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.
In 2006, the relationship between Branca and Jackson reached another turning point. "He was surrounded, and I had to resign," Branca told the Associated Press following Jackson's death, explaining that the star had become involved with an increasingly odd set of advisers. "He did not ask me to stay."
According to a source who worked with Jackson intermittently, the pop icon's upbringing as a child star controlled by an abusive father left him "very gullible, very vulnerable," lacking in the street sense many acquire while growing up. Accordingly, as an adult, he went through a dizzying array of managers, lawyers and advisers.
After DeMann, Jackson was managed by the portly, ponytailed former bookie and record promoter Frank Dileo, who handled the star from 1984 to 1989. But at a certain point, the question of who was managing Jackson becomes difficult to unravel. Established manager Trudy Green was briefly in the picture, as was German merchandising executive Dieter Wiesner. (There was a media storm in 2005 when it was alleged Jackson had left an anti-Semitic voice message for Wiesner in 2003. Wiesner is among the many who have sued Jackson; he alleged fraud and breach of contract, and Jackson settled for $3.5 million in February 2008.)
Beginning in 2006, Washington, D.C.-based publicist Raymone Bain managed Jackson. She sued him in 2009 seeking $44 million for unpaid wages. That case was dismissed. (A couple of years later, she was charged with failing to file tax returns during the period she represented Jackson.)
For a time, Jackson also was said to have been advised by the Nation of Islam. But in 2008, Tohme assumed the role of manager, and while he is more than willing to claim credit for Jackson's subsequent success, he also is more than usually anxious to avoid scrutiny. Tohme's spokesman, James Lee, says his client is "an intensely private guy," and it's no accident that an Internet search yields almost no information, even basic data like his birthplace and education. "I'd love to be able to send you a bio," says Lee, "but I doubt that one exists."
In his lawsuit, filed Feb. 17, Tohme says he was responsible not only for many aspects of Jackson's life but his children's lives, too. He claims to have saved Neverland Ranch from foreclosure, restored Jackson's image with the public and played a key, if unspecified, role in the series of 50 concerts Jackson was to perform in London starting in July 2009. Tohme says without him, the documentary This Is It would not have existed.
For rendering all these services, Tohme claims he is owed $2.3 million for his Ranch rescue, plus 15 percent of Jackson's gross compensation starting July 2, 2008, and continuing beyond the pop icon's death. Ten percent for a manager is more customary, but James Curry, one of Tohme's attorneys, says given the state of Jackson's affairs when Tohme came on the scene and how much he was able to accomplish, "the 15 percent would probably be considered low." (Tohme says the estate won't even provide him with information so he can figure out how much he is owed, but the documentary alone -- which has grossed about $300 million all said, making it the highest-grossing concert film of all time -- would entitle him to a great deal of money.)
Apart from those deals, Tohme had arranged to have Jackson pay him $35,000 a month plus expenses to act as manager. He set up additional payments to himself of $100,000 a month to function as a producer for the London engagements. (While it appears he was paid for his services as a manager, it's not clear whether he collected fees associated with the planned concerts.)
In a dueling suit, filed the same day as Tohme's, Jackson's estate says Tohme did indeed take control of "virtually all of Jackson's personal and business affairs" and arranged a "far-reaching and very lucrative financial package for himself," obtained through "a manifest breach of his fiduciary duties" to his client. The estate's attorney, Weitzman, alleges Tohme lacked experience managing any artist, much less one of Jackson's stature. But armed with power of attorney granted by Jackson, the estate says Tohme began to hire, fire and supervise members of the star's professional team, allowing him to avoid outside scrutiny of deals he made for his own benefit.
The estate seeks to void all of Tohme's contracts with Jackson and demands he account for and return unspecified sums of money and property. The estate also rejects Tohme's claim to a percentage of Jackson's posthumous income, asserting that the star fired Tohme weeks before his death.
