By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - A former Philadelphia sportscaster will head to trial next month on fraud charges after telling a judge he was withdrawing his guilty plea after seeking divine guidance, according to a prosecutor.
Don Tollefson, 62, is accused of defrauding more than 200 people and several local charities of as much as $317,000 they paid for spurious travel packages to the Super Bowl and other sporting events.
But at what was due to be his sentencing hearing on Monday in Bucks County Court of Common Pleas near Philadelphia he instead changed his plea, invoking his religion.
"I've talked to my God," the Allentown Morning Call quoted him as saying to Judge Rea Boylan. The result of the conversations, he continued, were: "If you are an innocent man, you do everything that you can to prove it."
Matthew Weintraub, Bucks County's chief of prosecution, said on Tuesday the Morning Call's quotes were accurate and that Tollefson will now go on trial Jan. 5.
Tollefson, who has blamed addictions to drugs and alcohol for his actions, would have likely been sent to prison had he been sentenced on Monday, the prosecutor said.
Weintraub said he had been prepared to recommend that the sentence be served in a drug treatment center if Tollefson made substantial restitution to the people the former sportscaster is accused of defrauding.
Tollefson has worked for several Philadelphia television stations and the Philadelphia Eagles football team but was best known for his work for WPVI Channel 6 Action News from 1975 until 1990. He was a popular figure far from Philadelphia thanks to cable systems that carried the station.
The judge also gave Tollefson permission to represent himself for the trial.
Sharif Nabil Abaza, who represented Tollefson until Monday, said his former client will ask the court to appoint him as standby counsel during the trial.
"He believes he will be acquitted," Abaza said, while acknowledging he had advised Tollefson not to withdraw his plea.
(Reporting by David DeKok; Editing by Jonathan Allen and Eric Beech)