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Michael Jackson making $1.5 billion? No way, attorney says

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An accountant’s projection that Michael Jackson would have made as much as $1.5 billion if he’d taken his doomed “This Is It” 260-show world tour was attacked sharply Tuesday by a defense attorney, who said the singer had never pulled off an engagement even half that long.

"What you're projecting is totally inconsistent with Michael Jackson's history, isn't it?" asked attorney Sabrina Strong, one of the attorneys representing AEG Live, the entertainment titan that was producing what was to be Jackson’s comeback tour in 2009.

Strong previously told jurors that Jackson had been sued for canceling shows and had a history of drug use. She suggested Tuesday that his popularity may have been diminished by the 2005 child molestation trial and the instance where he dangled one of his young children over a hotel balcony. Jackson was acquitted in the molestation case.

Arthur Erk, a certified public accountant who has worked with various rock acts, testified that Jackson’s earning power remained strong and that he could have made as much as $1.5 billion if he’d gone on tour after his 50-concert stand in London.

Erk disagreed that Jackson’s earning power had diminished or that he was incapable of pulling off a long, multi-year tour. He said "This Is It" was going to be a "blow-out tour, and he was going to earn a lot of money.”

“I packed a lot of shows in to go out with a bang,” he added.

The most Jackson had ever performed in one tour was 123 show in the "Bad" tour in 1987, according to a chart Strong showed the jury. His highest grossing tour was his last one, "HIStory," which began in 1996, in which he performed 82 shows and grossed $165 million in ticket sales and merchandise.

Strong told Erk that AEG executive Paul Gongaware, a defendant in the case, had testified Jackson didn't make any money on "HIStory." Outside the courtroom, Jackson attorney Brian Panish said that was only because the pop singer had given 85% of his share to charity.

Erk said that the five-hour sale of 750,000 tickets to his 50 London concerts showed that Jackson's popularity had not suffered. AEG's plan, was that after the London shows the singer would perform in Europe and Asia, finally ending the tour in the U.S., he said, "and by that time his image would be rehabilitated.”

Strong kept insisting that Jackson had not agreed to anything other than the London shows, although Jackson's contract included the possibility of extending the tour.

Erk said he spoke to Jackson's son, Prince, Saturday night. "He said his father specifically told him, 'We're going to Asia,' " according to Erk.

Jackson's mother and three children have sued AEG for wrongful death, saying the entertainment firm hired and controlled Conrad Murray, the doctor who gave the singer the fatal dose of the anesthetic propofol in June 2009. AEG says the doctor worked for Jackson and that any money the firm was supposed to pay Murray was an advance to the singer.

Strong talked about Jackson's prolific spending, saying he was $400 million in debt and that his mother's home was in foreclosure. She said that a former Jackson business manager had quit because the singer showed no interest in pulling back on his spending.

Strong said that in one instance, Jackson bought a $1-million watch but had to return it because he couldn't afford it.

Another former Jackson business manager said Jackson spent $20 million to $30 million a year more than he earned, Strong said.

Erk said Jackson had a $320-million loan on his portion of the Sony/ATV musical catalog, which includes Beatles songs.

Erk's calculations of Jackson's projected earnings also included a Las Vegas show based on the pop star's music, but one in which he would not perform. Erk calculated that Jackson could have earned as much as $1.96 billion if Jackson's tour was extended to four years, a plan based on an email from AEG chief executive Randy Phillips.

His more speculative projections had Jackson taking a nearly three-year break after the global tour and then performing in four smaller sets of concerts through 2024, which would have earned him an additional $376 million, including merchandising.

The trial action was nearly overshadowed by a confrontation outside the courtroom between AEG Live attorney Marvin Putnam and Panish. The two men have been sniping at each other almost since testimony began 2 ½ months ago. Tuesday, their apparent dislike for each exploded.

A reporter asked Panish about AEG’s mention of the molestation case, the first time it has been brought up in the trial. Panish called it “totally disingenuous.”

“They can bring it all out,” Panish said. “We’ll be ready.”

Panish then heard something Putnam said, and the two began a heated discussion. "Don't yell at me," Mr. Putnam, Panish said.

Court clerk Nelli Raya, who was holding the door the courtroom door open, said, "Everyone go your separate ways."

The two men continued bickering, even after Raya said she was going to tell Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos.

"He's afraid of the truth," Putnam said.

"Where's Mr. Anschutz?" Panish replied.

Putnam asked what Philip Anschutz, the owner of AEG, the parent company of AEG Live, had to do with the case.

As he walked away, Putnam took a parting shot at Panish. "He says these lies to the press and they pick it up."

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jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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