LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The phrase most spoken by AEG Live’s co-CEO during his testimony in the Michael Jackson wrongful death trial was: “I don’t recall.”
Paul Gongaware, who was in charge of producing and promoting Jackson’s ill-fated comeback concerts, testified this week that he couldn’t remember sending key e-mails or approving budgets that included $150,000 a month for Dr. Conrad Murray.
Gongaware also denied thinking that Jackson’s health was frail in the last days of his life, despite e-mails from others in the production suggesting the singer needed help.
Jackson’s mother and three children are suing AEG Live, contending the concert promoter is liable in the pop icon’s death because it negligently hired, retained or supervised Murray.
AEG’s lawyers argue it was Jackson who chose, hired and supervised Murray — and their company only dealt with Murray because Jackson demanded they pay for him to be his “This Is It” tour doctor.
Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s drug overdose death and he is serving a prison sentence.
Gongaware seemed to dance around some questions like Jackson doing a “Moonwalk,” including when he explained an e-mail to his boss’ assistant in which he said he was having nightmares and cold sweats about the concerts.
It was not an admission that he was concerned about Jackson’s ability to do the show, he said. “It was just playing around, joking,” with AEG President Tim Leiweke’s assistant, Carla Garcia, he testified.
“Carla is an absolute babe and I was just chatting her up,” he said.
While that testimony drew laughter in the court, it was unclear how jurors and the female judge viewed it, because Gongaware also acknowledged his girlfriend worked at AEG.
Gongaware’s repetition of “I don’t recall” several dozen times under questioning by Jackson lawyer Brian Panish eventually drew laughs from jurors, including when Panish began answering for him with that phrase.
The ‘smoking gun’
Panish questioned Gongaware about an e-mail Jackson’s lawyers call the “smoking gun,” which they argue shows AEG Live executives used Murray’s fear of losing his lucrative job as Jackson’s personal physician to pressure him to have Jackson ready for rehearsals despite his fragile health.
Show director Kenny Ortega e-mailed Gongaware 11 days before Jackson’s death expressing concerns that Murray had kept Jackson from a rehearsal the day before. Ortega also raised his own concerns about Jackson’s health. Gongaware testified on Wednesday that he thought Ortega was “over-reacting.”
His e-mail reply to Ortega read: “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.” Gongaware, in a video deposition played in court on the first day of the trial, said he could not remember writing the e-mail.
Panish on Wednesday played for jurors a section of Gongaware’s deposition, recorded in December, in which Jackson lawyer Kevin Boyle questioned him about what he meant when he wrote to Ortega, “We want to remind him that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary.”
Boyle: “Based on the assumptions that AEG is your company and MJ is Michael Jackson, do you have an understanding of what that means?”
Gongaware: “No, I don’t understand it, because we weren’t paying his salary.”
Boyle: “So why would you write that?”
Gongaware: “I have no idea.”
Boyle: “Now, let’s go on to the next sentence. When you say ‘his salary,’ who are you talking about?”
Gongaware: “I don’t know.”
Boyle: “Oh, but how do you know you weren’t paying his salary if you don’t know who we’re talking about?”
Gongaware: “I don’t remember this e-mail.”
Boyle: “Didn’t you just testify that ‘we weren’t paying his salary’?”
Boyle: “Yes. No. You just testified ‘we weren’t paying his salary.’ You just testified to that a few seconds ago, right?”
Gongaware: “I guess.”
Boyle: “Well, whose salary were you referring to? Dr. Murray?”
After Gongaware began recalling in court Wednesday what he meant in the e-mail, Panish suggested it may be a case of “repressed memories” where “someone doesn’t remember something for three or four years.”
“You didn’t have any psychotherapy to remember what you wrote here?” Panish asked. “You didn’t like get put to sleep? (Judge Yvette Palazuelos injected: “Hypnotized?”) to see if you remembered this?
“No,” Gongaware answered.
The Elvis connection
Gongaware’s career as a concert promoter started with Elvis Presley’s last tour. He testified that he met Jackson when he was with Presley manager Col. Tom Parker in Las Vegas.
Elvis’ name came up in the trial on Tuesday as Panish questioned Gongaware about his knowledge of drug use during concert tours. He should have been able to recognize red flags signaling Jackson’s drug use because of his experience with Presley and his time as Jackson’s tour manager in the 1990s, the Jacksons contend.
An e-mail to a friend two weeks after Jackson’s death supports their argument, the Jackson lawyers contend.
“I was working on the Elvis tour when he died so I kind of knew what to expect,” Gongaware wrote. “Still quite a shock.”
AEG lawyer Marvin Putnam later told reporters that Gongaware was referring to the public reaction to Jackson’s death, not saying he expected Jackson would meet the same fate as Presley.
Presley collapsed in the bathroom of his Memphis, Tennessee, mansion — Graceland — on August 16, 1977, at age 42. While his death was ruled the result of an irregular heartbeat, the autopsy report was sealed amid accusations that the abuse of prescription drugs caused the problem.
Jackson died on June 25, 2009, at age 50. The coroner ruled his death was caused by a fatal combination of sedatives and the surgical anesthetic propofol. Murray told investigators he gave Jackson nightly infusions of propofol to treat his insomnia. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, sentenced to four years in prison and stripped of his medical license.
Gongaware — who has worked as a tour promoter for 37 years for bands including Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and many others — testified that the only artist he ever knew who was using drugs on tour was Rick James.
Gongaware is currently the tour manager for the Rolling Stones North American tour.
Alan Duke | CNN