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Murder Inc. | World AIDS Day

It's 'Murder' at Universal's Hit Factory

The noose is getting a little tighter over at Murder Inc., the rap record label that launched the platinum careers of R&B singer Ashanti and rapper Ja Rule.

The label's accountant, recently indicted by the Brooklyn D.A., has even hired a powerful legal gun — a former assistant district attorney — to try to get her out of this mess.

Cynthia Brent Carr, who has handled Murder Inc.'s money since the label's start in 1997, is using Guy Petrillo, who was an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan for seven years.

Petrillo served as chief appellate attorney of the Criminal Division (1996-97) and chief of the Narcotics Unit (1995-96), according to his bio, which also says he prosecuted racketeering, fraud and money-laundering offenses.

Petrillo is now a partner at Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman, where the rate of $300 to $500 per hour is more than the average accountant can afford. Calls to Petrillo's office have not been returned.

Yesterday, even the New York Daily News featured a recap of the legal troubles at Murder Inc, known for the last year simply as The Inc.

Thorough as the Daily News story was, it still did not convey the many tributaries that lead from Murder Inc. right back to more conventional businesses: Universal and Warner Music Groups.

At the center of the controversy is Warner's chief exec Lyor Cohen, who was described two years ago by Murder Inc.'s founder, Irv Gotti, as his mentor.

Also missing from yesterday's report was the fact that Murder Inc. falls under the aegis of Universal's Doug Morris.

Since 1997, Murder Inc.'s records have been recorded, manufactured and distributed by Universal and Morris. With Cohen now decamped to Warner Music Group, the Murder Inc. debacle is Morris' responsibility.

Universal Music Group — the biggest, most successful, most controversial of them all — is owned by Vivendi, a French media company. But its success in rap has made it a target of negative publicity.

Last January, UMG subsidiary Def Jam — under Cohen — was accused in a lawsuit of allegedly fixing its numbers to make its CD sales look larger than Nielsen SoundScan had reported.

Six weeks earlier, another Universal Music Group division, Interscope, was accused in the Los Angeles Times of padding its sales figures.

Ironically, a decade ago, Interscope's rap music was considered too hot to handle by Time Warner — where Morris was presiding over Warner Music Group — and it was moved to what later became Universal.

The serious problems at Murder Inc., of course, stem from Gotti's alleged relationship with drug kingpin Kenneth McGriff. Federal authorities have been hard at work for years establishing the connection between McGriff and Gotti (real name Irv Lorenzo) to prove that Murder Inc. is funded by drug money.

McGriff spent 10 years in jail, from 1987 to 1997, for running a crack gang. He is currently back in prison on weapons charges.

Murder Inc. also hosts homegrown singer Ashanti. The label had its biggest hit when it loaned out Ashanti and Ja Rule for "I'm Real" with Jennifer Lopez. Ja Rule's latest album is currently at No. 20 after two weeks on the Billboard Top 100.

But two weeks ago, the Brooklyn District Attorney's office got a lot more serious when it indicted Murder Inc.'s Brent Carr. The charges: conspiring to conduct improper financial transactions, involving drug money, for the purposes of evading taxes.

Make no mistake: Brent Carr claims her innocence. I am told she will say that the government is putting the squeeze on her to get the goods on Gotti and McGriff.

While Brent Carr's indictment and other news about McGriff's criminal conduct will all culminate soon, it's worthwhile to note that the trail of the Murder Inc. story always leads back to Warner's Cohen. Murder Inc.'s first big act, and its current chart star, is rapper Ja Rule.

Last year, when Cohen was still with Universal Music Group, a lawsuit brought by small rival TVT Records concerning Ja Rule and Gotti ended in a court judgment of $53 million. Cohen's testimony was crucial to the outcome of the suit.

UMG will likely have to pay TVT that amount. The original award was $132 million, half of which was designated as Cohen's personal debt to TVT after it was ruled that Cohen and UMG had committed fraud.

Gotti, aka Lorenzo, and others involved with Murder Inc. like to spin the idea that the name of the label — which they changed a year ago — and all the other gangsta mentality of rap is just for fun and not to be taken seriously.

It was in that spirit, presumably, that Gotti dubbed Cohen his own "Meyer Lansky" in a 2002 statement publicly renewing Murder Inc. and Def Jam/Universal's business deal.

The late Lansky was a notorious, vicious, murderous and not very fun mobster. He was infamous partners with one mob pal, Lucky Luciano, and is thought to have ordered the killing of another, Bugsy Siegel. He died in 1983.

"I re-signed with Island Def Jam because of my relationship with 'Lansky' aka Lyor Cohen who I feel is like my father in the music business," Gotti said at the time. "I started with him and I'm going to finish with him. There is no other company that complements Murder Inc. or is a better partner for us."

Shortly thereafter, Murder Inc. was moved to its own offices outside those of the Universal Music Group.

A few months later, Universal put up no fight when Cohen jumped to Warner Music Group, which had just been sold by Time Warner to former Universal chief Edgar Bronfman, Jr. and investors.

World AIDS Day

Wednesday is World AIDS Day, and my pal Mary Wilson, the legendary R&B star of The Supremes, will be performing here in New York. The event is an all-star spectacle put together by the United Nations at the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Actors Alan Cumming and Gloria Reuben are the hosts; there are more musical acts too. You may not know it, but in addition to her own career, Mary is a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador. Her unselfish devotion to this job takes her all over the world, often at a moment's notice.

Also on Wednesday, new legend Alicia Keys helps the charity Keep a Child Alive for World AIDS Day on the Lower East Side; Muhammad Ali signs his new book in Harlem at Hue-Man Bookstore and the annual Gotham Awards are handed out by the IFP East at the Chelsea Piers. Jim Carrey and Mike Leigh are featured, and they should give us all a jolt.