It Pays to Be a Star on Charity Circuit
Almost any night of the week around Los Angeles, one charity or another holds a glitzy fundraising benefit, backed by a Hollywood star.
But many celebrities appear at these events not solely out of the goodness of their hearts. They come to line their pockets.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Dec. 26, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Charity events -- Not all of the charities and institutions mentioned in an article on the front page of Section A on Dec. 8 about event promoter Aaron Tonken had knowledge of his plans or his dealings with celebrities.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 93 words Type of Material: Correction
Aaron Tonken -- A Dec. 8 article about event promoter Aaron Tonken on the front page of Section A said Bill Cosby had been sent a contract by the William Morris Agency stating that he was to receive a luxury sedan for a charity event. A Steve Lopez column in the California section Dec. 10 made a similar reference to the car. The article and the column should have made it clear that the sedan would have been for Cosby’s use only as transportation to and from the event, which never was held.
Actor David Schwimmer, who has made many millions of dollars starring in NBC’s “Friends,” received a pair of Rolex watches worth $26,413 in advance of a 1997 charity gala that had among its intended beneficiaries the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
Singer Engelbert Humperdinck, as partial payment for a 1998 benefit appearance at the Friars Club, received two Cartier watches priced at $8,500 each.
Piano legend Ray Charles picked up $75,000 for a four-song appearance at a 2002 SHARE (Share Happily and Reap Endlessly) gala in Santa Monica, which was to benefit developmentally disabled children.
All three events were among more than a dozen organized in recent years by Aaron Tonken, a Los Angeles event promoter, who in November was charged by federal authorities with two counts of fraud related to charitable fundraising. Tonken’s lawyer, Alan Rubin, said his client was expected to appear in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Sources have said Tonken was negotiating a plea agreement.
Meanwhile, federal authorities and their counterparts in state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer’s office are trying to figure out what happened to as much as $7 million in funds that were raised in connection with Tonken-organized events but never made it to designated charities.
According to those familiar with the inquiry -- and more than 2,000 pages of financial records and other documents obtained by The Times -- it appears that little of the money was kept by Tonken himself.
Rather, it was spent on -- and sometimes demanded by -- those who needed it the least: the rich and famous, and their hangers-on.
It is a practice, say those familiar with the Hollywood fundraising scene, that the Tonken case has exposed but that is hardly limited to those events with which he was connected.
“Stars know they can literally steal from charity,” said Steven Fox, a Monterey businessman who worked with Tonken on a 1995 fundraiser for the Tommy Lasorda Jr. Memorial Foundation, named after the baseball legend’s late son. “Otherwise, they don’t perform. They don’t appear.”
State and federal law enforcement officials say it isn’t clear whether the celebrities who appeared at charity benefits in exchange for cash and perks -- trips to Europe, jewelry, a motorcycle -- did anything illegal. The law is murky, and many stars maintain that they considered what they received to be gifts or compensation to perform.
A publicist for Schwimmer declined to comment on an invoice that documented the giving of the Rolexes. Humperdinck’s representative declined to comment. Charles’ spokesman confirmed the $75,000 payment. He added that the singer usually gives the money he makes from performing at charitable benefits to his own philanthropic foundation, but SHARE was an exception. That time, he kept it.
Indeed, some celebrities even draw up formal contracts for their charity-circuit appearances. For example, the William Morris Agency sent Bill Cosby an agreement guaranteeing him a $75,000 fee and $10,000 in expense money to receive the Humanitarian Award at a UCLA cancer research benefit set for early this year. The pact also spelled out that he’d receive a luxury sedan and “100% Headline Billing” for the event. Tonken’s business collapsed, however, before the gala was held.
A Cosby spokesman said the comic instructed his agent to tell the charity he would donate his fee to the group if the event went forward. The spokesman said he didn’t know why Cosby didn’t simply forgo the fee.
Sometimes, Tonken-connected charities did well. For instance, the SHARE event -- for which Tonken rounded up talent, although he wasn’t in charge -- raised $1.3 million. Nonetheless, authorities and event participants note that every dollar spent wooing a celebrity is a dollar that could have gone to the needy.
In Gerald Ford’s case, that was a couple hundred grand.
The former president and his wife, Betty, were handed that much for agreeing to receive the Special Giving Award during a Tonken-organized event called a Family Celebration in April 2001. The benefit was held to raise money for 18 charities, including Cure Autism Now and the Starlight Children’s Foundation.
The $200,000 the Fords received amounted to four times what the former president typically earns for public speeches and represented about 15% of the event’s total take that night. Added to the tab was a $150,000 donation to the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage.
Asked about the $200,000 personal payment, a Ford spokeswoman said: “That’s what he was offered.”
That rationale, however, doesn’t sit well with some.
