Michael Jackson's Strange Final Days Revealed in Dueling Lawsuits
Is the late superstar's secretive manager Tohme Tohme a hard-working strategist or greedy svengali?
This story first appeared in the July 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In late summer 2008, a wealthy entertainment industry figure with a serious business proposal for Michael Jackson arranged a meeting with the deeply troubled King of Pop, then living in a condo complex outside Las Vegas.
The businessman was given elaborate directions. "It was very bizarre," he remembers. "You had to go through all this secrecy. Eventually you came to this doorway. There were security guards in suits. It was very, very serious." Finally he made his way to a dimly lit room, with the shades drawn. There the businessman found Jackson, one of the top-selling artists of all time, with his three children and a shadowy individual known as Tohme Tohme.
Tohme stayed in the background during that initial meeting, says the businessman, but not so much at subsequent encounters. "When Michael was not there, Tohme was very brash and imperious," he says. Tohme (pronounced toe-MAY; age unknown but maybe in his 50s) claimed to be a wealthy man with connections in the Arab world, a medical doctor and an ambassador-at-large from Senegal. But by his own subsequent account, Tohme had decided earlier that year to devote himself to reviving Jackson's flagging career. He boasted, "All the business goes through me."
All the business did go through Tohme for much of the year before the King of Pop died of an overdose of propofol at 50 on June 25, 2009. The question now posed in dueling lawsuits in Los Angeles Superior Court is this: Was Tohme a hardworking if inexperienced manager who is now being stiffed by the Jackson estate after laying the groundwork for the star's comeback, even suggesting the name of the This Is It tour? Or was he -- as those representing Jackson's estate contend -- an opportunist who wants to extract another big payday after already receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation and expenses?
If the estate proves its allegations, the Tohme story would be another version of a sad but familiar Hollywood tale: A star with little business sense puts his faith in a guru, a dubious money man or a hanger-on who becomes a "manager," who then lines his own pockets at the client's expense. Sometimes even family members have been accused of playing the villain: Child performers from Aaron Carter to LeAnn Rimes have accused parent-managers of taking advantage of them.
In some cases, a manager can erect such an impenetrable wall around a star that other representatives or even the performer's relatives are cut off. For a legitimate agent or lawyer, says one industry attorney, this is "a very treacherous, terrible place to be."
Representatives in such cases can never be sure what information has been conveyed to the client, leaving them with a set of unappealing choices: They can carry out the gatekeeper's instructions without knowing whether the client is aware of them, or they can insist on speaking directly with the client, which might anger said gatekeeper. The latter might be the safer approach legally, says the attorney, "but if you think that person really has a client's ear, you'll lose the client."
The Tohme dispute is but one stream flowing into a mighty river of litigation generated by the star during and after his lifetime, thanks to Jackson's fame, wealth and personal issues. From the woman who claimed Jackson stalked her (even after he died) to the man who demanded $1 trillion because Jackson allegedly stole his herpes cure, the sheer volume and variety of litigation have been unusual, even for Hollywood. Some cases have been filed by those seeking legitimate compensation, some by those seeking a windfall and others by individuals who appear to have demons of their own. A court filing shows more than 20 separate law firms have worked for the estate during the past two years, but the estate's lead litigator is Howard Weitzman, who has represented Jackson since the 1990s and knows precisely how wide-ranging the lawsuits are. "The Michael Jackson estate continues to generate substantial litigation with former managers, ever-present creditors and varied and sundry claimants," says Weitzman. "Some of these claims range from the frivolous to the seemingly delusional. Many of them are most certainly unique."
A source close to the Jackson estate tells THR that more than 100 legal actions are pending, some filed by the estate and many filed against it, since Jackson died. A July 2 court filing by the estate casts light on the extent of that litigation: "At the time of his death, Michael Jackson was named in more than half a dozen lawsuits worldwide," state the papers. "In addition, a number have been filed against the estate since Michael Jackson's death. Sixty-five creditors' claims were filed against the estate, of which several resulted in litigation. Since Michael Jackson's death, counsel for the executors have represented the executors in more than 15 lawsuits in the United States and have assisted counsel in Europe and Japan in connection with overseas litigation."
Two of those four lawsuits against the estate involve former Jackson managers: Tohme and Freddy DeMann, whose DeMann Entertainment managed Jackson from 1978 to 1983. The latter, filed in July 2011, seeks commissions and the right to audit records, which it says the estate repeatedly refused to allow. (DeMann and his attorney declined comment on the pending litigation.)
Obviously, a great deal of money is at stake: While Jackson was as much as $500 million in debt at the time of his death, as of May 31, the estate had generated more than $475 million in gross earnings. Executors of the estate and the estate's counsel have collected more than $13.6 million in fees.
The executors are veteran entertainment attorney John Branca and music executive John McClain, a family friend who was involved in launching Janet Jackson's career. Branca is a leading music attorney whose clients have included The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith. He met Jackson in 1980 and represented him through the smash success of 1982's Thriller and the acquisition of The Beatles' catalog. The two were so close that Jackson was best man at Branca's first wedding, bringing his chimp, Bubbles -- clad in a tuxedo -- to the ceremony.
In 1990, a reportedly tearful Jackson split from Branca; it was said at the time that mogul David Geffen had warned Jackson that Branca had too much influence on his life. Branca and Jackson reunited three years later, when Jackson was facing a suit for alleged child molestation. In 1997, Branca's firm drafted Jackson's will, which was redone in 2002 after the birth of Jackson's third child, Prince Michael Jackson II. Branca has said he played no role in drafting those documents and they were handled by others at his firm.