Public enemy No. 1? 

Feds befriend rogues gallery to try Steve Kaplan

Just in time for summer, Atlanta's very own Bigtime Show Trial cranked up in earnest last week, and it couldn't have been more perfectly suited for the Hype Capitol of the South if Don King himself had organized it.

Not only do we get to take a poor man's tour of the city's premier titty bar, but we also get genuine marble-mouthed East Coast mugs; snide, hard-boiled feds; gold-dripping sports hotshots; leggy dancers apparently eager for a few rounds of pitch-and-putt with aforementioned luminaries and, dancing merrily in the midst of it all, a half-dozen of Atlanta's top criminal lawyers.

And that's just the headliners.

For the federal prosecutors who laid out their racketeering case against Gold Club owner Steve Kaplan and six other defendants in opening arguments last week, it has already become apparent that the sheer complexity of the trial -- coupled with the necessity to school a jury in Mobspeak 101 -- is going to require some fancy maneuvering.

Despite a hefty indictment tracking Kaplan's activities back to the '80s (including allegations that he tried to help cover up for a murder committed in one of his clubs) and the presence of another 20 defendants awaiting trial, the state's case rests on -- or against -- some very hard facts. First is the basis of the criminal investigation brought against the club and its staff: While allegations of sexual activity in nude clubs are titillating, they're certainly nothing new (within the past two weeks, for instance, local cops rounded up several strippers from two Marietta clubs on charges of masturbation for hire).

Thus, while witnesses may be able to convince a jury that sex happened, and maybe even that money changed hands, they've still got to link it to Kaplan -- and distinguish why such occasions are, in fact, worthy of federal prosecution.

Similarly, defense counsel will cite the allegations of credit-card fraud -- even the purported $70,000 run up in one week by one customer -- in the larger context of a club with hundreds of employees billing thousands of cards each week. Further, some of the "victims" have already, according to the defense, denied any wrongdoing on behalf of the club and expressed resentment at having their names dragged into court.

But the most daunting challenge may be convincing the jury that prosecuting so many people on such charges is worth springing career criminals -- serious, dangerous criminals -- from prison to testify in order to shut down this club.

Assuming, of course, that the jury is prepared to believe a bunch of jailhouse snitches, anyway.

After promising to "expose the Gambino crime family for what they are," Assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur Leach began the step-by-step task of educating onlookers in the intricacies of New York's crime families. Prosecutors have built their case on proving that Kaplan has long been a lower-level associate of the Gambino crime family. Through the Gold Club (as well as other clubs in New York and Florida), Kaplan is alleged to have been an "earner" who siphoned off cash from his club's earnings and "kicked it up" to higher-ups in the organization. Along the way, Kaplan is said to have over-charged customers' credit cards by exorbitant amounts, calculating that their fear of being discovered would stifle any complaints.

Further, say the feds, Kaplan began paying some of his dancers to provide sexual favors to celebrity guests; the reasoning, says the feds, was that packing the club with stars would draw in even more patrons. (It apparently worked. According to defense attorney Don Samuel, the club averages 3,000 visitors a week.)

On trial with Kaplan are Reginald Burney, an Atlanta police officer; the dancer, Jacklyn "Diva" Bush; Norbert Calder and Roy Cicola, Gold Club managers; Michael "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo, a reputed "captain" in the Gambino crime family; and Larry Gleit, Kaplan's accountant.

Among the prospective witnesses set to testify against the defendants are some of the sports figures who allegedly rode their stardom to greater glory in the club's private Gold Rooms. Among the witnesses the government plans to call are Atlanta Falcon Jamal Anderson and former New York Knick Patrick Ewing. They are, Leach said, victims: "These men have been used," he said, as the defense table smirked.

While no one argues that Kaplan has long associated with known mob figures, attorney Steve Sadow made clear his intention of portraying his client as yet another victim of LCN machinations. The defense team, each representing a single client, has formed a solid phalanx of opposition -- aided, perhaps, by the fact that Kaplan is underwriting the entire defense effort, and that the team of attorneys was hand-picked by Sadow.

And their strategy became apparent early on. The jury got a preview of what's in store over the upcoming weeks -- perhaps months -- when lawyers took their turns pot-shotting at the government case. There was dogged, aggressive Sadow charging about the courtroom, waving documents and claiming that his client had made enemies as a successful "New York Jew" who came down and made a lot of money here in a dog-eat-dog business. In addition to rankling some locals, he said, Kaplan had been targeted because authorities want to seize his club and its assets.

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