While Michael Jackson alleges that the child molestation charges against him are a shakedown, his own camp appears in the midst of a shakeup.
Jackson's always had a high turnover rate in his staff of managers, advisors, spokespeople and hangers-on, but in the weeks since formal charges were presented against the singer (see "Michael Jackson Formally Charged With Molestation"), it's become less clear who speaks for him anymore, save for his criminal defense attorney, Mark Geragos. Some say Jackson's manager is still in charge of his affairs, but others say the Nation of Islam is muscling its way in.
In the wake of speculation that the Nation of Islam had begun influencing Jackson's media and defense strategies, especially his allegations of police brutality (see "Michael Jackson Accuses Sheriff's Department Of Brutality"), the singer's brother Jermaine Jackson told MSNBC on Tuesday that "there is some security that works with Michael from the Nation. We didn't ask them to pray. We asked them to secure him."
However, a day earlier the Nation of Islam denied any involvement with the singer, insisting in a statement, "The Nation of Islam ... has no official business or professional relationship with Mr. Michael Jackson."
And on Friday, Jackson's camp released a statement insisting the singer "is in full control of his business affairs and the more than 25 people he employs to manage those affairs."
Still, Louis Farrakhan's son-in-law and Nation of Islam chief of staff Leonard F. Muhammad has been seen with the Jackson camp several times lately, standing behind Geragos at a December 18 press conference, reportedly handling security at a Neverland gathering on December 20 (see "Michael Jackson's Friends, Family Gather At Neverland To Show Support"), and monitoring the "60 Minutes" interview, which took place December 25.
The New York Times reported that Muhammad takes part in phone calls discussing Jackson's media and legal strategies, a notion denied by some of Jackson's handlers. Though some sources claim Muhammad was involved in brokering the "60 Minutes" interview, lawyer John Branca and former EMI chief Charles Koppleman negotiated the interview with CBS in exchange for the network putting Jackson's "Michael Jackson Number Ones" special back on its programming schedule. Koppleman told the Associated Press that the Nation of Islam was not directing Jackson's affairs "as to his music, finances and assets. I think it's primarily in security."
Others claim Muhammad has been preventing Jackson from speaking with many of his advisors, including managers Dieter Wiesner and Ronald Konitzer, and that Muhammad was even operating out of Geragos' offices. Geragos and former Jackson spokesperson Stuart Backerman downplayed the involvement of Muhammad and his organization.
"The idea that there is some takeover by the Nation of Islam, someone is spinning you," Geragos told the Times. "Nobody has told me what to do and what not to do. Leonard, I believe, is someone Michael consults with, just like in excess of 25 people."
"Many groups and many people, including the Nation of Islam and its representatives, have come to Michael's defense with their own beliefs and avenues of outreach," Backerman told Us Weekly. "He doesn't provide them with direction, funding or sanction. Michael's management teams remains in place."
Backerman announced his resignation on December 29 for what he said were "strategic differences." His departure was immediately disputed by Geragos, who claimed he fired Backerman because the PR rep spoke to reporters during the December 20 Neverland gathering. The Times reported that Backerman left in protest over the Nation of Islam's influence. When reached last week, Backerman declined to elaborate.
Muhammad was introduced to Jackson via Jermaine, who converted to Islam in 1989, as well as his nanny Grace Rwarmba. Jermaine is not a member of the black separatist group, according to an interview Muhammad gave to FOX News, but Rwarmba is. Jackson, meanwhile, remains a Jehovah's Witness. "We have not tried to recruit Michael," Muhammad told FOX News. "Nor has he expressed any interest in becoming a member of the Nation of Islam."
Managers Wiesner and Konitzer have been on Jackson's team for the past year and were responsible for brokering the FOX special "Take Two: The Interview They Wouldn't Show You," which aired as a response to the Martin Bashir documentary "Living With Michael Jackson" (see "Michael Jackson Strikes Back With 'Take Two' TV Special").
Wiesner, who can be seen in the background of the videotape of Jackson dangling a baby from a German hotel balcony (see "Michael Jackson Calls Baby-Dangling Incident A 'Terrible Mistake' "), is well known there in his native country for operating several sex clubs and brothels, such as the Sauna Relax Club in Limburg and the Sex In in Darmstadt, according to FOX News. It remains to be seen whether he'll still be on the team, along with the Canadian Konitzer, once he returns from a visit to Germany for the holidays.
"These are difficult times," Konitzer told the Times. "My concern is the business side. I would like to get back to business." When the Times asked if he was being pushed out by the Nation of Islam, Konitzer said: "I don't want to comment on that one."
The Nation of Islam has not always been supportive of Jackson. Two decades ago Farrakhan called the singer a bad role model. "[His] Jheri Curl, female-acting, sissified-acting expression is not wholesome for our young boys, nor our young girls," Farrakhan told People magazine in their November 27, 1984, issue.
But Farrakhan changed his tune during the 1993 molestation scandal and leapt to Jackson's defense, claiming on "The Arsenio Hall Show" that Jackson was being "treated like a slave on a plantation." And during a December 1993 New York rally, Farrakhan said, "The powers that be can't stand to see Michael Jackson politically aware and using his money for the advancement of his people."
For full coverage of the Michael Jackson case, see "Michael Jackson Accused."