LOS ANGELES — Dr. Tohme Tohme vividly remembers the first time he met with Michael Jackson to discuss the pop star's finances. It's not the money talk that stays with him now, but his enchantment at entering Jackson's world of love.
"I saw how kind he was and what a wonderful human being," Tohme said in an interview. "I saw him with his children and I had never seen a better father. ... I decided to do what I could to help him."
Tohme, a financier with a murky past, had been contacted by Jackson's brother, Jermaine, who asked if Tohme could help to save Jackson's beloved Neverland ranch from foreclosure. Tohme said he traveled with Jermaine to Las Vegas, where Jackson was living after years of wandering the world following his acquittal on child molestation charges.
They bonded instantly. "For the last year and a half I was the closest person to Michael Jackson," Tohme said. He contacted Tom Barrack, the chairman of Colony Capital and a close personal friend. "He was hesitant to get involved, but I said, 'Let's go see Michael,'" Tohme recalled.
After the meeting he said Barrack, who was impressed with Jackson's "intelligence and focus," bought the note for Neverland. But that was just the beginning of a business relationship that culminated in the London concerts that were to have begun next week.
Wearing a suit with no tie, Tohme, Jackson's last business manager and spokesperson, granted his first interview Friday to The Associated Press in the office of a lawyer friend.
Tohme, listed in public records as being in his late 50s, has been portrayed as something of a mystery man in the Jackson brain trust.
"I hate the words 'mystery man,'" he said. "I'm a private man. A lot of people like the media and I don't. I respect the privacy of other people but lately nobody respects mine."
As he spoke, his cell phone rang constantly. He took only a few calls, one of them from Jesse Jackson.
He has been stung by allegations that he was involved with the Nation of Islam, which he said was untrue.
"I have nothing against anybody," he said, "But I don't know anyone from the Nation of Islam. When I took over Michael Jackson's affairs, I fired some people from the Nation of Islam."
It is known that he is of Lebanese descent. His double name — pronounced toh-MAY' — is not uncommon in the Middle East. But he declined to go into detail about his own life and career other than to say he is a U.S. citizen who was raised in Los Angeles and, "I'm a self-made man. I'm in the world of finance."
"I don't want to talk about me," he said. "I'm a nobody. I'm not important. I want to talk about Michael Jackson."
At times he appeared on the verge of tears as he discussed Jackson's death, saying, "It's unbelievable ... I'm devastated ... God bless his soul."
He said that by talking about Jackson, he was fulfilling one of the star's wishes.
"He always said to me, 'I want people to really know who I am after I'm gone.'"
He would only briefly discuss Jackson's finances. During his time with the superstar, Tohme said, he was paid nothing but was able to negotiate lucrative business deals that would secure the future of Jackson's children. He followed a long line of business managers and spokespeople who had come and gone from Jackson over the years. In the final year, he said he played a pivotal role in turning things around.
His negotiations for Jackson included a Broadway show with the Nederlander organization, an animated TV show based on "Thriller," a line of clothing including "moonwalk shoes," and more. He said he was working with others to renegotiate the terms of Jackson's main assets, his share of the Sony-ATV Music Publishing Catalog — which includes music by the Beatles — and the catalog of Mijac, the company that controls Michael Jackson's own music.
"I am not in the music business. I'm a stranger to this business," Tohme said, noting that he had stiff competition from others who wanted to take over Jackson's finances.
"I built a fence around Michael to keep people out," he said, acknowledging that he cut costs by firing many members of the Jackson staff, including security guards. And he twice fired the children's nanny, Grace Rawaramba, on Jackson's orders.
"I was trying to do what we could to maximize his profits and minimize spending. I wanted to find a way to reel in all the loans he had.
"We had an agreement," Tohme continued. "I would never interfere with his creative decisions and he wouldn't interfere with my business decisions."
Tohme said he abandoned everything he was doing in his own life to concentrate his time and effort on Jackson's affairs. He points with pride to the crown jewel of his and the new Jackson team's efforts: the contract with AEG for concerts at the 02 arena in London.
He said Jackson was looking forward to the concerts because he wanted his children to see him perform.
Like others before him, Tohme was caught up in the excitement of Jackson's world. He traveled with him to London, where they saw the play "Oliver" and were mobbed by fans. "I had never seen fans who loved anyone so much and he loved them just as much," Tohme said.
Tohme uses the title "Dr." and apparently has a medical degree, though there is no record that he has practiced in the United States. He said he was convinced that Jackson was in perfect health the last time he saw him, two days before he died. He said the star kept himself and his children on a healthy diet, never ate red meat, didn't drink and, as far as he knew, never took drugs.
He said he is disappointed that Jackson won't be buried at Neverland but hopes that may change: "He deserves to be buried in the wonderful world he created."
In Jackson's final months, Tohme said they talked about his wish to create "a special place ten times bigger than Graceland" where fans could come to see Jackson's memorabilia and awards. Jackson even talked about creating a veritable city for children.
"He wanted to be remembered as a great human being and he wanted to create as many happy places for the children of the world as he could," said Tohme.
The day Jackson died, as Tohme rushed to the hospital unsure if his friend was alive or dead, he said he remembered precious moments: Jackson bringing his children to Tohme's house for Thanksgiving dinner; Jackson and his children singing "Happy Birthday" to Tohme on the phone; the last time he saw Jackson at Staples Center, rehearsing for his big comeback.
And he remembered Jackson's last words to him that day: "I love you."