“To find out people were being paid for their services, and paid exorbitantly, is disillusioning,” said Marsue MacNicol, who helped arrange for her husband, actor Peter MacNicol, to appear at a Family Celebration without any remuneration.
As for the payment to the Fords, MacNicol said: “I think it’s outrageous.”
Honoring a Star
The making of charity galas is among Hollywood’s least visible cottage industries.
For those in the entertainment business, such gatherings often are an extension of business conducted over lunch at the Grill or the Ivy.
Being honored helps define positions in the Hollywood hierarchy, and attendance at certain soirees honoring the powerful is a given. When agent Michael Ovitz was at the zenith of his power in the early 1990s, his Aesculapians Ball benefiting the UCLA Medical School was mandatory for agents, producers, executives, directors and stars.
To be sure, some Hollywood fundraising efforts are perk-free zones.
Gary Gitnick, whose youth-mentoring Fulfillment Fund has honored such moguls as Sumner Redstone and featured such acts as the rock band the Who, said the 27-year-old charity didn’t compensate celebrities to appear or perform. But agents still ask occasionally.
“I tell them we just don’t pay and won’t use charity dollars for those purposes,” Gitnick said. “We’ve survived.”
Reeling in a major celebrity is a must for most fundraisers because it triggers a chain reaction of donations.
Honoring a star means every studio that wants him or her in a movie will be purchasing a table as well as an ad in the program booklet lauding the star. Honoring a studio chief brings in money from those who do business with the company and fills chairs with stars who appear in its movies and TV shows.
But some doubt that the stars are worth what they often cost. As volunteer administrator with the Corie Williams Scholarship Fund, which provides college tuition money for inner-city youth, Marsue MacNicol said her program had been short-changed by celebrity payments.
“We could have tripled the number of kids we support each year,” she said, if the famous hadn’t bitten into her group’s share of the $1.5 million collected at a Family Celebration.
For his part, Aaron Tonken gained a footing in Hollywood by approaching aging entertainers and second-tier stars who were flattered by his attention -- and eager to profit from his venture into organizing charitable events.
Born in Canada, Tonken was a doctor’s son who dropped out of high school, suffering from a self-described case of attention deficit disorder.
Star-struck from youth, he arrived in Los Angeles 12 years ago at the age of 26. He soon found himself living in the Beverly Hills guest house of Zsa Zsa Gabor, whom he had met in a restaurant. His first stab at the event business was a restaurant opening with a celebrity cast led by actor-model Fabio. Before long, Tonken was organizing galas around the likes of comics Red Buttons and Milton Berle.
Documents obtained by The Times showed no evidence that Fabio received payment. Milton Berle’s widow, Lorna, confirmed that the entertainer was paid for a Tonken benefit appearance. “It was like a job,” she said. Buttons, who was honored at a benefit, said he never received money from Tonken, notwithstanding a 2000 letter in which the promoter promised to deliver $25,000 in monthly installments.
Often, such past-their-prime entertainers were drawn to Tonken’s charitable events by the promise of payments far in excess of their usual fees.
Singer Paul Anka, for one, was paid $100,000 and transported by Learjet to perform three songs at an Aug. 25, 2002, fundraiser for Minnesota’s Starkey Hearing Aid Foundation. His normal rate is just half that, according to a schedule published by the Maryland-based Hill Herwood booking service.
Asked about a deal to do an additional Tonken benefit in return for a fee, Anka said he pulled out after a check for the Minnesota performance was returned by the bank. “The moment the check bounced,” he said, “it was over.”
Scrambling to shore up relations, Tonken sent Anka a piece of Steuben glass valued at $1,575, according to an invoice from a Los Angeles shopping service. Anka’s thank-you note got right to the point: “The next gift box should be full of cash.”
Jewelry and Tickets
Among Tonken’s deeper relationships was with singer Natalie Cole, who became one of his earliest show business supporters after he won a luncheon with her as the prize at a charity auction.
In a tender, handwritten note, she once told him: “Dear Aaron, Here is the devotional pamphlet I told you about. Read it faithfully. Ask for wisdom and spiritual maturity. Pray for guidance.”
In an April 1999 letter, however, Cole was all business.
“I am enclosing a copy of the agreement/letter that you wrote to me back in November 1998 as a gentle reminder of the ‘unfinished business’ between us,” she wrote.
The agreement to which she referred enumerated tens of thousands of dollars in payments due from Tonken, much of it connected with charity appearances. According to Cole’s attorney, Bert Fields, the singer ultimately received $75,000 from Tonken and jewelry valued at many thousands more from Cartier, Dunhill and elsewhere. “She and Tonken were very good friends,” Fields said.
