Con Man on Payola in Hollywood Fund raising

ByABC News
November 12, 2004, 7:02 PM

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.