Tohme attorney Paul Malingagio disputes that Jackson ever fired Tohme. As for the estate's demand that Tohme return money and property, says Malingagio, "There is nothing that they will prove was improperly retained." In fact, after Jackson's death, Tohme voluntarily returned $5.5 million to Jackson's estate. The money was a portion of royalty payments Jackson had received while living in Las Vegas and had been set aside to purchase a residence there. Tohme says only he and Jackson had known of this plan.
Other than this portrayal of service to Jackson, Tohme's attorneys will reveal nothing about who this mystery man is and where he comes from. And Tohme seems to have left few footprints. NBC has reported that in the '90s, he settled a number of lawsuits alleging fraudulent real estate loans. Tohme has said in an interview that he is of Lebanese extraction but was raised in America. (Yet he speaks with an accent.) Although he claims to be a doctor, there appears to be no record that he was licensed to practice medicine in the U.S. And though he represented himself as an ambassador-at-large for Senegal, the embassy has denied knowledge of him.
Tohme apparently met Jackson through the singer's brother Jermaine while Jackson was living in Las Vegas. In an interview with the Today show shortly after Jackson's death, Tohme said he was taken with Jackson as soon as he met him, and within a short time, "I was taking care of everything. … When I came into Michael's life, I was the only one there."
In court papers, Tohme says that at the time of their initial meeting, Jackson was in "personal and financial turmoil." The child molestation trial that culminated in 2005 had taken a toll on the star, financially and emotionally. "The enormous defense cost and his inability to work during that ordeal, combined with Michael Jackson's excessive spending habits and financial mismanagement, left Michael Jackson in debt for hundreds of millions of dollars on loans that were coming due and [which he] lacked the funds to repay," says Tohme in court papers.
Jackson also was being sued by another friend of Jermaine's, Sheik Abdulla bin Hamad Al Khalifa. Al Khalifa had supported Jackson financially during his molestation trial and, after the acquittal, moved the star and his entourage to Bahrain, where Jackson lived for nearly a year. When the relationship soured, Al Khalifa sued for $7 million, claiming Jackson had committed to produce albums and an autobiography, among other things, in exchange for the prince's largesse. (Al Khalifa reportedly was an aspiring songwriter.)
Tohme says in court papers that he flew to Bahrain, hired attorneys and helped coordinate a settlement with Al Khalifa. He says he salvaged the 2,600-acre Neverland Ranch by arranging to have Los Angeles-based Colony Capital Llc. acquire a $24.5 million loan secured by the property. (Colony later backed construction magnate Ron Tutor's acquisition of Miramax.)
After Jackson left Bahrain in 2006, he and his family hopscotched from France to Ireland to Las Vegas. But after speaking with Tohme for "hours each day … on the telephone and in person," Jackson agreed in fall 2008 to move back to Los Angeles. He took up residence in the luxurious Hotel Bel-Air, nestled in the hills above Sunset Boulevard.
The business executive who had met Jackson in Las Vegas went to the Bel-Air to meet with him and again found Tohme at Jackson's side. Once, the executive remembers, Tohme stood in front of the hotel and gestured toward an array of gleaming Rolls-Royces. All belonged to Jackson, said Tohme, explaining, "I got his cars [from Neverland] and brought them here." Tohme said he worked out an arrangement with the hotel to park the cars where they could be seen.
In court filings, Tohme says he worked with the star on a months-long search for a rental property, culminating in the choice of the Holmby Hills residence where Jackson subsequently died. Meanwhile, according to Tohme's court papers, he took steps to restore Jackson's tarnished image and return him to the public eye, disputing negative stories about Jackson's health and lifestyle and arranging positive media exposure such as an Aug. 29, 2008, appearance on Good Morning America to mark Jackson's 50th birthday.
Tohme also takes some credit for arranging the planned series of comeback concerts in London. And in October, during the manslaughter trial of Jackson's physician, Conrad Murray, a former AEG Live executive testified that Tohme was present at the Bel-Air in September 2008 during the first meeting with Jackson to discuss the idea of a tour. Tohme's suit says he subsequently was involved in many aspects of the planned concert series, from logistics to establishing Jackson's web presence.
