ATLANTA – Federal court officials scrambled to accommodate crowds of reporters and spectators wanting to see the trial of a strip club owner accused of building a $50 million fortune in part by providing prostitutes for celebrities.
Atlanta's Gold Club is one of the most profitable nude clubs in the country, popular among convention-goers and visiting celebrities. Federal investigators say it is also a high-priced brothel that pumps cash into the Gambino crime family.
Jury selection was set to begin Monday for the trial of owner Steven Kaplan and six associates on charges including loan sharking, money laundering and bribing police officers.
Prosecutors say Kaplan enjoyed setting up famous athletes with prostitutes. He even flew a group of women to Charleston, S.C., in 1997 to "perform a lesbian sex show" and have sex with members of an unnamed NBA team, according to the indictment.
The indictment did not identify the team, but the New York Knicks were in Charleston in April 1997 for a playoff training camp. The team has held training camps in Charleston since 1991.
Gold Club employees also are accused of sending women to Miami, Las Vegas and Minneapolis for sex with celebrities or regular paying customers. One person spent more than $100,000 over six months, investigators say.
NBA stars Patrick Ewing, Dennis Rodman and Charles Oakley were among the athletes and celebrities who received free food and drinks worth thousands of dollars when they visited the club, according to receipts seized by the FBI.
None of the club's patrons is charged with a crime.
U.S. District Judge Willis Hunt sealed the names of celebrities and athletes who prosecutors say had sex with club dancers. Assistant U.S. Attorney Art Leach has referred to them only by initials.
"These are very famous individuals and it will obviously sensationalize this situation if these names behind the initials were to become public," Leach told the judge.
Spokesmen for the Knicks, the NBA and individual athletes who spent large amounts of money at the club all declined to comment.
Defense attorneys say the government purposely exaggerated celebrity and mob ties to paint the club as a den of sin.
"The government would have the world believe this is a sex palace, and it's just not," said Bruce H. Morris, who represents club manager Norbert Calder.
"They're trying to do a morality play here," said Steven Sadow, Kaplan's attorney.
Kaplan owned nightclubs in New York and Boca Raton, Fla., before buying the Gold Club in 1994. The club grossed about $20 million last year, Sadow said.
The FBI and Internal Revenue Service began investigating the Gold Club five years ago.
The government contends Kaplan made millions by falsifying credit card receipts, figuring his well-heeled patrons weren't likely to draw attention to their actions by challenging overbilling.
Investigators say Kaplan diverted millions from his cash flow to buy protection from the New York's Gambino crime family, for which Kaplan allegedly works.
Gold Club defendants also are accused of cheating Delta Air Lines by providing strippers and alcohol to two airline employees in exchange for cheap fares.
And the indictment says Kaplan ordered more than 20 beatings of people who did not repay loans at high rates in interest.
Kaplan could face more than 40 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Others could face 20 years.
Because each defendant has his own lawyer and the list of charges is so complex, the trial is expected to last five months or more. Six other defendants will have a similar trial in December.