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Column One: Aaron Tonken, 'King of Cons,' aims for redemption

The convicted felon and onetime celebrity fundraiser says he's a changed man and he's not ready to let his talent for raising money for charities go to waste. Some of his victims back him up.

October 22, 2010|By Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times

A middle-aged man in a neon orange polo shirt and baggy blue gym shorts sat at a conference table in West Hollywood one recent afternoon interviewing a prospective ghostwriter.

"It's called 'Redemption,'" said Aaron Tonken, the man with the story to tell. "It's going to be big."

When Tonken was marched off to federal prison six years ago in a charity fraud scandal that embarrassed a slew of A-list celebrities, it was difficult to imagine him returning to Hollywood, let alone persuading a major literary agency to shop a book and movie deal about his life.

But there he was, sitting in his agent's swank office overlooking the Sunset Strip.

"I've changed," he said. "Mentally. Physically. Spiritually. It's nothing short of a miracle."

That Tonken, an admitted conman with a tongue silver enough to extract $115,000 from a Malibu businessman with the false promise of an in-home Celine Dion concert, claims he is rehabilitated is perhaps less surprising than those who vouch for the change.

One of his marks, a man to whom he owes $3.5 million, has given him a job, a car and a place to live. An attorney for some of his hardest-hit victims credits Tonken with helping them recover thousands of dollars. Even the state prosecutors who spent years building a case against him say they have witnessed a remarkable transformation.

"He was an angry man, very manic, intense, defensive, evasive, and throughout the litigation, he became more calm, cooperative, friendly, helpful. He just seemed to calm down quite a bit," said Deputy Atty. General Tania Ibanez.

A few in the entertainment world are singing his praises too.

"I am on that short list of people who want to see him put his life back in order," said Las Vegas legend Wayne Newton, who worked with Tonken on a legitimate charity event years before he went to prison and kept in contact with him while he was incarcerated. "I would work with him anytime, anywhere."

Whether Tonken, 45, can pull off a second act remains to be seen. This summer a federal judge jailed him for several hours after he became unruly during a hearing on the millions he still owes victims, and although he insists "the top people" in Los Angeles have embraced him, he said none would speak publicly because they didn't want their association known.

"I hope he doesn't get his life back," said Martin Gubb, the businessman who gave Tonken money for the Celine Dion benefit that never happened. "What he did is beyond words."

Tonken is ambivalent about how much publicity he wants for his return. After being contacted by a reporter, he sat for a lengthy interview and provided legal documents, photographs of himself in prison and a copy of his book proposal. But later in an e-mail, he ended his cooperation, saying he feared the story would harm his comeback.

"If you hurt me in this article you are making it all the much harder for me to earn a living to pay back my victims, deprive [sic] charities from potentially getting millions of dollars over the next several years because you will remind everyone of the scandal which really is all that I think you care about," he wrote.

Tonken, a doctor's son from Michigan, came to Hollywood without money or connections, but managed in less than a decade to claw his way from homeless shelter resident to indispensable insider. A charity fundraiser, he was known from the White House to Beverly Hills for packing splashy benefit galas with big names such as Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, John Travolta, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Among his highest-profile events was an over-the-top 2000 fete for President Clinton at a Mandeville Canyon estate that featured a concert by Diana Ross, Michael Bolton and others and raised $1 million for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign.

That star-studded evening was one of many Tonken events that came under the scrutiny of state and federal authorities. Much of Tonken's operation turned out to be a sham. Charity money was diverted to shell bank accounts and never reached the intended beneficiaries. By some estimates, Tonken and his associates misappropriated over $7 million. The investigation triggered the unsuccessful prosecution of a top aide to Hillary Clinton, David Rosen. He was acquitted of charges that he concealed more than $700,000 in gala costs in filings to the Federal Election Commission.

Compounding his pariah status, Tonken published a tell-all book on his way to prison in which he exposed the unseemly but apparently common practice of wealthy celebrities accepting — and in many cases, demanding — cash and gifts in order to appear at charity functions. In the book and in media interviews, Tonken detailed dealings with Cher, Bill Cosby, Arnold Schwarzenegger and a roster of other notables.

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