According to Fields, Cole believed some of the jewelry had been sent as a direct gift from Cartier. But a sheaf of invoices, now under review by state and federal investigators, shows that the jeweler charged Tonken nearly $400,000 in 1997 for dozens of luxury items as he was organizing a Metropolitan Museum of Art benefit keyed to its 150th anniversary in 1997.
Those invoices and similar paperwork from the other companies contain notations linking the pieces with a long list of celebrities and talent managers who, like Cole, were associated with events that gave Tonken’s career its first big boost in the late 1990s.
Documents identify more than $60,000 worth of jewelry given to actress Angela Bassett and her husband, Courtney Vance, who attended at least two Tonken-organized benefits. A publicist for Bassett said the couple had believed the jewelry was a direct gift from Cartier. But they learned otherwise when Bassett went to have a piece sized and was told that Tonken still owed the company thousands of dollars.
Actor-producer Alan Hamel said he and his wife, Suzanne Somers, never saw the $34,000 in jewelry attributed to them on one Cartier invoice. But he acknowledged that the couple received business-class tickets to London. They were billed to Tonken at a cost of almost $20,000 after Somers performed at a benefit for the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
Hamel said there was no charge for the performance. In a March 1998 letter to Tonken, however, he indicated otherwise.
“Suzanne and I have waited long enough!” Hamel wrote. “I wanted you to know that if we don’t get our airline tickets and jewelry within five business days I am going to take out a full page ad in the Hollywood Reporter to tell the entertainment community about you. I also will inform and send an invoice for payment to Michael Wayne of the John Wayne Cancer Institute for Suzanne’s performance.”
Gifts to Star Associates
Not all of the goodies that Tonken dished out went to celebrities. At times, he bestowed gifts -- paid for, government investigators say, with money that was supposed to be going into the coffers of various charities -- upon their handlers as well.
Logs from a travel agency that Tonken used, for instance, show that he was billed nearly $9,000 before a Family Celebration for a trip to London by Gerry Harrington, actor Sylvester Stallone’s manager. Stallone was among those being honored at the gala -- in return for a $35,000 payment to his maid’s sick child. A spokesman for Harrington, who is with Brillstein-Grey Management, declined to comment.
Similarly, Tonken gave gifts to executives of David E. Kelley Productions, the high-profile TV company, which contributed $10,000 to a Family Celebration. In an interview last March, Tonken said the company’s executive director for business affairs, Neely Swanson, “made me buy a trip” for her and her family in return for facilitating various TV stars’ involvement with the gala.
Travel agency logs show that Tonken was billed more than $20,000 for trips to Europe and elsewhere by Swanson and her family. Swanson’s spokesman acknowledged the travel. But he said she paid for some of it and believed that Tonken was using frequent-flier vouchers for other flights.
The travel logs also show that Tonken was billed for a Paris trip by “Ally McBeal” producer Pamela Wisne. Wisne’s spokesman said she gave her credit card number to the travel agent and didn’t realize that he was charging her only for upgrades.
In some cases, Tonken gave gifts without any specific event in mind. His goal, it seems, was to remain a player and to stay in the good graces of the stars.
“It was like we were doing him a favor,” said Beverly Hills jeweler Lori Rodkin, who confirmed that she traveled to London three years ago with her friend Cher at Tonken’s expense. Rodkin said she believed their plane tickets, valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, would expire if they went unused.
“Had we ever known the dollars were being diverted from good causes, if we ever thought that for one second, none of us would ever have gotten involved,” Rodkin said.
Yet Cher received trips far more elaborate than any frequent-flier voucher could cover. In one particularly expensive episode, Tonken wrangled a private jet to fly the singer to Atlanta so she could appear at a fundraiser for the Dallas-based Children’s Craniofacial Assn. Tonken wasn’t directly connected with the event, but he believed Cher would return the favor by performing at his own Los Angeles Kids Campaign gala, to be built around the Dallas charity and other philanthropies. The gala never occurred.
Once in Atlanta, Cher told Tonken that she wouldn’t need his chartered Gulfstream for a return flight, so he let the plane go, even though he was obligated to pay for a round trip, according to people familiar with the situation. The singer then changed her mind and asked for a plane to return home -- so Tonken chartered another jet, raising his total cost to more than $63,000. But Cher decided not to use the second jet, once sent.
An attorney for Cher declined to comment about the trips.
Another time, Tonken took to the air to make a special “rib run” to Canada for Roseanne Barr. The cost: more than $60,000.
It was May 2002, and the comedienne was hankering for fare from the Tunnel Bar-B-Que in Windsor, Canada. Tonken had just convinced Barr to be the emcee of the upcoming SHARE gala while helping to launch her private foundation. He also was setting up shop in a new role as her manager.
Eager to remain in the prickly star’s good graces, Tonken whisked Barr and two of her associates onto a hastily chartered private jet for the 2,000-mile jaunt from Van Nuys to Canada.
