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Doubts surfaced early on Michael Jackson

Emails in Jackson insurance litigation show AEG execs knew of concerns about the pop star's stability.

September 02, 2012|By Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times
  • Michael Jackson rehearses at Staples Center in June 2009 for his "This Is It" tour.
Michael Jackson rehearses at Staples Center in June 2009 for his "This… (Kevin Mazur, AEG/Getty…)

The scene in Michael Jackson's London hotel suite left Randy Phillips in a panic. Phillips was one of the world's most powerful music promoters and used to rock 'n' roll chaos, but the star's condition still floored him.

"MJ is locked in his room drunk and despondent," Phillips said in an email to his boss at Anschutz Entertainment Group, the Los Angeles company staking a fortune on the singer. "I [am] trying to sober him up."

Across the Atlantic, where it was still early morning, AEG President Tim Leiweke read the message and fired back on his BlackBerry: "Are you kidding me?"

PHOTOS: Michael Jackson | 1958-2009

"I screamed at him so loud the walls are shaking," Phillips told him. "He is an emotionally paralyzed mess riddled with self loathing and doubt now that it is show time."

The story of Jackson's ill-fated comeback attempt has been told in news reports, a manslaughter trial and a feature-length documentary. But a cache of confidential AEG emails obtained by The Times offers a darker picture of the relationship between the down-on-his-luck idol and the buttoned-up corporation taking a bet on his erratic talents.

The 250 pages of messages illuminate the extent to which top executives were aware of doubts about Jackson's stability as they prepared for his 50-show concert run at their London arena.

The emails will probably play a central role in two lawsuits set for trial next year. The shows' insurers are asking a judge to nullify a $17.5-million policy that they say AEG got with false claims about Jackson's health and readiness to perform. Jackson's heirs are pressing a wrongful-death suit that accuses AEG of pressuring the pop star to carry on with a comeback despite indications he was too weak.

Lawyers for AEG, which has denied any wrongdoing, said most of the correspondence was produced as discovery in ongoing litigation. They said the messages reviewed by The Times were incomplete and leaked to portray the company in a negative light. The lawyers declined to provide additional emails that they said would give a fuller picture, citing a protective order imposed by a judge in the civil litigation.

"If you are in the creative arts business, you are going to be involved with individuals who have a great many problems," said AEG attorney Marvin Putnam. "Michael Jackson was an adult and … it is supercilious to say he was unable to take care of his own affairs."

Michael Jackson was a megastar but also had a trail of burned investors and canceled performances that loomed large when AEG began contemplating a deal with him in the fall of 2008.

Even before meeting with Jackson, executives at the highest levels of AEG, including billionaire founder Phil Anschutz, were seeking insurance to protect the company's bottom line if the shows didn't come off, according to the emails.

Anschutz invited Jackson to a meeting at a Las Vegas villa in September 2008. Paul Gongaware, an AEG Live executive who knew Jackson, emailed colleagues a strategy memo. Wear casual clothes, he told them, "as MJ is distrustful of people in suits" and expect to talk "fluff" with "Mikey."

The company was proposing a world tour that would net the cash-strapped star $132 million, according to the memo. "This is not a number that MJ will want to hear. He thinks he is so much bigger than that," Gongaware warned. Talk in terms of gross receipts, he suggested.

The singer and AEG signed a deal in January 2009. According to the contract, AEG agreed to bankroll a series of London concerts at its 02 Arena and Jackson promised "a first-class performance." If he reneged, AEG would take control of the debt-ridden singer's company and use the income from his music catalogs to recoup its money.

There were doubters inside and outside the company. Dan Beckerman, AEG's chief operating officer, sent Phillips, the chief executive of concert division AEG Live, a YouTube link to Jackson's shaky 2001 MTV appearance and asked, "Can he pull this off?"

PHOTOS: Jackson show rehearsal

"With time and rehearsal," Phillips wrote back.

Pressed by another promoter about Jackson's ability to deliver, Phillips shot back in an email, "He has to or financial disaster awaits."

The contract required a medical examination as part of AEG's effort to get cancellation insurance, and nine days after Jackson signed, a New York doctor went to the star's Holmby Hills mansion. Dr. David Slavit concluded that Jackson was in "excellent condition," an assessment that AEG would tout in the coming months as proof that their star was healthy.

It's unclear how thorough the exam was. Slavit, an ear, nose and throat doctor who listed his specialty as "care of the professional voice," wrote extensively about Jackson's vocal cords in his report, which AEG said was given to its insurance broker. But he was silent on Jackson's well-documented substance abuse problems.

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