Almost any night of the week around Los Angeles, one charity or another has a glitzy fund-raising benefit, backed by a Hollywood star.
But many celebrities appear at these events not solely out of the goodness of their hearts. They come to line their pockets.
Actor David Schwimmer, who has made many millions of dollars starring in NBC's "Friends," received a pair of Rolex watches worth $26,413 in advance of a 1997 charity gala that had among its intended beneficiaries the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
Piano legend Ray Charles picked up $75,000 for a four-song appearance at a 2002 SHARE (Share Happily and Reap Endlessly) gala in Santa Monica, Calif., which was to benefit developmentally disabled children.
Those events were among more than a dozen organized in recent years by Aaron Tonken, a Los Angeles event promoter, who in November was charged by federal authorities with two counts of fraud related to charitable fund raising. Tonken's lawyer, Alan Rubin, said his client was expected to appear today in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Sources have said Tonken is negotiating a plea agreement.
Meanwhile, federal authorities and their counterparts in California State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer's office are trying to figure out what happened to as much as $7 million in funds that were raised at Tonken-organized events but never made it to designated charities. According to those familiar with the inquiry, it appears that little of the money was kept by Tonken himself.
Rather, it was spent on -- and sometimes demanded by -- those who needed it the least: the rich and famous, and their hangers-on.
To 'steal' from charity
"Stars know they can literally steal from charity," said Steven Fox, a Monterey, Calif., businessman who worked with Tonken on a 1995 fund-raiser for the Tommy Lasorda Jr. Memorial Foundation, named after the baseball legend's late son. "Otherwise, they don't perform. They don't appear."
State and federal law-enforcement officials say it isn't clear whether the celebrities who appeared at charity benefits in exchange for cash and perks -- trips to Europe, diamond-studded jewelry, a motorcycle -- did anything illegal. The law is murky, and many stars maintain that they considered what they received to be gifts or compensation to perform.
In Gerald Ford's case, that was a couple hundred grand.
The former president and his wife, Betty, were handed that much for agreeing to receive the "Special Giving Award" during a Tonken-organized event called a Family Celebration in April 2001. The benefit was to raise money for 18 different charities, including Cure Autism Now and the Starlight Children's Foundation.
The $200,000 the Fords received amounted to four times what the former president typically earns for public speeches and represented about 15 percent of the event's total take that night. Added to the tab was an additional $150,000 donation to the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
A publicist for Schwimmer declined to comment on an invoice that documented the giving of the Rolexes. Charles' spokesman confirmed the $75,000 payment. He added that the singer usually gives the money he makes from performing at charitable benefits to his own philanthropic foundation, but SHARE was an exception.