Con Man on Payola in Hollywood Fund raising


Nov. 12, 2004 — -- 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.

According to Tonken, Ford was to be paid a $200,000 personal appearance fee, in addition to a $200,000 contribution made to the Betty Ford Clinic. The former president signed a contract, obtained by ABC News, agreeing to the terms, Tonken said.

"It was one of the most stupid, irresponsible mistakes I made in everything I've done and the culmination of my charitable fund raising and political fund-raising career," Tonken said. "I was enamored with a president that no one else cares about."

Ford would not comment for this report, but a spokesman confirmed the contract is authentic.

Another request came from an honoree of the event, Sylvester Stallone, who had been one of the stars invited to identify a charitable organization to receive a donation. Instead, Tonken said, Stallone wanted $35,000 of the charity money to go to his maid's disabled daughter.

"His maid's daughter is not a 501c3 non-profit, IRS charity," Tonken said.

"I got letters from his publicist, his lawyer: send the money, send the money," Tonken said. "I wanted to throw up."

After all the gifts, perks and payments, Tonken said he had no money left for a fancy plaque, so the Spirit of Giving Award that night was an empty flower vase he found in the hotel.

It is one of the many events that led to his prosecution, and to efforts by California's attorney general, Bill Lockyer, to recover money from Tonken that should have gone to the charities, like the Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation.

"I have been cheated out of money by this man," said John Moschitta, Starlight Starbright's vice president. "I could help a lot of sick kids with that money."

Tonken was charged with mail fraud, wire fraud, and aiding and abetting, according to U.S. District Court documents.

Lockyer said he hopes to ensure such charity fraud will never happen again, both by keeping Tonken out of the business and with the passage of California's Nonprofit Integrity Act of 2004, which obliges charities to tell a donor how much of the money goes to charity and how much goes to fund-raising overheads.

"We hope that that would be a deterrent to bad behavior and make these practices much more visible," Lockyer said.

Tonken now freely admits he operated as a world-class charity con man.

He had strong ties not only in the entertainment world, but Tonken also became a player in the political landscape. A major fund-raiser for former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, Tonken made many visits to the White House, including a state dinner.

Tonken, who was at one point Zsa Zsa Gabor's houseboy, said he had trouble resisting the allure of stars he adored.

"It was impossible for me to stop," he said. "I was like a drunk."

But Tonken says none of the stars or politicians with whom he dealt, to whom he offered lavish gifts or gave in to their demands or raised money for, remain his friends today.

He has written a book, "King of Cons: Exposing the Dirty, Rotten Secrets of the Washington Elite and Hollywood Celebrities," offering further details of how he stole and borrowed from one charity to cover the expenses of another, and used thousands of dollars for prostitutes. Tonken said it is a story, a life story, he ultimately regrets.

"If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't pay a celebrity one penny," he said. "It was a double-edged sword. They used me and I used them. And, that's how it works."

Marni Lane, Maddy Sauer and Jessica Wang contributed to this report.

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