A middle-aged man in a neon orange polo shirt and baggy blue gym shorts sat at a conference table in West Hollywood one recent afternoon interviewing a prospective ghostwriter.
“It’s called ‘Redemption,’” said Aaron Tonken, the man with the story to tell. “It’s going to be big.”
When Tonken was marched off to federal prison six years ago in a charity fraud scandal that embarrassed a slew of A-list celebrities, it was difficult to imagine him returning to Hollywood, let alone persuading a major literary agency to shop a book and movie deal about his life.
But there he was, sitting in his agent’s swank office overlooking the Sunset Strip.
“I’ve changed,” he said. “Mentally. Physically. Spiritually. It’s nothing short of a miracle.”
That Tonken, an admitted conman with a tongue silver enough to extract $115,000 from a Malibu businessman with the false promise of an in-home Celine Dion concert, claims he is rehabilitated is perhaps less surprising than those who vouch for the change.
One of his marks, a man to whom he owes $3.5 million, has given him a job, a car and a place to live. An attorney for some of his hardest-hit victims credits Tonken with helping them recover thousands of dollars. Even the state prosecutors who spent years building a case against him say they have witnessed a remarkable transformation.
“He was an angry man, very manic, intense, defensive, evasive, and throughout the litigation, he became more calm, cooperative, friendly, helpful. He just seemed to calm down quite a bit,” said Deputy Atty. General Tania Ibanez.
A few in the entertainment world are singing his praises too.
“I am on that short list of people who want to see him put his life back in order,” said Las Vegas legend Wayne Newton, who worked with Tonken on a legitimate charity event years before he went to prison and kept in contact with him while he was incarcerated. “I would work with him anytime, anywhere.”
Whether Tonken, 45, can pull off a second act remains to be seen. This summer a federal judge jailed him for several hours after he became unruly during a hearing on the millions he still owes victims, and although he insists “the top people” in Los Angeles have embraced him, he said none would speak publicly because they didn’t want their association known.
“I hope he doesn’t get his life back,” said Martin Gubb, the businessman who gave Tonken money for the Celine Dion benefit that never happened. “What he did is beyond words.”
Tonken is ambivalent about how much publicity he wants for his return. After being contacted by a reporter, he sat for a lengthy interview and provided legal documents, photographs of himself in prison and a copy of his book proposal. But later in an e-mail, he ended his cooperation, saying he feared the story would harm his comeback.
“If you hurt me in this article you are making it all the much harder for me to earn a living to pay back my victims, deprive [sic] charities from potentially getting millions of dollars over the next several years because you will remind everyone of the scandal which really is all that I think you care about,” he wrote.
Tonken, a doctor’s son from Michigan, came to Hollywood without money or connections, but managed in less than a decade to claw his way from homeless shelter resident to indispensable insider. A charity fundraiser, he was known from the White House to Beverly Hills for packing splashy benefit galas with big names such as Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, John Travolta, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Among his highest-profile events was an over-the-top 2000 fete for President Clinton at a Mandeville Canyon estate that featured a concert by Diana Ross, Michael Bolton and others and raised $1 million for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate campaign.
That star-studded evening was one of many Tonken events that came under the scrutiny of state and federal authorities. Much of Tonken’s operation turned out to be a sham. Charity money was diverted to shell bank accounts and never reached the intended beneficiaries. By some estimates, Tonken and his associates misappropriated over $7 million. The investigation triggered the unsuccessful prosecution of a top aide to Hillary Clinton, David Rosen. He was acquitted of charges that he concealed more than $700,000 in gala costs in filings to the Federal Election Commission.
Compounding his pariah status, Tonken published a tell-all book on his way to prison in which he exposed the unseemly but apparently common practice of wealthy celebrities accepting — and in many cases, demanding — cash and gifts in order to appear at charity functions. In the book and in media interviews, Tonken detailed dealings with Cher, Bill Cosby, Arnold Schwarzenegger and a roster of other notables.
Many in Hollywood were outraged — Tonken said he got 30 separate cease and desist letters — and actor David Schwimmer successfully sued Tonken for defamation for claiming he gave the “Friends” star Rolex watches. By then, Tonken was behind bars, sentenced to just over five years in a deal in which he pleaded guilty to two fraud counts.
