Star-Struck Drifter's Rise to 'Celebrity Broker' Goes Astray

Times Staff Writers

Only a decade ago, a 26-year-old high school dropout named Aaron Tonken was living in Chabad's Westwood homeless rehabilitation shelter, with his nose pressed against the glass of a glamorous Los Angeles that seemed to have no place for him.

He had no car, no education and, seemingly, no prospects.

But Tonken, as he tells the story, was consumed by a craving for contact with celebrity. As a troubled teenager in northern Michigan, he liked to cold-call famous people. He once got Jacqueline Onassis on the phone. He said he spent several months living in Zsa Zsa Gabor's guest apartment -- until their relationship took a bad turn -- having met and charmed the aging actress while trolling the Bistro Garden for a glimpse of the stars.

Almost impossibly, within a few years this star-struck drifter cracked Hollywood's upper reaches as a self-styled "celebrity broker." He acquired the power to move millions of dollars through the charity and political circuits and to land appearances by the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, 'N Sync, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Rod Stewart, Whoopie Goldberg and even Bill and Hillary Clinton.

And nearly as quickly, Tonken's world collapsed amid claims that he and his associates had defrauded the contributors and stars behind at least a half-dozen planned and actual high-profile fund-raising events. California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer recently filed a civil suit accusing Tonken and others of misusing or failing to account for more than $1.5 million in contributions. Lockyer said his staff would consider filing criminal charges in the case.

Federal investigators, according to sources, have since interviewed Tonken about his activities, while Hollywood has been left to wonder why so many of its savvier players were so quick to place their trust in an operator who literally came from nowhere.

"He talked a good story, and he managed to do a few events that had the big stars. That's all it took," said publicist Phillip Lobel. He said he once hired Tonken to find celebrities for an event, only to have him subcontract the work for a small fraction of his $20,000 fee.

In an interview, Tonken said he became "reckless" in juggling funds among events as he scrambled to meet the demands of stars and their representatives, who asked for money for themselves or for their own favored charities in return for appearances. He said he plans to cooperate with authorities and insisted that he didn't drain funds for his own use.

"I can tell you under God's oath, in reality my benefit has been so little," Tonken said. "Of all people, I didn't profit from all the cash I've given to them, to the stars."

A spokesman for the attorney general said Tonken hasn't registered as a charitable fund-raiser, produced required annual reports, accounted for allegedly diverted funds or even been located to be served with the complaint.

Many who have dealt with Tonken don't buy his story. Malibu businessman Martin Gubb, for instance, alleges that Tonken swindled him out of $115,000 after being hired to organize a star-studded fund-raiser for Parkinson's disease, which claimed the life of Gubb's mother. Gubb said Tonken promised that Celine Dion would perform at his home and that the event would involve actor Michael J. Fox, who has the disease.

Gubb said Tonken demanded a $50,000 fee, a $50,000 donation to be made in Celine Dion's name to the Betty Ford Center and another $15,000 fee for the Fox Foundation in exchange for the star's involvement. Gubb said he later discovered that Tonken spent the money knowing he couldn't deliver on the promises.

According to Gubb, Dion never requested a donation to the Ford Center and Fox was never planning to become involved. Instead, Gubb said, he found out Tonken used the $50,000 Dion donation to cover a previous commitment to the Ford Center from an earlier charity event. The incident figures in the attorney general's suit.

"From my experience he's a professional con man who robs the public under the pretense of doing good for charitable events," Gubb said.

A review of court records shows that Tonken has been named a defendant in roughly three dozen civil suits in Los Angeles Superior Court since 1994, some of which ended in judgments against him. In 1998, he also filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case -- eventually dismissed -- listing liabilities of $6.5 million and assets of just $217,100.

People who have dealt with Tonken say he worked hard to create an aura of success despite his unpolished appearance. They describe him as a large, nervous, sometimes awkward person -- "a schlub," said one ally -- who was quick to pick up dinner tabs and spend freely when he had cash.

Almost from the beginning, the lack of money making its way to the charities -- and Tonken's style -- caused hard feelings. One of the disillusioned was Jo Lasorda, wife of former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Tonken organized a 1995 fund-raiser at the Beverly Hills Hotel honoring comedian Billy Crystal to raise money for the Tommy Lasorda Jr. Memorial Foundation, named after the couple's late son.

"She was extremely disappointed with the way this guy handled the event," said Bill Goldberg, a spokesman for the couple. Goldberg wouldn't elaborate, but Steve Fox, then a director of the foundation, said the Lasordas believed more of the event's proceeds should have gone to the charity. Nonetheless, Fox said he feels Tonken organized "a world-class event."

One of Tonken's most troubled events was the glitzy "Family Celebration 2001" -- co-sponsored by TV writer-producer David E. Kelley and his wife, actress Michelle Pfeiffer, along with the Clintons.

The attorney general's complaint says the gala raised $1.5 million. But expenses for the affair more than tripled from a promised $250,000, while Tonken made conflicting promises to give proceeds to charities favored by Kelley's "Ally McBeal" cast and crew and the 'N Sync musicians.

Meanwhile, according to the suit, Tonken diverted at least $340,000 earmarked for the event into the American Spirit Foundation, a defunct charity co-founded by financier Peter Paul, a Tonken mentor who is now awaiting extradition from Brazil to face criminal fraud charges in New York and Los Angeles.

Tonken insists that he will be vindicated after he gives authorities "the trail" such funds followed. "I've lived in a hovel. I have a picnic table for a desk. I've been an unwise fool. Out of desperation to make good on things, I would borrow."

