John Esposito Named Chairman of T.J. Martell Foundation as Organization Rebuilds From Financial Scandal: Exclusive
The T.J. Martell Foundation for Cancer Research, which is in the midst of rebuilding after the organization’s former executive vp/GM Melissa Goodwin was found to have embezzled $4 million from the music industry-supported charity, has named Warner Music Group chairman emeritus John “Espo” Esposito the new chairman of the board of trustees.
“We got the double whammy of the COVID pandemic and somebody being a bad actor,” says Esposito, who stepped down as chairman/CEO of Warner Music Nashville on Dec. 31 and wanted to devote some of his newfound time to good works. “I felt qualified with my knowledge of the organization and passion for them to do what I could to help get us back on track.”
Esposito’s initial term is for two years. He succeeds Universal Music Group general counsel and executive vp Jeffrey Harleston, who will now serve as executive chairman.
Esposito, who has served as a T.J. Martell Foundation trustee since 2006 but has supported the organization since 1997, adds, “Obviously, I’m not going to do that single-handedly, but I felt like I could use my leadership skills to help us in so many ways.”
Former consultant Lynn-Anne Huck, who took over as acting CEO in 2020 after initially conducting the review that unearthed Goodwin’s improprieties, is now the permanent CEO of the Nashville-based organization.
Courtesy of T.J. Martell Foundation
Formed by record executive Tony Martell in 1975 following the death of his son, T.J., from leukemia, T.J. Martell holds multiple annual charitable events, auctions and campaigns in tandem with the music community in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Miami and other cities. It 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.
T.J. Martell is additionally preparing for its 45th annual New York Honors Gala, the organization’s first since 2019. Held at Cipriani 42nd Street, the June 13 event will honor Warner Records co-chairman and COO Tom Corson with the Lifetime Music Industry award, Def Jam Recordings chief creative officer and executive vp Archie Davis with the Rising Music Superstar Award and songwriter Shane McAnally with the Spirit of Music Award.
Esposito takes over a charity that was roiled by Goodwin’s actions. According to federal charging documents, from July 2018 to April 2020, she used a company credit card to purchase approximately $3.96 million in concert and sporting event tickets, including for Lady Gaga, Celine Dion and the Super Bowl. She also bought plane tickets, alcohol and hotel stays. Goodwin turned some of the items over to the owner of a charity auction business to resell but kept the money instead of turning it over to the charity.
Prosecutors also say she falsified credit card statements, created fake expense reports and replaced the ticket expenses with other vendor names to make the charges appear to be legitimate foundation expenses. Goodwin, who cooperated with federal prosecutors, pled guilty to wire fraud and was sentenced to four years in prison in August. The Foundation is the plaintiff in four other suits relating to Goodwin’s malfeasance — including one against its former accounting firm — that are all in the discovery stage.
Under Harleston and Huck, the organization put safeguards in place to assure supporters and donors that what happened under Goodwin won’t happen again. “Lynn-Anne created a 28-page policies and procedures manual for financial transactions,” Esposito says. “We’re probably going above and beyond on a consistent basis.”
“If you go to our website,” Huck says, “you’re going to find more information than almost any other non-profit. We are absolutely transparent with everything.” The website includes IRS 990 Forms going back to 2017, as well as independent audit reports.
According to its latest 990 form, T.J. Martell, a registered 501 (c) corporation, ended 2021 with net assets of $1.045 million. Like many organizations, it took a hit during the pandemic; its net assets on its 2019 990 form were listed as $3.35 million. Despite that drop as well as Goodwin’s actions, Huck says the organization was able to fulfill all of its 2019 promised grants going into 2020 before the pandemic hit. It will resume grant-giving this year.
Esposito, Huck and the trustees have also done outreach to rebuild trust brick by brick. “To get people back in the boat, every quarter I had a list of about 250 donors and friends, and either myself or [other key T.J. Martell board members] would just get on the phone and answer questions,” Huck says. “’What are we doing?’ ‘How are we going to make sure this never happens again?’ So by the time [Goodwin] was charged last year, everybody knew. We kept them in the light all along.”
T.J. Martell’s first event in 2023 occurred during Grammy Week in Los Angeles when it held its Best Cellars dinner. Similar events to be held in Nashville, Napa, Atlanta, Houston, Washington, D.C. and Cleveland this year will pair a four-course gourmet meal with wines provided by some of the country’s most distinguished wine collectors. The Los Angeles event, which was held Feb. 2, netted $600,000 for the organization, far beyond its original budget of a “few hundred thousand,” Esposito says.
“The love in that room and the enthusiasm in that room, it was like we were back in 1999. It was a great feeling,” Esposito says. “So, I’m feeling very confident that as long as we take all the right steps, we’re going to build this thing to a really good place.”
The organization is also looking at ways to broaden its outreach by spreading into other areas — part of a strategy to cut down on the number of events it holds each year. In 2018, T.J. Martell held 32 events that raised over $4 million. With this year’s seven Best Cellars dinners, it hopes to raise $3 million. Ideas include creating marathon teams that raise money for T.J. Martell, as well as increasing planned giving by individuals and estates and increasing branding and sponsorship possibilities. “It’s tapping into cash that makes the events far more productive and our not being so dependent on 30 events in a year,” Esposito says.
By relying less on staff-intensive events, Esposito and Huck hope to keep their personnel numbers down. In 2019, T.J. Martell had 25 full-time employees but now has only three. As the organization revs back up, they say they will judiciously hire more staffers based on need.
As Esposito delves into his role, he says the two words he uses to sum up T.J. Martell 2.0 are “transparency and enthusiasm… I yearn for us to be transparent on a profound level. And every philanthropic organization relies on enthusiasm, and 2023 is the year we’re building enthusiasm back and I’m thrilled that I’m already feeling it,” he says. “I can only imagine as we start getting events like the gala under our belt that people will be saying, ‘They’re back and better than ever.’”