There was no one in the audience, and not a bit of drama, when con man Charles Ray Lonberger received a 42-month jail term this week for running a charity swindle.
It was a low-key appearance for a man whose fondness of show-biz and philanthropy apparently led him to concoct a scheme so half-baked that, according to those involved in the trial, it could only mean one of two things: Either Lonberger is a fast-talking swindler who steals with impunity, or a dreamer who stretches the truth in his search for acceptance and accolades.
Determining which one is the real Lonberger depends a lot on whom you choose to believe.
“None of us can figure out what makes the guy tick,” said attorney Eric Brand, Lonberger’s court-appointed public defender.
In Lonberger’s most recent brush with the criminal justice system, a jury believed Deputy City Atty. Ellen Pais, who called Lonberger “a very intelligent human being who rips people off. He frequently deludes himself about his importance.”
Pais and other prosecutors for City Atty. James K. Hahn, and even Hahn himself, said the balding, mousy former promoter is a “pitiful,” unrepentant con man whose efforts to illegally raise money under the guise of charity threaten to undermine all legitimate fund-raising drives.
Lonberger is no such thing, Brand said. He said his client’s biggest fault is that he is “the world’s worst businessman” and a well-intentioned buffoon.
“He doesn’t mean to break the law,” Brand said. “He just exaggerates his position to the point where it passes outside the area of legality.”
A Municipal Court jury last week convicted Lonberger, 39, of 11 misdemeanor counts relating to his running a charity con operation. In the scam, Lonberger promoted non-existent events under the guise of raising funds for the Jewish Federation Council. Federation officials were unaware of Lonberger’s activities.
Saying “my concern today is to stop the defendant,” Judge David Milton on Tuesday gave Lonberger the 42-month jail term, a sentence judged harsh even by the prosecutors.
They said they believed Lonberger got such a long jail term because of his past activities running similar operations and because he continued the most recent scam even after being arrested and released.
“It is significant, there’s no doubt about it, but it was appropriate given his chronic criminal behavior,” said Deputy City Atty. Sue L. Frauens, who heads the consumer protection section. “Nothing has stopped this man short of incarceration.”
In addition, Los Angeles authorities “have had a number of contacts by law-enforcement agencies throughout Southern California regarding possible charitable scams orchestrated by the defendant, many of which have yet to be investigated,” Frauens said.
“We are very sensitive to these cases because it hurts not only the people who gave money but the charities involved,” she said. “It undermines their credibility.”
In February, 1989, Lonberger pleaded no contest to one count of forgery and two counts of false advertising. Those convictions stemmed from his involvement in a scheme in which he solicited contributions for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and a Fairfax District synagogue, and then pocketed the money, prosecutors said.
Lonberger was convicted of forgery in that case because he solicited a $10 donation for Temple Beth Am and then altered the check to make it payable for $100, prosecutors said. Police arrested Lonberger in January, 1989, after being contacted by SPCA officials who had learned that he had been soliciting funds in the organization’s name.
Lonberger was sentenced to nine months in jail and served about 200 days, Pais said.
In another case, he was placed on probation last year after a felony conviction relating to a similar scam in San Bernardino County. Officials there have issued a warrant for his arrest for an alleged violation of the probation, Pais said.
In the current case, Lonberger’s scheme was extremely complex but earned him only about $800--small compensation for the amount of time he allegedly spent on interviewing actors and actresses, hiring ticket-sellers, and other tasks needed to keep the scam going, said Pais, who handled the case.
Pais said Lonberger’s earnings were limited by the fact that the police caught him early, before his workers, at least eight in number, had the chance to make their calls. She said he himself sold the tickets, at $50 each, that made up the $800.
Using the alias “Charles Freed” and identifying himself as the chief executive officer of a company called Greenfield Group Inc., Lonberger ran the fund-raising scam from a rented office at 6200 Wilshire Blvd. in the Fairfax District.
Lonberger hired unsuspecting individuals from an employment agency to work as salespeople, who were to sell $50 tickets for a bogus production, “The Dance of Esther,” that he said was scheduled to run June 22 at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, Pais said. She said none of those hired were ever paid.
Lonberger’s scheme also involved offering free advertising space in a monthly magazine he called “The Greenfield Repertoire” to businesses that bought the tickets.
Police began investigating Lonberger in early April, after a man whom he offered $2,000 a week to sell tickets notified detectives. Lonberger was arrested April 10, and charged with operating the scam.
Immediately upon leaving jail, though, Lonberger started right up again, this time saying the play would run at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, Pais said. On June 8, he was arrested again.
Authorities determined that there was no theatrical production, no booking at Wilshire Ebell Theater or in Beverly Hills, no magazine, and no company called Greenfield Group, prosecutors said.
Brand said Lonberger spent an immense amount of time working on the money-raising operation and supposed theatrical production so he could be a mover and shaker. “If anything,” Brand said, “I think he suffers from a huge inferiority complex, and wants to be looked at as ‘El Jefe’ (the Chief).”
An Upland resident, who asked not to be identified, said Lonberger hired him to videotape the play so he could later market it. He described Lonberger, a drifter apparently without a home, as someone who constantly talked about his plans to become a big-name producer of plays, operas and concerts and his past as a promoter.
“I take people at face value,” said the Upland man. “This man gave me the impression he was sincere, but I have no idea what he was doing down there.”
Lonberger apparently made no effort to tell the Jewish Federation Council about his operation, according to a federation official who met with Lonberger at least once.
“The guy is a criminal,” said an official of the umbrella organization, which includes hundreds of Los Angeles Jewish groups. “It was a scam--It is that simple. He preyed on people’s emotions.”