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Fundraiser Expected to Enter Guilty Plea

Aaron Tonken, who staged galas for political and charitable causes, is charged with fraud.

November 15, 2003|James Bates and Michael Cieply | Times Staff Writers

Aaron Tonken, who organized some of Hollywood's glitziest charity and political fundraisers, is expected to plead guilty to two federal criminal counts for defrauding donors and underwriters, prosecutors said Friday.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Zwicker confirmed the anticipated plea as charges were filed accusing Tonken of mail and wire fraud. Authorities said hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for charity events "instead went into the pockets of Tonken and others." The money allegedly was spent on luxury items and loan payments and to pay personal credit card bills.

Sources said Tonken, 38, was cooperating with a broader federal investigation into Hollywood charity galas, as well as some prominent political fundraising events. Zwicker declined to comment, except to say that authorities were investigating the extensive trail of money linked to Tonken.

"We are looking at people who disbursed it, and are looking at people who got it," Zwicker said.

Tonken is scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 1, but Zwicker said it was unclear when the former fundraiser might enter the guilty plea.

Tonken's attorney George Bird, who confirmed that Tonken expected to plead guilty, declined to discuss any possible cooperation with authorities. Bird said he believed the federal charges would preempt any possible state criminal action against Tonken, who faces a massive civil complaint filed by California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.

The federal charges are the latest in what has become a growing investigation into Hollywood political and charitable giving. The probe first came to light in March, when state officials sued Tonken for allegedly misusing charity money. U.S. authorities subsequently charged Tonken with one count of mail fraud, which was superseded by the charges filed Friday.

On Thursday evening, WNBC-TV in New York reported that Tonken was questioned in that city in August in connection with an ongoing investigation of former President Clinton's pardon of the fugitive businessman Marc Rich.

A source familiar with the investigation confirmed that Tonken was questioned by federal authorities about his dealings with Rich's wife, Denise; donations to the Clinton presidential library; and other matters.

Marvin Smilon, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in New York, would say only: "Our investigation is continuing." A lawyer for Denise Rich couldn't be reached.

Among the star-studded charity events cited in Friday's charges was "A Family Celebration 2001," which featured the cast of the "Ally McBeal" TV series, a performance by 'N Sync and speeches by two former presidents, Clinton and Gerald Ford.

Hosted by MTV's Carson Daly, the Beverly Wilshire gala was attended by celebrities including Elizabeth Taylor, Britney Spears and Sylvester Stallone. The event included a taped message from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) that lauded "my good friend Aaron Tonken."

Tonken built closed ties to the Clinton White House, organizing a fundraiser in 2000 honoring President Clinton on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that raised money for Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate campaign. As previously reported, federal investigators also have been examining that event.

Other charity events cited in Friday's charges include a never-held tribute to singer Diana Ross in which Tonken allegedly lied to TV producer and philanthropist Loreen Arbus about needing a $150,000 loan to secure an appearance by former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Court documents say Tonken had no agreement with Mandela. The charges also allege Tonken promised half of the funds from the Diana Ross tribute to the Robert H. Lorsch Foundation in exchange for $75,000 to help put it on after he had already promised 100% of the proceeds to another charity, the Joan English Funds for Women's Cancer Research.

The federal information also said Tonken solicited $175,000 from Arbus to help underwrite a tribute to the late comedian Milton Berle, but spent it on unrelated things.

According to the government filing, Tonken and unnamed others drained accounts set up at City National Bank that were supposed to be earmarked for charitable causes.

Tonken faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, although the exact amount of time would be determined by federal sentencing guidelines and his level of cooperation. Zwicker noted, however, that federal law called for stiffer penalties when frauds involved charity money.

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Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.

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