The flight cost $48,351, records show: $4,750 an hour for the plane, $1,350 for three flight attendants and a $1,009 in-flight catering tab that included $356 in Beluga caviar served with four mother-of-pearl spoons at $28 each. On top of that came limousines, an $11,500 shopping spree at a local mall and, of course, the barbecued ribs.
Barr’s attorney declined to comment.
Despite the gesture, Tonken’s relationship with Roseanne Barr eventually disintegrated. Earlier this year, the star backed away from the management deal she had with Tonken, though it didn’t stop her from inquiring about certain gifts that he evidently had promised.
“Wheres [sic] my gift certificate did you steal that, or just lie about it im callin [sic] cartier myself,” she wrote in an e-mail, according to a summary prepared by Tonken’s attorney.
Two minutes later, Barr had an afterthought: “p.s. satan will soon be twisting your entrails onto his pitchfork and roasting them over a never ending fire hotter than a million suns.
As investigators closed in, Tonken found himself buried under his own reputation as the man who had something for everyone.
By January 2002, a Salt Lake City chauffeur service was dunning him for an overdue bill of $3,416.50, the price of rides by actor Dylan McDermott and friends, and the Grand America Hotel was demanding $4,505.83 for the star’s visit.
The promoter had already spent more than $24,000 flying the group to Utah by private plane for a Choice Humanitarian benefit, hoping in turn to get the charity’s support for his own next gala in Los Angeles.
But each new event brought fresh demands. When a planned Diana Ross charity fete fell apart, Tonken rounded up Cosby -- but was struggling to come up with his $75,000 fee.
“Will & Grace” star Eric McCormack agreed to introduce honoree Kelsey Grammer -- apparently without any charge by either -- at a glittery fall 2002 charity gala. The event, held at rocker Rod Stewart’s Beverly Park estate, was to benefit after-school programs and a performing arts foundation. But Tonken was still scratching to meet an $8,730.57 bill for tickets to send McCormack to Europe after the actor hosted an earlier event.
McCormack’s manager didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
A week before the September dinner, moreover, Stewart’s manager, Arnold Stiefel, charged Tonken $24,618 for a chartered plane that flew Stewart home for the evening. According to travel agency records, Tonken also was billed for more than $40,000 in travel by Stiefel and his associates in the months surrounding the charity event.
Beyond that, a Stiefel associate received a $5,000 consulting fee billed to the charity gala.
Stiefel declined to comment. A source close to the manager said Stiefel believed his travel was being covered by free airline vouchers. The source also said Stewart was never repaid for the chartered plane.
Then there was actress Camryn Manheim, who emceed that night. Earlier, after Manheim had helped out with the kickoff of a Family Celebration, Tonken had rewarded her with a 1994 Harley-Davidson motorcycle worth $24,000, according to a bill of sale from Thunder Road Classic Cycles in Los Angeles. But this time, she was disappointed when Tonken failed to deliver on his promise of an around-the-world trip for her brother, law professor Karl Manheim, during his sabbatical from duties at Loyola Law School.
In a Nov. 21, 2002, e-mail, the professor told Tonken: “As you might expect, this is not a loss we will simply accept. Since our damages are likely in excess of $50,000, it would be prudent for us to pursue all legal remedies.”
Camryn Manheim declined to comment through a spokesman, and a representative of Karl Manheim said the professor was traveling in India and couldn’t be reached. One friend of Manheim’s said the actress believed the motorcycle was a promotional gift from Harley-Davidson and that her brother was to travel on free airline vouchers.
Relations were warmer when Manheim signed Tonken’s copy of her 1999 book, “Wake Up, I’m Fat.”
“Dear Aaron, You are truly a generous soul,” she wrote. The actress, who plays an attorney on ABC’s “The Practice,” added: “If you ever need a lawyer, you know who to call.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Some who benefited
Stars often got perks and payments from charity promoter Aaron Tonken, who was charged with fraud last month.
The singer got $100,000 for performing three songs at a gala for the Starkey Hearing Aid Foundation. But Anka said he ducked out of the next deal when a check from the promoter bounced.
The actress- singer traveled abroad at Tonken’s expense and got private plane flights while dealing with the promoter. He believed that she would perform at his Kids Campaign gala in Los Angeles, which never happened.
One of Tonken’s closest friends, the singer lectured him on “spiritual maturity” -- while picking up $75,000 and jewelry from Cartier, often in connection with charity appearances.
The comedian had a William Morris Agency contract for $75,000 to be honored at a cancer research benefit. His spokesman says Cosby planned to give the money back if the event had been held.
An invoice designated two Rolex watches worth $26,413 for the “Friends” star in advance of a 1997 gala for the John Wayne Cancer Institute. A publicist declined to comment.