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“Don’t be a Dr Nick”: Jacksons v AEG update

By | Published on Thursday 30 May 2013

Michael Jackson

The Jackson family’s legal team have been furthering their bid to show top managers at live music giant AEG in a bad light as one of the key executives involved in the ill-fated ‘This Is It’ venture has been giving testimony at the long-running Jacksons v AEG court case in LA this week.

Although AEG Live President Randy Phillips was more publicly associated with the planned ‘This Is It’ residency when it was first launched in early 2009, the company’s co-CEO Paul Gongaware played a key role in negotiating and then coordinating the firm’s partnership with Michael Jackson. And for the Jackson family, who claim AEG should be held liable for the late king of pop’s death in June 2009, certain emails sent by Gongaware, and his past associations with the singer, are key to the case.

As much previously reported, the Jackson family argue that AEG is liable for Jackson’s demise because it hired and put pressure on Conrad Murray, the doctor convicted of involuntary manslaughter for causing the singer’s death through negligent treatment. AEG counters that while its cash may have paid Murray’s bills, the doctor was hired and managed by Jackson directly, and execs at the live firm had no knowledge of or control over the treatment the medic dished out.

In some tough questioning of Gongaware this week, the Jackson lawyers have honed in on two key things, first what they have called the ‘smoking gun’ email in which the AEG exec seems to suggest the company did in fact wield influence over Murray, and second the claim that the witness should have been aware of Jackson’s health and drugs issues, because of his past work with the singer and concerns expressed by his own staff and contractors.

The “smoking gun” email is the one Gongaware sent to ‘This Is It’ director Kenny Ortega, after he expressed concerns that Jackson had missed rehearsals at Murray’s request. Just eleven days before the singer died from an overdose of the anaesthetic propofol, Gongaware wrote to Ortega: “We want to remind [Murray] that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary. We want to remind him what is expected of him”.

This email seems to contradict AEG’s insistence that it was merely advancing money to Jackson to pay Murray, and not directly employing the doctor, and also possibly suggests that management at the live firm were putting pressure onto the medic. Pressure, Jackson’s legal team would argue, along the lines of “get Jackson fit enough to perform, whatever it takes, or else”.

Though Gongaware would not concur. The AEG exec says he doesn’t remember writing the email. Indeed in a deposition given last December, and screened in court this week, Gongaware said he didn’t even know what the email meant. Although more willing to concede what the note seemed to mean in court this week, the AEG CEO maintained that it was a clumsy use of words, because his company never was directly paying Murray’s salary.

In questioning the insistence by AEG management that they were ignorant of Jackson’s drug dependencies, and the dangers around the treatments Murray may be administering, the Jackson family’s legal team took the questioning back to Gongaware’s work on the singer’s ‘Dangerous World Tour’ in the early 1990s, and further still to his involvement in the final tour of Elvis Presley in 1977.

There has long been a theory that Presley’s death was actually caused by the over consumption of prescription drugs designed to cure the singer’s insomnia – ie exactly as with Jackson. Presley’s doctor at the time, George Nichopoulos, was subsequently charged with over-prescribing medication to the singer, but was acquitted. Nevertheless, when Gongaware, who cut his teeth in concert promotion on the final Presley tour, was running Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ trek fifteen years later, he alluded to “Dr Nick” in a conversation with the king of pop’s then private medic.

That medic was Dr Stuart Finkelstein. He has testified that, when providing pain relief medication to Jackson during the 1993 tour, he discussed with Gongaware a fear that the singer was showing signs of opiate addiction. Although both Finkelstein and other physicians working on the show still administered various pain relief drugs to Jackson, the doctor says he was concerned for the singer even then.

As was, it seems, Gongaware, who told Finkelstein “don’t be a Dr Nick”. That, Finkelstein says, was the tour boss “warning me, you know, don’t get all infatuated where you start administering meds to a rockstar and have the rockstar overdose and die on you”.

Therefore the AEG CEO, the Jackson family claim, knew about Michael Jackson’s drug dependencies, and the dangers of medics who struggle to say “no” when treating a powerful star. So why didn’t he use that knowledge to put measures in place to protect the king of pop he had just struck up a multi-million dollar business partnership with?

Other emails were then presented that, the Jacksons’ lawyers argue, show that Gongaware and AEG ignored various red flags in spring 2009. The AEG Live CEO himself sent an email to the PA of the boss of parent company AEG, Tim Leiweke, admitting to having “nightmares and cold sweats” about the then still in development ‘This Is It’ shows. But that wasn’t referring to any real concerns about the singer’s health, Gongaware countered this week. In fact it wasn’t really referring to anything. “It was just playing around, joking”, he said of the email. “[Leiweke’s PA] Carla is an absolute babe and I was just chatting her up”.

The flippant remark got some laughs in court, though others may have seen it in a more negative light, not least because the exec had already said he had a girlfriend who also worked for AEG. Other 2009 emails from Gongaware’s inbox showed the AEG boss encouraging his staff to be selective with the figures they shared with Jackson about the ‘This Is It’ project, so to focus on the bigger numbers, and also asking a colleague to use a colour scheme on a show calendar that made the days off more obvious, presumably in a bid to allay Jackson’s concerns than he was committing to too gruelling a production schedule.

So, yet more emails cleverly selected from the AEG servers to suggest the company’s chiefs held their star attraction in contempt, or were trying to pressure him into more shows than he was physically able to do, or just weren’t very nice people.

AEG’s legal team will presumably fight back against what they have already portrayed as corporate character assassination via a plethora of selective evidence that is, in their opinion, irrelevant to the core allegations in the case. Though, following the testimonies from Gongaware and last week his colleague Shawn Trell, the Jackson team are doing a pretty good job with the ‘bad light’ thing. Whether they are also convincing the jury of the live giant’s liability for Michael Jackson’s demise remains to be seen.

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