In June 2004, details of the confidential 1994 settlement between Michael Jackson and the Chandler family, who had accused Jackson of abusing then 13-year-old Jordie Chandler, were leaked to the media, and details of the settlement featured on both Court TV and The Smoking Gun website, which the channel had purchased in 2000.
The Smoking Gun, the website which would later publish selected transcripts from the grand jury hearing, featured a redacted copy of the settlement along with the civil complaint relating to these allegations, and a retainer agreement signed in September 1993 which revealed that Larry Feldman, or at least the law firm he was associated with, received an estimated $3 million in fees from the deal.
The website, which specialises in the publication of documents “that can’t be found elsewhere on the web”, had already published a declaration by Jordie Chandler in which he outlined allegations of sexual abuse by Jackson in graphic detail. The website re-published this document on November 18 2003 – the same day that Neverland was raided by Santa Barbara sheriffs investigating claims made by the Arvizo family. It published the document again, under the headline ‘Michael Jackson’s other legacy’, on June 25 2009, just hours after Michael Jackson’s death.
The settlement document reveals some interesting facts about the agreement that Jackson and the Chandlers had arrived at. The document is a settlement for claims alleging negligent infliction of emotional distress, and it specifically states that it “shall not be construed as an admission by Jackson that he has acted wrongfully with respect to the Minor, Evan Chandler or June Chandler, or any other person or at all.”
The document states that the settlement is being made “for alleged compensatory damages for alleged personal injuries arising out of claims of negligence and not for claims of intentional or wrongful acts of sexual molestation”, and acknowledges that Jackson was settling the civil action because of the damage the claim could do to his reputation and, by extension, his earning capacity.
While it is widely known that the Chandlers withdrew co-operation with the criminal case against Jackson after this settlement, it is not generally acknowledged that they also waived any civil claim for alleged molestation. In the settlement, the Chandlers agreed to “dismiss, without prejudice, the first through sixth causes of action of the complaint”, namely sexual battery, battery, seduction, wilful misconduct, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fraud, “leaving only the seventh cause of action pending”, ie, negligence. In effect, the Chandler family dropped their pursuit of Jackson for damages for alleged molestation – though the terms of the settlement, ie dismissing without prejudice, left this avenue open to them – opting instead for the somewhat ambiguous tort of negligence which alleged that, rather than deliberately harming Jordie Chandler, Jackson had somehow failed in his duty of care to the family.
The document also reveals the settlement amount – $15,331,250 – though not the details of how this money was disbursed among Jordie Chandler and his parents, which remains redacted. The $15.3 million settlement was not quite the $20 million which had been suggested for years, and is still often quoted by commentators, but it is a staggering sum nonetheless, and begs the question, why did Michael Jackson, who always protested his innocence in this case, hand over so much money to the Chandler family? To understand the reasoning behind this settlement, it is necessary to examine the factors which shaped this decision, one of which is the Dangerous World Tour.
Jackson embarked on the Dangerous World Tour in June 1992, and by the time the tour was shelved in November 1993 he had performed 69 concerts across Europe, Asia, and South America to an estimated audience of 3.5 million. It was an ambitious undertaking by any standard. The tour had been scheduled to last 20 months, though the final four months were cancelled in November 1993 due to Jackson’s failing health and dependence on prescription painkillers.
Even before the allegations emerged, the tour was not without its problems. Jackson had been forced to cancel a number of concerts due to health problems, including a throat infection and back pain, before the Chandler controversy. The emergence of abuse allegations saw a further significant decline in the singer’s wellbeing. Though Jackson continued with the tour for several weeks, he was not prepared for the enormous emotional toll the controversy would exact from him.
The first Dangerous concerts to be cancelled during the 1993 leg of the tour occurred in late August, just days after the allegations were made public. Jackson continued to miss gigs on a regular basis until November, when the final four months of the tour were cancelled. He later spent time in rehab in the UK to after developing a psychological dependence on the prescription painkillers he had been taking for several years to deal with various health issues.
During the 19 months of the tour Jackson regularly played to audiences of between 20,000 and 100,000, generating nine figures in revenue in the process. Pepsi sponsored the tour to the tune of $20 million. The broadcast rights to Jackson’s concert in Bucharest, Hungary, on October 1, 1992, was sold to to HBO for a reported $21 million, the highest amount ever paid for a live concert. The tour was a massive money-making machine, though Jackson donated his own earnings from the tour to charity, most notably the Heal The World Foundation, which he had established to provide support to children affected by poverty and disadvantage around the world.
