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A socialite dripping with police credentials sees his fantasy erode

Arthur Kassel's woes open a window on the world of vanity cops — where who you know and what you have can be the keys to earning a badge.

October 14, 2012|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Beverly Hills socialite Arthur Kassel, right, hobnobs with Lois Aldrin, the wife of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, at the Eagle & Badge Foundation fundraiser at L.A. Live in August 2011.
Beverly Hills socialite Arthur Kassel, right, hobnobs with Lois Aldrin,… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Arthur Kassel loves his badges.

For decades, the Beverly Hills socialite used his entertainment connections and political contributions to edge into law enforcement circles, gathering a collection of official credentials.

He hobnobbed with Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, used a state car to drive solo in carpool lanes and carried a Glock pistol on his hip.

In the world of cop groupies, the burly Brooklyn-born Kassel, 72, is the gold standard.

"Arthur lived in a Walter Mitty fantasy," said his stepson, Willie Wilkerson III, referring to the hapless fictional character who fancied himself a pilot, a surgeon and a footloose killer.

The fantasy, however, has begun to erode after a government audit called into question Kassel's use of taxpayer money. Kassel's woes also have opened a window on the world of vanity cops — a place where who you know and how much you have to give can be the keys to earning a piece of tin.

"All politics is relationships," said Baca, who welcomed Kassel into his inner circle of informal advisors and the department's cadre of low-level reservists. "And Art knows all the governors."

But Baca has acknowledged that there can be a downside to badge holders whose main function is generating money and support. The department has begun to rein them in after complaints about the use of official cars and other perks.

Friends and critics alike say Kassel, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is a throwback to that waning era of overt influence peddling.

"He's got a heart of gold," said Steve Michelson, a film producer who was Kassel's business partner for a decade. "But he's got unusual practices, and they don't quite rub right with everybody."

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Kassel stands at the nexus of cops and Hollywood. He is guns and glitter.

As far back as the 1970s, longtime friend Stephen Solomon said, "if there was a fallen officer, Arthur would be on the phone to me and everyone he knew to raise money for the family."

Kassel's entree into the world of the rich and famous was bolstered by his late wife, longtime Hollywood Reporter publisher Tichi Wilkerson Kassel, who introduced him to many of the celebrities he sought out to headline galas for police and military veterans.

It was thanks to a concert by Latin crooner Julio Iglesias that Kassel began a decade of fundraising for the Eagle & Badge Foundation, the charity of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

The foundation "was Arthur's baby," said onetime league president Ted Hunt, who joined with Kassel and L.A. Councilman Dennis Zine, a former LAPD sergeant, to found the nonprofit in 2001.

Kassel had come west in 1973 to work as an assistant to Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty. He later found work as a bodyguard to Tichi Wilkerson, who had inherited the Hollywood Reporter from her husband in 1962 and quickly rose to become one of the most powerful women in Hollywood.

She and Kassel wed in 1983. Poised and sophisticated, Tichi retained muralists to adorn their Beverly Hills home with Kassel's likeness. Brash with most, he was her gentle watchdog.

Kassel launched the Beverly Hills Gun Club in 1981 — Sylvester Stallone was a partner — providing training to wealthy gun owners. The club dissolved in bankruptcy. With Tichi's help, he ran a video and publishing company. That too went under.

Glad-handing came more naturally. A photo of Kassel with President Lyndon B. Johnson adorns a "wall of fame" that covers his home office.

The first of many state appointments came in 1977 from Gov. Jerry Brown, who named him to the Narcotic Addict Evaluation Authority and became a frequent guest at the Kassel mansion. Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Kassel to the State Compensation Insurance Fund board in 1994.

"I never ever heard Arthur talk about making money or getting paid," said former Gov. Gray Davis, who long has included Kassel as a Thanksgiving dinner guest. "He really does believe in helping his fellow human beings."

He networked feverishly. Deeply tanned, Kassel drove a Rolls-Royce with a front-seat fax machine and strapped three cellphones to his belt next to his beloved Glock.

Kassel's contributions to state and federal officials on both sides of the aisle topped hundreds of thousands of dollars. It wasn't hard for him to parlay his connections into law enforcement credentials.

A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms honorary credential came in 1986 — in gratitude for a fundraiser featuring Stallone that Kassel orchestrated for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., said then-ATF Director Stephen Higgins.

Three years later, Kassel sought an audience with Sam Cicchino, the interim head of the U.S. Marshals Service in Los Angeles.

Then vice president of the volunteer U.S. Marshals Assn., Kassel "dropped his wife's name" and pressed for a special deputy marshal's badge in exchange for a gala to celebrate the agency's bicentennial, Cicchino recalled.

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