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Tonken Pleads Guilty to Fraud

The events promoter admits he diverted funds that donors believed were going to charity.

December 10, 2003|James Bates and Michael Cieply | Times Staff Writers

Fundraiser Aaron Tonken pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal felony charges that he defrauded donors and underwriters of Hollywood charity galas he organized.

With his guilty plea to one mail fraud count and one wire fraud count in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Tonken, 38, admitted that he diverted money that donors and underwriters believed was going to charities into shell bank accounts. Tonken is cooperating with authorities in a wide-ranging probe of the Los Angeles charity circuit.

Separately, "Friends" star David Schwimmer, who earlier declined to address questions from The Times about his dealings with Tonken, took issue with an invoice showing he received a pair of Rolex watches worth $26,413 from Tonken in advance of a 1997 fundraiser. The invoice was cited in a Times story Monday on gifts and money lavished on celebrities who participated in Tonken-organized charity events.

"I never received anything from Aaron Tonken, anyone associated with Aaron Tonken or as a result of any charity event related to Aaron Tonken," Schwimmer said in an interview.

Schwimmer said he once even considered taking legal action against Tonken, alleging that the event promoter shortchanged the actor's charity, the Chicago-based Lookingglass Theatre Co., after a gala involving the cast of "Friends."

Tonken later released a statement through lawyer George Bird, disputing Schwimmer's comments about the fundraising for Lookingglass. Tonken also said in his statement that he gave Schwimmer two gold Presidential Rolex watches and offered the detail that the gifts were purchased from XIV Karats Ltd. in Beverly Hills.

In response, Schwimmer spokeswoman Ina Treciokas repeated the actor's denial, saying he "categorically denies having received anything from Tonken, including watches. One needs to consider the source of the allegations."

After Tonken's plea Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Zwicker hinted that additional prosecutions could follow.

Zwicker said the government would continue looking at people who helped Tonken carry out his frauds, including those who helped him solicit funds and set up bank accounts and who were aware money earmarked for charity was being misspent.

"For want of better words, they were partners in crime," Zwicker said. "They are certainly being investigated."

The prosecutor declined to say whether any of those being investigated included celebrities who received gifts and cash in exchange for their appearance at charity events.

During the 40-minute hearing in downtown L.A., Tonken answered questions from U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer and admitted to the felonies. Tonken lawyer Alan Rubin said Tonken was remorseful. He said his client did not enrich himself at the expense of charities, estimating Tonken got less than 5% of the diverted funds.

"There are plenty of people who were as culpable, or more culpable, than he was," Rubin said.

Tonken's sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 23. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, although the amount of time he receives can be reduced depending on his cooperation.

Although Tuesday's plea agreement alleged that "hundreds of thousands of dollars" had been diverted, prosecutors and state and federal authorities believed the amount of money siphoned was substantially higher, with estimates totaling at least $7 million.

Until his arrest this year, Tonken organized numerous Hollywood galas and had the clout to deliver some of the biggest names in show business and politics for charities and political fundraising. In addition to the "Friends" event, he promoted a star-studded dinner honoring then-President Clinton on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in L.A. in 2000 that raised money for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign. Another event, "A Family Celebration 2001," honored the cast of "Ally McBeal" and included appearances by Clinton and former President Ford.

But authorities said he misused that clout.

One of the charges against Tonken centered on a planned tribute to singer Diana Ross. Authorities said that at the same time Tonken solicited money for the event from a variety of charities -- promising them a cut from the proceeds in return for underwriting the gala -- he also promised that all of the proceeds would go to the Joan English Fund for Women's Cancer Research. Instead, court papers said, Tonken diverted some of those funds to pay credit card bills and associates. The tribute never took place.

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