The tour was by no means Jackson’s only source of revenue. In 1991, he had signed a lucrative recording contract with Sony, estimated to be worth up to $1 billion for the company. At the time, it was the largest contract in recording history. By 1993, Michael Jackson was the highest paid performer in the music industry; he had the capacity to earn enormous sums of money, not only for himself but for anyone who was fortunate enough to do business with him.
It is no wonder, then, that Jackson was under pressure to make the allegations of sexual abuse, accompanied by the worst possible publicity for a performer who relied heavily on his public image as part of his earning capacity, go away. In 2004, defence attorney Thomas Mesereau revealed in court documents that the settlement was made by Jackson’s insurance company, not by the singer himself; in this context, $15 million was a pittance compared the money that had been invested in Jackson, and the returns he was expected to produce on that investment.
Before the scandal broke in the media, Jackson was offered the chance to make the allegations disappear by handing over $20 million to Evan Chandler; he refused, and accused Chandler of extortion, a charge he later recanted as part of the settlement. However by January 1994 the Chandlers were holding all the cards. A criminal investigation into the allegations was under way. Despite this investigation, Jackson was due to be deposed in the civil case, a move which would have severely compromised his ability to mount an effective defence in any subsequent criminal trial. Jackson’s attorneys sought to have the civil case delayed by up to six years, though the Chandlers’ lawyer, Larry Feldman, sought to have the civil case expedited on the grounds that Jordie was “entitled to lead the remainder of his childhood without a cloud over his head that he is an extortionist and a liar”. Neither scenario would have derailed a criminal trial. The judge in the civil case agreed with Feldman, and the civil case was scheduled to occur concurrently with the criminal investigation, and would likely have preceded any criminal charges.
This move effectively made it necessary for Jackson to expedite the civil case by means of a settlement rather than risk the potential damage a hearing would have done to his ability to defend himself against the pending criminal charges. After the settlement, the Chandlers withdrew their co-operation with the criminal investigation, though there was nothing in the civil settlement to prevent them testifying in any criminal trial. Two grand juries were convened in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles to hear evidence in the criminal case but the evidence presented was weak, despite Santa Barbara district attorney Tom Sneddon seeking a further 90 days to gather evidence against Jackson. In fact the evidence was so weak that neither grand jury was asked to return an indictment.
The June 2004 leak was, needless to say, devastating for Michael Jackson. In the midst of fighting fresh false allegations, this decade-old case had been resurrected with lurid details of previous allegations now publicly available to anyone who visited The Smoking Gun, or sought information on the case online. Jackson, under the strict confidentiality terms of the very document which had been leaked, was not at liberty to speak about the case publicly. However he did issue a statement addressing the leak, which were published on a fan website and on various news websites.
“I respect the obligation of confidentiality imposed on all of the parties to the 1993 proceedings,” the statement read. “Yet, someone has chosen to violate the confidentiality of those proceedings. Whoever is now leaking this material is showing as much disrespect for the Santa Maria Court’s ‘gag order’ as they are a determination to attack me.
“No action or investigation has been taken to determine who is leaking this information or why they are permitted to violate the law in such a manner. I respectfully request that people see their efforts for what they are.
“These kinds of attacks and leaks seek to try the case in the press, rather than to a jury who will hear all the evidence that will show that I did not, and would not, ever, harm a child. I have always maintained my innocence and vehemently denied that these events ever took place. I reluctantly chose to settle the false claims only to end the terrible publicity and to continue with my life and career.
“I ask all of my neighbours in Santa Maria, the people to whom I give my loyal trust and admiration, to keep an open mind and give me a chance to show that I am completely innocent of these charges. I will not let you down.”
The district attorney’s office responded to this statement by seeking a request for clarification as to whether Jackson had broken the terms of the gag order which was in place, which senior deputy district attorney Gordon Auchincloss asserted “unequivocally proscribed the public dissemination of any statements from defendant relating to this case”.
Judge Rodney Melville later concluded that Jackson had indeed broken the terms of the gag order by “discussing potential evidence”. Melville ordered that the gag order be strictly enforced, and that anyone who needed to make a public statement avail of the ‘safe harbour’ provisions in the order, ie, any further statements regarding the case, to address unfair or inaccurate reporting, could not be released without the permission of the court.