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

Fund-raiser Aaron Tonken, accused of fraud, says he's a victim of the stars' demands.

March 24, 2003|Michael Cieply and James Bates | 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.

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