But the Jackson estate alleges that throughout his dealings on Jackson's behalf, Tohme behaved with impropriety. When he made the deal to prevent foreclosure on Neverland, says the suit, Tohme failed to disclose fully to Jackson that he had an existing (though unspecified) relationship with Colony. Jackson could have gotten better terms had he been represented by an independent adviser, says the estate, and the $2.5 million fee Tohme arranged for himself was far in excess of the norm.
The estate's lawsuit acknowledges that Tohme assisted in negotiating the deal for the concerts in London. But according to the suit, Jackson dismissed Tohme in March 2009, formalizing the termination April 14 by revoking Tohme's power of attorney. On that basis, executors Branca and McClain reject Tohme's claim for a percentage of revenue from the Jackson estate.
But when news of Jackson's death broke, Tohme rushed to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and presented himself to the media as a spokesperson for the star. In the following weeks, Tohme found himself receiving unwelcome attention.
Today did a piece describing him as "the mystery man behind Michael Jackson." June Gatlin, a self-described "spiritual adviser" to Jackson, claimed on that broadcast that Jackson was "deathly afraid" of Tohme and produced a tape she said she had made in September 2008, on which Jackson said, "There's this divide between me and my representatives, and I don't talk to my lawyer, my accountant. I talk to him, and he talks to them." Gatlin can be heard telling Jackson, "That's not good," prompting him to reply, "I know it's not good. I don't like it. … I don't know what's in my account."
Tohme's lawyers say months after that tape supposedly was made, "Michael Jackson was hugging and kissing" Tohme in joy about the planned concerts. But on June 13, 2009, days before Jackson's death, The Wall Street Journal reported that Tohme had been replaced by Frank Dileo. (Dileo died Aug. 24, 2011.) Jackson offered no explanation for the change, the newspaper said. It quoted Tohme saying he wished Jackson "all the best."
Tohme did not acknowledge that reported rift after Jackson's death. He gave a couple of interviews, telling the Associated Press he had been the "closest person to Michael Jackson" for a year and a half. Tohme also said Jackson had been in perfect health the last time he had seen him, two days before Jackson's death, and that the star never took drugs -- a statement later contradicted by the coroner's report.
Tohme said he had been paid nothing to work for Jackson but worked to cut the star's costs while negotiating lucrative deals on his behalf. "I built a fence around Michael to keep people out," he said.
Now the estate is keeping Tohme out and a court may well have to decide whether he can work his way back in. In March, the estate filed a petition with the California Labor Commission arguing that Tohme was acting as an unlicensed agent. Since such determinations can take years, the estate also has asked the court to rule against Tohme without waiting for action on that petition. Either way, the estate seems determined to free itself from Tohme's claims. Whether the mysterious manager has the tenacity to cling to Jackson, even after his death, may not be clear for months to come. What is clear is that the stakes are far higher now than they were when Tohme guarded Jackson's gates, keeping so many hustlers and opportunists at bay.
THE JACKSON ESTATE PROFITS: The estate draws from five main revenue streams
This Is It: Released in October 2009, Michael Jackson: This Is It is the top-grossing concert film ever. It earned $261 million worldwide and tallied more than $40 million in DVD and Blu-ray sales.
Merchandise: The estate has issued $20 million in advances for licensed goods like the video game Michael Jackson: The Experience and the rerelease of his autobiography, Moon Walk.
Music Catalog: About $75 million is earned annually from a joint venture with Sony that controls a 750,000-song catalog that includes The Beatles. Tens of millions also come from MJ's songs.
New Songs: In 2010, the MJ estate signed a $250 million deal with Sony to release 10 albums of new songs. The first, Immortal, was released in November and has sold 183,000 units.
Concerts: Since launching in October, the Cirque du Soleil tour Michael Jackson: The Immortal has played 67 cities and, in North America alone, brought in $150 million from ticket sales.