Official pressure is needed

Published 7:38 pm Monday, September 2, 2013

With weekend tickets going for more than $100 apiece, the Suffolk Riverfront Jazz Festival was an expensive proposition for most folks, but the cost was expected to be worth the reward for the many people who shelled out money in advance for the two-day event.

The high ticket costs would have paid for a fine array of jazz musicians — folks like Dianne Reeves, Jeff Lorber, Maestro J and Julian Vaughn — and organizer Aubrey Wilson had promoted it as a fundraiser for the Gladys Gatlin Foundations, an IRS-qualified nonprofit organization he runs, whose stated purpose is “to assist female veterans find and obtain affordable housing, jobs, etc.”

Supporting such a cause probably made it easier for folks to decide to spend the money, and maybe it even gave some purchasers a warm feeling to think their money would help improve the lives of women who had served their nation and then found themselves in dire straits upon entering civilian life.

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But the Riverfront Jazz Festival never happened. Scheduled for the end of July, the event was suddenly canceled at the last minute. Ticketholders and performers were notified by email. “In spite of bringing an awesome line-up to Hampton Roads, we regret to inform you that the ticket sales were not strong enough to support the festival,” the email stated. “Therefore, the festival has been canceled.”

There was no mention of refunds, and attempts to contact Wilson about refunds were unsuccessful in the days and weeks after the cancellation.

That changed on Friday, when news editor Tracy Agnew dropped by the Norfolk office of Robra Construction, where Wilson is president. After knocking on a locked office door three times, she was finally greeted by an evasive and seemingly unsympathetic Wilson, who brusquely suggested that people who had bought tickets should seek refunds from those to whom they’d sent their money.

But many ticketholders left out in the cold by Wilson have been unable to find redress from their banks, from Paypal or from any other source. The charges were legitimate in the eyes of their banks, Paypal’s refund deadlines had passed even before the event was canceled, and Wilson doesn’t seem to be returning calls or emails to numbers associated with the jazz fest or the Gatlin Foundations.

According to Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney C. Phillips Ferguson, the Suffolk Police Department has received one complaint about the situation, but his office has received no official request for an investigation. He said it would be hard to prove actual criminal fraud in the handling of the event and suggested that those who lost money might have to file civil lawsuits to get their money back.

Considering the number of people who seem to have lost money, though — both ticketholders and entertainers — and the supposed charitable component of the event — a little official pressure brought to bear on Mr. Wilson might convince him of the need to do the right thing.