Former event planner Aaron Tonken admitted in an exclusive interview with ABC News that he used millions of dollars that were supposed to go to charity to get A-list stars and politicians to attend some of Hollywood's biggest fund-raisers.
"I was a con artist," Tonken said. "I broke the law in many areas. Knowingly and unknowingly."
Now serving time at a federal prison in Southern California, the pudgy, fast-talking 39-year-old said he used cash, expensive jewelry, luxury getaways and even political donations to get celebrities to perform or appear at his charity events. Tonken says sometimes he gave substantial gifts to friends or associates of stars to obtain access, and at other times, stars themselves received lavish gifts.
At least $20 million was spent in all, Tonken said.
"My bill at Cartier was a million dollars," he said. "I was handing out Hawaii trips like someone would hand out their business cards, to these celebrities and their hangers-on."
To enlist Arnold Schwarzenegger, before he was governor, for a charity event in September 2002, Tonken said he had to make a contribution to a campaign the actor was pushing for a state ballot proposition to promote after-school sports programs.
State election records confirm a contribution of $62,500 from Tonken.
And Tonken, a celebrity-obsessed high-school dropout from Detroit, said some stars were well aware of and took full advantage of the monetary perks of attending charity events.
"If they don't have to [attend for free] -- and can get away with it -- they want to be paid," Tonken said.
David Niven, Jr., son of legendary actor David Niven, worked with Tonken on a fund-raiser in June 1999 for an organization called Recording Artists, Actors & Athletes Against Drunk Driving. Niven, who was the group's chairman at the time, said Tonken offered up his services free of charge, and was completely honorable in his work for the event.
"He was hardworking, conscientious," Niven said. "And there was no creative bookkeeping, because his little sticky fingers weren't anywhere near the money."
Now chairman of See a Child, Save a Child, a program that seeks to prevent injury and death to bicyclists and pedestrians by increasing their visibility to motorists, Niven said there were plenty of celebrities who make charity appearances solely to help the cause, but agreed that Tonken's revelations about others were long overdue.
"Well, if he's letting the cat out of the bag, the proverbial cat out of the bag, about people, about payola, well then he's right to do so," he said.
And no event Tonken organized was more star-studded or troubled than the night he organized for a group of children's charities, called "A Family Celebration 2001."
On the guest list were former presidents, big-name pop stars, and even a special appearance by Elizabeth Taylor.
Many of the stars appeared for free, including Taylor, and some were promised they could pick a favorite charity to receive some of the money raised. But, according to prosecutors, most of the money raised that night never made it to the charities.
The reason, Tonken said, was because he spent approximately $900,000 coaxing various luminaries to attend. A large portion of the sum was paid to former President Gerald Ford, who was being honored with the grand award of the night, the Spirit of Giving Award.