The man who organized a star-studded Hollywood gala to benefit then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign has authored a riveting account of his life among the rich and famous, shining the light on members of the would-be presidential candidate’s staff and the Democratic standard bearer herself.
Aaron Tonken, who quickly became a friend to top celebrities after once living in an L.A. homeless shelter, penned the last portion of his tell-all book, “King of Cons: Exposing the Dirty, Rotten Secrets of the Washington Elite and Hollywood Celebrities,” from behind bars. Part of his story includes what he considers a betrayal by government officials – which occurred after copping a plea and cooperating with the feds’ investigation into fund-raising impropriety.
The probe is centered around a huge Hollywood bash Tonken put together in just a month in the summer of 2000. Billed as a tribute to President Clinton, the event doubled as a high-dollar fund-raiser for Hillary’s Senate campaign.
Writes Tonken about the event: “All this police presence because of my party, because President William Jefferson Clinton was coming. I was the one who had made it all happen. No one else. Me, a high-school dropout from a small northern Michigan town who, not long ago, had been living in an L.A. homeless shelter.”
Tonken had lined up A-list performers for the event, including Cher, Patti LaBelle, Sugar Ray, Toni Braxton, Melissa Etheridge, Michael Bolton, Paul Anka and Diana Ross.
Tonken, 34 at the time of the 2000 fund-raiser, basked in his new role, never imaging he’d be facing down government investigators within a couple of years.
Writes Tonken in describing the departure of the Clintons the night of the gala: “Just before they got into the limo, I handed the president gifts from me, Stan Lee and Peter Paul: for him, a custom humidor and a handmade gold watch worth tens of thousands; for Hillary, a necklace that cost eight grand. The first lady disliked it and later sent it back.
“Before my car arrived, I had my last fond glimpses of this gathering of the rich and famous. I watched them drive off into the night. I may have been the ultimate outsider growing up, but not any more. Now I was in, and they were my people.
“But not for long. In less than three years I’d be busted. Instead of chronicling my stunning successes, Variety’s Army Archerd would be writing about my criminal misdeeds; I’d be talking not to presidents and movie stars, but to the FBI and other federal agencies, handing over more than two dozen boxes of letters, e-mails, receipts and invoices, cooperating as the government pursued a multifaceted investigation into the corruption that lay hidden behind all the glitter.”
Tonken’s narrative takes a fascinating look at how political and charitable fund-raising intermingles with the fast-paced image-conscious world of Hollywood celebrities – and what kind of trouble an eager but ignorant promoter can find himself in.
“There’s nothing movie stars love more than hobnobbing with political stars, and many politicians are suckers for Hollywood dazzle. It’s harder to keep them apart than to bring them together,” Tonken explains in his new book.
Tonken pleaded guilty last year to one count of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud in hopes of ultimately getting a lesser prison sentence. Instead, he was sentenced to 63 months in prison and ordered to pay $3.79 million to donors and event underwriters whom he bilked.
In what Tonken calls “a personal Ponzi scheme,” he was convicted of fraudulently diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars from charities to pay his own debts.
Tonken also has been targeted by California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who sued him and some former business partners for defrauding donors.
As Tonken explains in “King of Cons,” much of the money he mishandled went back to celebrities in the form of lavish gifts, chartered jets and other favors – what he considers shake-downs, pure and simple.
“Money, money, money,” he writes. “I always made so much for other people, never for myself. And I spent and spent. Borrowed and borrowed. My finances were messier than a plane wreck.”
He clearly implicates David Rosen, a key staffer of Hillary’s:
“David Rosen, Hillary Clinton’s director of finance, worked out of our offices and knew about every dime that was being spent. More than that, he participated in the spending.”
As WorldNetDaily reported last month, Rosen is the target of a criminal probe of fund-raising violations and at the time was before a grand jury.
The FBI says Rosen has been fingered by indicted businessman Peter Paul, who alleges the Clintons defrauded him in connection with the 2000 gala.
In his account of his dealings with Hillary, Tonken mentions how grateful she had been to him for all his help with her campaign. But how much did she know about the financial skullduggery?
