YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Fund-Raiser Faces U.S. Fraud Charges

The complaint alleges event producer Aaron Tonken misused money meant for charity.

May 17, 2003|Michael Cieply and James Bates Times Staff Writers | Times Staff Writers

Federal officials filed a criminal complaint Thursday charging celebrity fund-raiser Aaron Tonken with one count of mail fraud and connecting him with check-kiting by a former executive of Stan Lee Media.

In an affidavit, a federal agent said Tonken used money earmarked for a never-held fund-raiser honoring Diana Ross to help Stephen Gordon cover checks in a scheme that defrauded US Bank and others.

Gordon, Stan Lee Media's former executive vice president, was convicted in December and faces sentencing in July. Company co-founder Peter Paul, who was a mentor to Tonken, was jailed in Brazil and is expected to be tried in the case, pending extradition.

George Bird, who represents Tonken, said he expected Tonken to be arraigned in federal court in Los Angeles on June 10. "Aaron is a tremendously talented fund-raiser who put together a number of successful events," he said. "What he was terrible at was record-keeping."

Bird said he was unaware of any connection between Tonken and the check-kiting scheme. He also said Tonken had "never personally benefited" from charity funds and intended to "make amends" for any problems.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Zwicker said Tonken could face up to five years in prison and would be required to make restitution if convicted. Zwicker said more charges are possible as the investigation continues.

The tight-knit world of star charity was rocked in March when California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer filed a massive civil complaint alleging that Tonken had misused at least $1.5 million from events that involved celebrities such as actress Michelle Pfeiffer and her writer-producer husband, David E. Kelley, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

A hearing on the state's request for a preliminary injunction barring Tonken from further charity work is scheduled for June 17, but people familiar with the action said the case might be stayed while the federal case, brought by U.S. Atty. Debra W. Yang, proceeds.

Thursday's mail fraud charge stemmed from Tonken's alleged misuse of almost all of a $400,000 check received from TV producer and philanthropist Loreen Arbus. The funds had been meant to support the "Celebrating Diana" event, which was planned in 2001 to honor singer Ross and aid charities but was never held.

Thursday's complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, described Tonken's involvement with Gordon but didn't charge him with bank fraud in connection with the check scheme. Attorney Harland Braun, who represented Gordon, said he believed Tonken had helped Gordon cover Stan Lee's payroll during a brief cash shortage. Braun said there was no check-kiting, and he plans to appeal Gordon's conviction.

A lawyer representing Tonken in the state's civil case didn't return a call seeking comment.

Los Angeles Times Articles