In the sparse accommodations of the string of prisons in three states where he served his sentence, Tonken said, he found the “peace and harmony” that had eluded him in the mansions and hotel ballrooms where he’d triumphed professionally. According to Tonken, he was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and later borderline personality disorder and prescribed medication to treat the conditions. He continues to take those medications, he said.
A hulking 337 pounds when he entered prison, he began running five miles a day and dropped more than 150 pounds. He has gained some of the weight back since leaving prison in December 2008, but is no longer the jowly man who posed for pictures with the Clintons.
Raised Jewish, he started reading the Bible daily in prison and attended a weekly Christian scripture study. He confronted what he described as a sexual addiction that led him to see “a ton of” male prostitutes before he went to prison. He said he is trying to be celibate. “If I can control myself and not live that lifestyle, then I am honoring God,” he said.
In prison, he said, he took college classes, tutored other inmates and even worked undercover for prison officials in a sting operation involving contraband cigarettes.
He also spent scores of hours meeting with state prosecutors and private lawyers trying to recover the money. What they found, some of those attorneys said, was that Tonken personally kept very little of the money, instead passing it to associates or spending it on cost overruns at galas or jewelry or other gifts to lure celebrities to his events.
Leonard Machtinger, a lawyer who questioned Tonken in prison on behalf of a New York charity defrauded in the scheme, said he came to see Tonken “not so much as a thief as a terrible businessman.”
Sonja Berndt, a deputy attorney general who with her colleague Ibanez questioned Tonken under oath for five days in prison, said, “Everybody that was his friend, they had their hand out … I don’t think the guy had one true friend.”
In the end, the state recovered $2.1 million because of Tonken’s cooperation, she said.
To Tonken, the proximity to celebrities was more valuable than any bank account.
“I love the stars. Part of my illness was that the bigger the star was, the more … I felt validated by knowing them,” he said.
He still name-drops the way some people bite hang nails, constantly and without awareness of how unsavory it is to others. Even his descriptions of prison are peppered with references to famous inmates — Tommy Chong, ex-Worldcom CEO Bernard J. Ebbers, former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.
Called on it, he sighs. “That’s why I’m living in Huntington Beach. It’s the working class of America.… That’s why I’m not going out with rappers who are my friends to Mr. Chow’s every night.”
Still, when he was released from a Kentucky prison on Christmas Eve 2008, Tonken could have gone to stay with family in Florida. Instead, he boarded a Greyhound bus for Los Angeles. “I had mixed feelings about leaving prison. I had gotten control of my life, I was thin, I was exercising, I had friends, I would talk about positive things. I didn’t want to lose that,” he said. He decided, he said, that his ability to use celebrities to raise money for charities was a gift from God not to be squandered.
Currently, however, he is legally barred from fund-raising or otherwise handling money for nonprofits. His agreement with state prosecutors allows him to act as a consultant to charities and a federal judge cleared him Monday to work planning events for one of his former victims, Steven Fox.
Fox, a businessman from Monterey, Calif., said Tonken is promoting a new line of dietary supplements. Fox also gave Tonken a car and is letting him live in a home he owns in Huntington Beach.
“I think he has good intents to pay me back.… He has finally gotten the medical treatment he needs and he is not the same person he was,” Fox said.
In addition to working for Fox, Tonken, who is on probation, is trying to start a prison consulting business where he could prepare wealthy convicts for life behind bars. He said he could make as much as $25,000 a session. And he claims he has already been approached by “big, big names” about planning events in Hollywood.
Tonken owes more than $2 million in restitution, not to mention debts to other creditors including Schwimmer, who won a $400,000 judgment in the defamation case. Tonken’s 2004 book, “King of Cons,” that so upset Hollywood apparently did not make much of an impression on the reading public — the publisher informed a federal prosecutor trying to garnish royalties that there weren’t any.
His current agent, Joel Gotler, said a new memoir “will be a totally different story.” He said he knew his client was still hated in some circles.
“Maybe some people forgive him and maybe some people will in time. I can’t control that. I don’t think he can either,” he said.