting event tickets from Ticketmaster, Stubhub and other vendors at market resale value, according to the filing. Goodwin, a 15-year employee of the charity, also used the credit card to purchase plane tickets, alcohol and hotel stays.

Goodwin, who had unlimited access to and control of the foundation’s financial operations, then turned some of the items over to the founder/owner of a charity auction business, identified as Individual One in the filing to resell, leading him to believe she had acquired the items for free or a reduced rate, the suit alleges. TJ Martell makes a portion of its money from supporters bidding on auction items and had previously legitimately used Individual One’s business on occasion to provide consignment items at auction.

Goodwin also falsified credit card statements and created fake expense reports for TJ Martell’s accounting firm, identified in the filing as Accounting Firm One. She would allegedly replace the ticket expenses with other vendor names to make the charges appear to be legitimate foundation expenses.

Furthermore, Goodwin allegedly would take the financial statements then provided by Accounting Firm One and inflate the foundation’s assets and lower its liabilities before presenting the statements to the CEO to keep the foundation from detecting her fraudulent transactions. Additionally, she allegedly had payments from Individual One’s business made to the foundation credit card she used and she forged the CEO’s signature on various foundation checks totaling more than $965,000 in payments back to Individual One’s companies. (CEO Laura Heatherly’s contract expired in October 2020 and was not renewed. Goodwin was dismissed in July 2020).

“Eighteen months ago, we discovered financial improprieties on the part of a long-term employee of our organization, Melissa Goodwin,” Lynn-Anne Huck, TJ Martell’s interim CEO, said in a statement today.“We initiated an immediate investigation with the help of an independent forensic accounting firm and legal counsel, terminated the employee, and provided our findings to the FBI.

“We also undertook a comprehensive review of our policies and procedures and implemented a series of stringent financial controls to prevent anything like this from occurring in the future,” Huck’s statement continues. “This included revisions to the organization’s policies, procedures, committee charters, and bylaws, as recommended by a legal team specializing in non-profits.

“Additionally, the Foundation will be launching civil litigation to recoup the stolen funds, which we currently estimate at nearly $5 million. It is utterly disgraceful that anyone, especially a trusted employee, would victimize a non-profit organization that provides vital funds to the fight against cancer.”

Huck vows the organization plans “to move forward and continue the work of the Foundation.”

In TJ Martell’s last 990 tax statement publicly available for the fiscal year ending 2019, the organization claimed total revenue of $4,160,132. It stated total functional expenses of  $6,268,451, leaving a deficit net income of $2,118,319. Expenses included Heatherly’s salary of $235,536 and Goodwin’s salary of $123,654. Huck has been interim CEO since late 2020.

The pandemic put a halt to TJ Martell’s in-person fundraisers and they have not resumed during the  investigation. According to its website, the last events TJ Martell hosted were its 12th annual Nashville Honors Gala on Feb. 24, 2020, which raised $1 million, a Feb. 19 Martell in Miami gala that raised $500,000 and the Jan. 23, 2020 12th annual LA Wine Dinner Auction, which brought in more than $635,000.

The story is developing and will be updated. 

Assistance in preparing this story provided by Bill Donahue.