EXCLUSIVE Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper, John Mellencamp and Jay Leno will be among the performers at next month’s annual Starkey Hearing Foundation in Minneapolis. But for the first time in several years, there will be no Clintons and not even a Bush.
In recent years, the two past presidents and Hillary Clinton have all been guest speakers at Starkey’s dazzling gala in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Annual performers have included rock stars (Elton John), comedians (Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Chevy Chase), nostalgia acts (Frankie Valli), and TV stars of the past (hearing impaired “Hulk” star Lou Ferrigno).
The politicians — or rather their charities– have been well paid for it. The Starkey Foundation’s tax filings show that over the last four years they’ve given $2.2 million to the Clinton Foundation, $1.5 million to the George W. Bush Library, and close to $700,000 to Global Health Corps, a $5 million foundation run by Bush’s daughter Barbara.
But politicians are staying away this year as Starkey sorts out being part of an ongoing federal investigation led by dogged US Attorney Andrew Luger. There are also whispers of a sitting grand jury.
The Starkey Foundation is famous for doing good works around the world, supplying hearing aids to anyone who can’t afford them as the offshoot of Starkey Hearing Technologies, a leader in audiology equipment. Their charitable missions in Africa, South America and even the South Bronx are famous.
The Starkey reputation was glowing until last fall when it was suddenly marred by news of discord and scandal. Bill Austin, who’s owned the company since 1970, abruptly fired a bunch of top executives including the company’s president, who’d been there for 37 years. He claimed there was a conspiracy of some kind among the execs.
But sources say Austin wanted to put his stepson in a position of power, and the execs resisted. Austin had kicked a previous stepson (different marriage) to the curb, and the man had retaliated by starting a competitor. Austin didn’t want that to happen again.
The fired execs sued Starkey. Two of them filed whistleblower lawsuits claiming everything from Austin dodging taxes to the foundation fobbing off cheap product on charity cases. The company responded by countersuing, with claims against the execs including– in one case– embezzlement. For Minneapolis, it’s a nasty business in a small town.
The news came as a shock because Bill and Tani Austin, the owners of Starkey, are like the Carringtons of “Dynasty” in the Twin Cities– a golden couple on top of local society, admired by all, and benefactors of so many good works. I’ve been to the Austins’ home, and witnessed the excitement and enthusiasm in Minneapolis about them. It’s real.
But things have taken a turn– on June 21, two of the fired execs saw the cases against them moved to federal court from state court by US Attorney Andrew Luger. Luger had previously tried to stop discovery in the cases, claiming it was interfering with his own Starkey related investigations. But when Luger’s motion was denied he had the cases moved. (A third case is pending mediation.)
So now a federal investigation regarding Starkey is moving forward, with word of a grand jury that’s been meeting for months regarding the fired executives. News of the grand jury– which is supposed to be secret– apparently came out in papers filed by Starkey and Austin. That news, and the new attention of the US Attorney, means there’s no donation big enough to lure any Clintons or Bush back to Eden Prairie this summer.