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Celebrities, Sleaze Take Center Stage in Gold Club Trial

Tuesday, 15 May 2001 12:00 AM

By the time Assistant U.S. Attorney Art Leach wraps up his evidence, he is expected to have called strippers, sports stars and underworld figures to the witness stand.

The nude dancers are expected to contend that Steve Kaplan, the owner of the landmark Buckhead strip club, paid them to provide sexual favors and perform sex acts on each other for the entertainment of sports stars. This happened when certain sports teams played games in Atlanta and when the dancers were sent to meet the players in Charleston, S.C., and in Miami for the 1999 Super Bowl, prosecutors say.

The mob figures, all with lengthy criminal records and deals from the prosecution, will accuse Kaplan and his associates of loan sharking, extortion and ties to organized crime.

And late last month, John A. "Junior" Gotti, the one-time acting boss of the Gambino crime family, was whisked by the prosecution from his prison cell in New York to the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta in hopes he will testify during the trial. But Gotti is not here to sing; he will refuse to testify for the prosecution, his lawyer said.

Other charges in the racketeering indictment include police corruption, credit card fraud and obstruction of justice.

It all makes for what is expected to be a scintillating - and lengthy - trial.

Opening statements were to begin today.

"It's probably going to have more sex and bombast than any case I've ever heard about in this part of the world," said famed Summerville lawyer Bobby Cook, himself no stranger to sensational cases, though he has no role in this one.

While Kaplan faces as much as 10 years in prison if convicted, he walks into court today with an air of confidence rarely seen by someone charged by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta, which prevails in about nine of every 10 criminal cases.

Court-ordered plea negotiations have gone nowhere. Only one of the case's 17 defendants has pleaded guilty since the case was indicted. Kaplan, a New York native who bought the Gold Club in 1994, is paying almost all of his co-defendants' mountainous legal fees and maintaining an extraordinarily unified front for the defense.

Says Atlanta lawyer Steve Sadow, who represents Kaplan, "In two decades as a criminal defense lawyer, I've prided myself in trial preparation. I have never even come close to being as prepared as we are here."

Sadow has an ace in the hole: a collection of more than 300 taped interviews - most of them done covertly - of expected government witnesses.

Sadow says he plans to use his tapes during cross-examination of those witnesses. This prospect appears to have unsettled Leach, the lead federal prosecutor.

In court motions, Leach told U.S. District Judge Willis Hunt that the prosecution had a right to listen to the tapes before the trial begins. But Hunt ruled Leach can have them only shortly before Sadow attempts to use them during the trial.

"This is not a typical defense case," said Atlanta lawyer Mark Spix, who has followed developments. "They've been going out and investigating the snitches. They have been going out and talking to some of the cooperating witnesses, former empoyees and even some of the alleged victims. You just don't see defenses like this with that kind of ammunition."

Atlanta lawyer Don Samuel, who represents club financial officer Larry Gleit, said he has so far been unimpressed with what he has seen from the government's case alleging credit card fraud.

The indictment maintains the Gold Club inflated credit card tabs of some customers by thousands of dollars. Some dancers, after taking customers upstairs to private Gold Rooms, poured expensive champagne on the club's carpet so the patrons had to buy more, prosecutors say.

But as many as 3,000 customers a week visit the Gold Club, and the indictment alleges 18 people were fraudulently overbilled on their credit cards from 1995 to 1999, Samuel noted.

"That's a teaspoon of complaints out of an ocean of apparently happy customers," Samuel said. "The idea that this amounts to a racketeering prosecution is outrageous."

Key government witnesses will be former club manager Jeffrey Johnson and former dancer Jana Pelnis. Other important witnesses are expected to include former club manager Thomas Sicignano, known as "Ziggy," and Alicia Mitchell, a former club employee who has testified she was followed and beaten after leaving the federal courthouse in Atlanta in December 1999.

Among the sports stars under subpoena by the prosecution are Atlanta Falcon Jamal Anderson, Terrell Davis of the Denver Broncos and NBA star Patrick Ewing. In all, Leach said, about 100 witnesses are expected to be called by the prosecution.

When asked recently how he felt about the strength of his case, Leach quickly replied, "Fine, good, strong."

Along with Kaplan and Gleit, those now standing trial are retired Atlanta Police Officer Reginald Burney; club managers Roy Cicola and Norbert Calder; Michael DiLeonardo, accused of being a member of the Gambino crime family; and former dancer Jacklyn Bush.

Hunt, who is presiding over the case, ruled recently that only seven of the 17 defendants would be tried initially, in an attempt to make the case manageable for the jury.

Copyright 2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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By the time Assistant U.S. Attorney Art Leach wraps up his evidence, he is expected to have called strippers, sports stars and underworld figures to the witness stand. The nude dancers are expected to contend that Steve Kaplan, the owner of the landmark Buckhead strip...
Tuesday, 15 May 2001 12:00 AM
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