Call him a schemer, a dreamer, a big talker. Call him a shady operator, a global operator, a lawbreaker. All of these have been used to describe John Clifford Ellsworth. By repute, the 42-year-old convicted felon also is a spinner of tall tales who has a yen for attaching himself to celebrated events.
A globe-trotter who has been in Los Angeles less than four years, Ellsworth has bragged of a mysterious past that supposedly included roles in President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China and in secret negotiations for hostages in Iran and Lebanon. He testified last year that he managed the Rolling Stones rock band for five years.
Some law enforcement people here tend to take these claims with a whole shaker of salt.
But in the eyes of a growing cadre of Ellsworth watchers, the promoter outdid himself playing big shot during the two-day visit of Pope John Paul II to Los Angeles last September.
Ellsworth managed to inject himself among the volunteer army helping the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to lay on the hospitality, but he was not your run-of-the-mill volunteer. In pursuit of papal glamour, a bankruptcy court has been told, Ellsworth bounced checks and piled more than $20,000 in bad debts on one of his companies.
A particularly intriguing item: a worthless check for $1,073.63 that he used to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken for scores of U.S. Secret Service agents assigned to protecting the Pope.
In feeding the hungry feds, Ellsworth also obligated his now bankrupt U.S. Coal Corp. for hundreds of dollars for provender from Greenblatt's Delicatessen in Hollywood and from Sarno's Caffee Dell'Opera Restaurant in the Los Feliz district. He even stiffed Winchell's Donuts for a paltry $16 worth of doughnuts for lawmen, according to the testimony.
Other expenses that Ellsworth failed to pay included about $32,000 to the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, of which an estimated $20,000 was for rooms during the papal sojourn. Biltmore manager Richard Delaney told the Los Angeles Times recently that "we have an arrangement with them for payment," but he did not give details.
The Kentucky Fried Chicken caper has since become a sensitive topic for the Secret Service.
That's because two months after the papal visit Ellsworth was named as the key figure in a state Corporations Department suit alleging misuse of $60 million in pension funds by Commercial Acceptance Corp.
The state disclosed at the time that Ellsworth had a record of two larceny convictions in New York. Last February, Ellsworth pleaded guilty to a massive "check-kiting" scam against Sanwa Bank.
Lawyers and accountants who have been laboring for months to unravel Ellsworth's business affairs are bemused by his big spending habits, revealed to include hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to car rental agencies, restaurants, check-cashing companies and Las Vegas hotels. There also is the $45,000 item for "stretching" a leased limousine and $105,000 owed to the city of Adelanto for providing facilities for the free High Desert Music Festival rock concert in Riverside County in July, 1986.
Just how Ellsworth got involved in helping the Secret Service during the Pope's visit also is far from clear.
But Wally McGuire of San Francisco, an outside consultant who coordinated the papal visit, said Ellsworth called and wanted to know how he could help. As it turned out, "he did nothing but offered plenty" to the Los Angeles Catholic archdiocese for the event, McGuire said.
He said the church turned down Ellsworth on offers of hotel rooms, automobiles, stage platforms and even facilities to videotape the entire event because "we had no track record with him."
Father Terrance Fleming, a professor at St. John's Seminary who was the archdiocese's local coordinator for the Pope's visit, said he "vaguely" remembers Ellsworth among the 5,000 individuals with whom he dealt but maintained that "he had a minimal part."
Stan Belitz, a Secret Service agent in Los Angeles who worked on the papal visit, denied that the agency had "dealings" with Ellsworth and said he "has been dropping our name around." The agent was identified in testimony as the one who handled arrangements with Ellsworth.
He referred a news inquiry to Secret Service spokesman William Corbett in Washington, who said Ellsworth in fact had arranged to pick up and deliver chicken dinners for a flock of agents awaiting a military flight out of Los Angeles.
"He showed up about an hour after departure," Corbett said. "The agents were gone. The Secret Service was not paying. Each agent was paying four or five dollars. But they were gone. They went hungry."
Corbett recalled that Ellsworth was referred to the agency by church authorities.
"One of the best ways to describe him is an opportunist," he said.