Aaron Tonken, a promoter and producer of charitable fundraising events that featured celebrities and public figures, was charged today with defrauding donors and underwriters who thought their money was going to charitable causes. Tonken, a 37-year-old Los Angeles-area resident, was named today in a two-count information that alleges mail fraud and wire fraud.
The information charges that from approximately 1999 to 2002, Tonken and others executed a scheme to defraud donors and underwriters who gave money to help finance charitable events. These events included “Celebrating Diana,” a tribute to Diana Ross; “Family Celebration 2001,” which was a dinner honoring the cast of the television program “Ally McBeal;” and a tribute to Milton Berle.
To cause underwriters and donors to contribute to the events, Tonken and others would falsely represent that contributions would be used to benefit specific charities, or that monies would pay event-related expenses, such as the cost of entertainment and meals. However, substantial portions of the contributions allegedly were not used to benefit charities or to pay event-related expenses, and they instead went into the pockets of Tonken and others.
In some instances, Tonken and others would purposefully fail to identify all of the donors and underwriters that had agreed to pay for part of an event. As a result, Tonken routinely had commitments from underwriters and donors to pay for more than 100 percent of the costs associated with an event.
Tonken and others would represent to donors and underwriters that certain well known celebrities and public figures had agreed to attend, or to be honored at, an event. However, Tonken and others sometimes did not have agreements with such persons.
To conceal the fact that contributions were not used to benefit charities or to pay event-related expenses, Tonken told contributors that their donations were deposited into bank accounts in the name of legitimate foundations, or that they had been deposited into the client trust account maintained by Tonken’s attorney. In reality, Tonken and others deposited contributions in bank accounts that they controlled or in the names of shell foundations that conducted no charitable or other activities. Tonken and others routinely looted these accounts.
Victims of the fraud included the Joan English Fund for Women’s Cancer Research, the Robert H. Lorsch Foundation, Loreen Arbus and John Gebbia.
The two counts in the criminal information carry a maximum possible penalty of 10 years in federal prison.
Tonken is expected to be arraigned on December 1 in United States District Court in Los Angeles.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is continuing on ongoing investigation into the fundraising scheme.