“One thing about Hillary, she was very attentive to the little details,” he writes. “I believe she is genuinely considerate in that way. The very next day [after the Hollywood fund-raiser], she sent me a thank-you note, partially handwritten, in which she said: ‘Your ongoing support of my Senate candidacy is especially important to me, and I am grateful for your continued friendship.’
“Take a good, long look at the first half of that last sentence. I did, and it made me wonder: Did she really know what was going on? I think David Rosen knew; I think [longtime aide] Kelly Craighead knew; I think [fund-raiser] Jim Levin knew. But Hillary? It was very possible that they hid it from her. In a way, that was their job. Protect the candidate.
“That was all about to change.”
Tonken later writes he explained what he was doing and how to the Senate candidate while the two were alone briefly in a van during a day of campaigning in L.A.:
“I’d spent odd moments alone with [Hillary] before, primarily in the evening at the White House. But this was my real shot to talk to her with no one else around, and what I wanted was to let her know how much I admired her, how much I was behind her, and most important, what I had already done for her. It was, quite by accident, the moment of truth. …
“I told her about virtually every penny I’d spent on her behalf. I let her know what I was doing and had done for each event of hers. I spoke about the money and what a pleasure and honor it was to spend it on her candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
“Once and for all, I wanted it clear in her mind who was the person really doing things for her. There was so much jockeying for position among those around her: Kelly, David, Jim Levin, and so on. People taking credit for stuff. I thought I might have been short-changed, and I wanted to correct that.
“I believed that once she knew the facts, she would see how valuable I was to her and welcome me into her inner circle. The whole thing was intended to be solely for my benefit. I never wanted to hurt her. I could tell she wasn’t entirely comfortable with this conversation, and yet I couldn’t stop. It wasn’t until much later that I fully realized what I had done. Whatever protection her staff had built around her, however much in the dark they had kept her, that was over.
“Now she knew.”
Further implicating Rosen, Tonken writes of how he would run his schemes by the finance director and would routinely get the go-ahead.
Writes Tonken: “Since I had only a passing acquaintance with campaign-finance law. If there was any question in my mind, I’d call David. The problem was, whenever I asked for advice he would invariably laugh off my concerns and say, ‘Don’t worry. Just raise as much as possible. Just keep at it.’
“Here’s an example: I came up with what I thought was a great idea to make it look as though support were coming from a lot of little donors, instead of one big one. I proposed that [Democratic donor] Cynthia [Gershman] would write a check for 40 grand, which she was willing to do, and I would run it through one of my accounts and emerge with cash and started giving it out in one-thousand- or two-thousand-dollar chunks to 20 or 30 people. They would then turn around and write personal checks of their own for the same amount, and that would be ‘their’ contribution. Sounded good to me, but when I presented it to David he laughed for about three minutes straight. When we got down to it, though, he told me to go ahead.
“I should have been suspicious when he added, ‘Just don’t tell anyone.’ Later, he would pull me aside at Spago and re-emphasize the point: I was to keep that little trick of mine quiet, ‘very quiet.’”
Tonken also writes of Rosen’s concern about expenses, telling the author to “get rid” of receipts related to fund-raiser expenditures.
“What we want is the appearance that expenses were minimal,” Tonken says Rosen told him.
A 2002 FBI affidavit backs up Tonken’s account:
“The [2000 Hillary event's] costs exceeded $1 million, but the required forms filed by New York Senate 2000 … months after the event incorrectly disclosed that the cost of the event was only $523,000,” the affidavit reads. “It appears that the true cost of the event was deliberately understated in order to increase the amount of funds available to New York Senate 2000 for federal campaign activities.”
Tonken’s book tells how he continued to do his job after federal agents contacted him about cooperating with their probe.
“Month after month this investigation went on,” he writes.” My life began to seem surreal. Here I was, doing charity events where there was fraud involved; continuing to expand my political contacts, fielding telephone calls from President Clinton, the first lady and Gerald Ford; and at the same time being enmeshed in an FBI probe.”
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