To meet the demands of producing star events, Tonken said he borrowed $3 million from Robert Freedman, named as a defendant in the complaint. According to the suit, Tonken paid Freedman $200,000 that had been earmarked to secure the appearance of Nelson Mandela at the "Celebrating Diana" event, a never-staged tribute to Diana Ross that was to have raised funds for cancer research.

Attorney Robert Shapiro, who represents Freedman, said he is confident the attorney general will dismiss the complaint when he provides documentation showing that Tonken made legitimate loans based on "representations that the funds would be used to bring in major celebrities or sponsorship for charity events."

For a celebrity to ask for perks or payments for charity appearances isn't unusual.

In connection with "Family Celebration 2001," for instance, Tonken said Sylvester Stallone insisted that $35,000 be paid, through lawyer Martin Singer, to help the sick child of the actor's maid. "I borrowed $35,000 and wrote a check," Tonken said.

Asked about the incident, Singer said a deal was struck but for a lower amount. Even then, he said, Tonken paid only under duress: "I almost had to sue him."

Describing other requests for money, Tonken said he paid $20,000 to a music star during one event, $20,000 to the film production company of another star and $38,000 to send a celebrity's aide and others to Europe to help snag the famous for philanthropic appearances. People allegedly involved in the transactions disputed Tonken's account.

Still, more than a few players in the clubby world of Hollywood charity fund-raising have been deeply embarrassed by their readiness to throw resources behind a man whom few bothered to check out.

Marc Pollick, founder of the celebrity-oriented Giving Back Fund, said at a recent news conference that he trusted Tonken to stage the "Family Celebration" because "we checked references. It was explained to us that he had worked with the Clintons and Mr. [Al] Gore."

Pollick was referring to political fund-raising during the last presidential race, most notably an August 2000 gala that jailed financier Paul helped underwrite for the Hillary Clinton senatorial campaign. Tonken, asked how he first became involved with the Clinton campaign, said: "I cold-called. The money spoke."

Tonken claims to have been welcome at the Clinton White House and to have rubbed shoulders with the president. A Clinton spokeswoman said: "President Clinton knows Mr. Tonken, but we generally don't comment on ongoing legal matters, and have no details about this particular case."

A 2002 report by Rep. Doug Ose (R-Sacramento) describing gifts Clinton received while president, listed Tonken giving an $86,000 Loree Rodkin platinum necklace set -- with sapphires and full-cut diamonds -- to the archives of Clinton's future presidential library. The report said the gift was returned but did not explain why.

Tonken's admittedly bizarre climb may say as much about the foibles of the rich and famous as about a young man's craving to be part of their world.

Born in Windsor, Canada, in 1965, Tonken was the son of Harvey Tonken, a doctor who worked in Detroit and elsewhere in the Midwest. "I left school in the 10th grade," said Tonken, who contends he suffered from attention-deficit disorder. As the family moved north to Alpena, Mich., the son, by his own account, developed a fixation on older celebrities. Tonken said his dream was to get Dean Martin for his bar mitzvah.

Admitted to the University of Pittsburgh based on a high school equivalency exam, Tonken said he soon dropped out. When his father died in 1986, he moved to Phoenix and worked for a time in a Mobil gas station.

By 1988, he had met Gilbert Ortega, a retailer known as "the King of Indian Jewelry." In a profile of Ortega, an Arizona magazine said at the time that Tonken claimed to be the jeweler's protege. Tonken said his father had left him "seven-figure" wealth but his mother refused to release the money until he proved he was fiscally responsible.

The money, Tonken now says, was left to his mother. According to Ortega, who declined to provide details, their arrangement ended badly.

Tonken came to Los Angeles In the early 1990s. He said he lived in a run-down Hollywood hotel. "There were cockroaches. Rats. I couldn't go out at night," he said. "They were selling crack." But he would haunt the hotels and restaurants of Beverly Hills trying to meet famous people. On encountering Gabor, he said, she told him, "Dahling, you're so handsome. We have to move you in."

Gabor's husband, Frederic von Anhalt, said he recalled Tonken but disputed the Bistro Garden story, saying the young man was referred by a friend. Tonken said his stay turned into an unpleasant round of petty chores and forced flattery. But Tonken said he made thousands of dollars by leading busloads of tourists through Gabor's home when she was away.

At a low point, Tonken said, he then lived for "a year or six months" in Chabad's homeless rehabilitation program. A spokesman said Chabad policy forbids discussion of anyone's involvement.

Next came a stint with an insurance company and then an introduction to entrepreneur Paul, who at the time was managing Italian supermodel Fabio and trying to make a name for himself. Through Paul and Fabio, Tonken became involved with his first big Hollywood promotion -- the opening of hip Beverly Hills nightclub Tatou.

Tonken quickly became Aaron Tonken & Associates, celebrity broker. At first, the new company found its greatest pull with older stars such as Red Buttons. Buttons' late wife, Alicia, Tonken said, would make him potato pancakes. He said Buttons' son, Adam, worked for him. Red Buttons didn't return a call and Adam declined to comment.

The star connections turned into what briefly appeared to be a top-drawer business wrangling celebrities for planned fund-raisers by groups now at the center of the attorney general's case.

Tonken insisted that he has been less a malefactor than the victim of a celebrity culture that often has its own hand out, even when purporting to be acting charitably. He said he plans on divulging much when he begins talking with investigators.

"Heidi Fleiss has nothing on me," he said. "I have secrets so large. Those stars and those businessmen know who they are."

The lesson in it all? "People are so nasty. I wasn't prepared."

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