Members handle some biz affairs since accusations made

Members of the Nation of Islam have begun playing a role in Michael Jackson’s affairs, the Associated Press has learned, although the controversial group denies having any official part in the pop star’s life.

Sources close to the Jackson camp, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AP that Nation of Islam members have handled security at the singer’s Neverland ranch and have begun taking over some of his business affairs since he was accused of committing lewd acts on a child.

The sources have been involved in Jackson’s business affairs for at least a year, and each independently provided details concerning the Nation of Islam’s links to the singer.

The group, which in the past has been accused of anti-Semitism and inflammatory separatist rhetoric, issued a statement Monday after inquiries from the AP and other news organizations.

“The Nation of Islam, in response to several inquiries, has said today that it has no official business or professional relationship with Mr. Michael Jackson,” the statement said. “The Nation of Islam joins thousands of other people in wishing him well.”

Jackson’s attorney, Mark Geragos, also dismissed the reports and denied Nation of Islam members had been working out of Geragos’ office.

“They are not part of his defense,” Geragos said. “I’m certainly not pushing away support from anyone, but I don’t ask people what their religious affiliation is when they offer support.”

Geragos acknowledged that when he held a news conference on Jackson’s behalf after charges were announced Dec. 18, one of those standing behind him was Leonard F. Muhammad, identified on the Nation of Islam’s Web site as its chief of staff.

“Leonard Muhammad was there,” Geragos said. “He’s one of Michael’s supporters.”

Under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam advocates black self-empowerment and a separate African-American state; Jackson is neither a Muslim nor a member of the Nation of Islam, according to one of his brothers.

Asked about the Nation of Islam’s reported role in directing Jackson’s affairs, Jackson business adviser Charles Koppelman said: “It’s not the case as to his music, finances and assets. I think it’s primarily in security.”

Koppelman, a former chief of EMI Records, and another adviser, Alan Whitman, said they remain in charge of Jackson’s music and finances.

“I receive his bills and write his checks,” said Whitman, an accountant. “Anything else I relate to Mr. Jackson is confidential.”

Koppelman, who like Whitman has been a Jackson adviser for the past year, said he has not talked to Jackson about the Nation of Islam. “If he gets involved on a spiritual basis, that’s his business,” Koppelman said.

Jackson’s brother Jermaine has converted to Islam but is not a member of the Nation of Islam. Asked during an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” whether his brother planned to convert, Jermaine Jackson said he did not.

Separately, Jackson spokesman Stuart Backerman announced his resignation Monday, citing “strategic differences.” Backerman refused to comment on reports involving the Nation of Islam.

Geragos said Backerman was fired last week because he spoke to the news media during a Jackson family get-together Dec. 20 at Jackson’s Neverland estate near Santa Barbara.

The event was designed to show support for the embattled singer after he was charged with seven counts of performing lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent, reportedly wine.

“He was terminated by me personally for talking when I told him not to,” Geragos said.

Backerman responded to Geragos’ statement by saying, “That’s untrue.”

“I was the spokesman up until I just resigned. I was actively involved with management,” Backerman said. While Backerman did not immediately explain the reasons for his departure, he said he left reluctantly.

“I was not fired,” he said.

In the CBS “60 Minutes” interview broadcast Sunday, Jackson said he was “manhandled” after he surrendered Nov. 20 and was still in pain from the handcuffs.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. on Monday issued a statement reiterating its previous denial that Jackson was mistreated, saying he “was treated with courtesy and professionalism throughout the arrest and booking process.”

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