In November 1995, a St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital donation clerk opened an envelope containing an instant-winner game piece from McDonald’s Monopoly Sweepstakes worth $1 million.
At the time, it seemed like a holiday miracle. Unlike other hospitals, the majority of funding for St. Jude comes from generous donors to help ensure families never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food.
The $1 million gift was celebrated, and the anonymous donor was lauded for his/her generosity. But it turned out to be neither a holiday miracle nor the actions of a selfless donor.
In 2001, the world learned the identity of the “donor” when FBI agents arrested Jerry Jacobson for defrauding McDonald’s out of $24 million over several years. Jacobson had been the security chief for Simon Marketing — the marketing firm McDonald’s had hired to coordinate the game.
The story of “Operation: Final Answer,” the FBI investigation that exposed Jacobson’s fraud, is chronicled in the new HBO documentary series McMillions.
For years, the FBI said, Jacobson had been funneling winning game pieces to associates who would claim the prizes and then give Jacobson a cut of the prize money.
According to investigators, as the 1995 contest deadline grew closer, Jacobson was unable to find someone he could trust to claim the $1 million prize. He decided to mail the winning piece to St. Jude, where the plain white envelope with only a “Dallas” postmark was opened. St. Jude announced it had received the winning game piece in the mail, and McDonald’s officials traveled to the hospital to inspect the piece, ensuring its authenticity.
Then — despite game rules that prohibited the transfer of winning pieces — McDonald’s agreed to honor the donation by giving St. Jude $50,000 every year for the next 20 years.
And even after the arrests of Jacobson and his cohorts in 2001, McDonald’s continued to honor the $50,000 annual donation to St. Jude for the promised 20 years.