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Federal prosecutors call it witness tampering. But an attorney for an Atlanta strip club owner facing federal racketeering charges says it’s just “aggressive investigating.” And a federal magistrate calls the issue “problematic.” Atlanta attorney Steven H. Sadow acknowledges that associates of Gold Club owner Steven E. Kaplan, acting as investigators, have contacted federal witnesses and covertly tape-recorded about 200 of the resulting conversations. “We are aggressively investigating our case, which includes attempting to interview any and all persons we believe have relevant information that could be used to defend our case,” he says. “We are using all lawful means to obtain such information, including not taking ‘no’ for an answer. That means we have used and will continue to use investigators that can speak with witnesses without the witnesses knowing they are being interviewed.” But federal prosecutors insist that Kaplan and his cohorts have crossed the line from investigation into crime by intimidating, threatening or physically harming federal grand jury witnesses who may testify against Kaplan at his trial. Kaplan and 16 others — among them Gold Club managers, accountants, dancers and two Atlanta police officers — were indicted by a federal grand jury in Atlanta last November on charges of racketeering, credit card fraud, money-laundering, loan sharking, bribery and prostitution. The indictment alleges that Kaplan’s businesses enriched and were protected by the Gambino organized crime family that is headquartered in New York. On Tuesday, FBI agents arrested Kaplan at Sadow’s office on a warrant issued Sept. 22 by U.S. Magistrate E. Clayton Scofield III. Assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur W. Leach told Scofield during a first appearance hearing Wednesday that witnesses have complained to federal authorities of being followed, accosted and frightened by Kaplan associates who warned them not to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Leach asked Scofield to revoke Kaplan’s $2 million bond and jail him until his trial. CONDITION OF HIS BOND As a condition of his bond, Kaplan was ordered last year to avoid all contact with “any witness who is not employed at the Gold Club or defendant companies whom the defendant knows to have appeared before the federal grand jury.” But Scofield declined Wednesday to hold Kaplan and released the strip club owner until Monday when he is scheduled to appear at an evidentiary hearing on the witness tampering charges before U.S. Magistrate C. Christopher Hagy. In releasing Kaplan, Scofield noted that some of the alleged incidents federal prosecutors cited in seeking to revoke the club owner’s bond occurred prior to his indictment. Others, Scofield said, were not committed by Kaplan but by his employees or associates who claimed they were acting on Kaplan’s behalf. “Some, if not a lot, of this conduct is old,” Scofield said. “Whether or not there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed is problematic. … My inclination is that Mr. Kaplan should continue on bond.” SEVEN CONFRONTATIONS? But at least seven confrontations between Kaplan associates and federal witnesses allegedly have occurred since Kaplan posted bond nearly a year ago, according to an FBI affidavit attached to Leach’s motion seeking the strip club owner’s arrest. In one case, a witness claimed that on Dec. 2, 1999 — less than a month after Kaplan was released on bond — one of Kaplan’s employees followed her from Atlanta’s Richard Russell Federal Building after she had met there with federal prosecutors. That employee, Dominick Scopetta, allegedly punched the unidentified witness in the face and cracked two of her teeth. The allegation is contained in an FBI agent’s affidavit attached to the revocation motion. After the alleged altercation, the witness “went into hiding and moved from hotel to hotel out of fear for her safety,” the affidavit said. But Sadow says that attempts to jail the strip club owner until his trial “have been brought because our defense efforts have been very fertile, and we are positioning ourselves to attack the credibility of many of their witnesses. … I think it is an effort to incarcerate my client and thereby weaken the overall joint defense effort.” Sadow insists that Kaplan, his associates and his team of investigators have contacted witnesses but “only as permitted by the bail order and the law.” The defense team has adopted this approach because federal prosecutors’ witnesses “are well-schooled by the government not to talk to traditional investigators and lawyers,” Sadow says. “If you go to these people and say, ‘I’m an investigator with the defense,’ they say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’ If you call and say you’re a lawyer, they say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’… If you send someone that they are unaware is working for the defense, they open up and tell us the truth. And we record every conversation so there is no doubt about what is said and not said.” Investigators working on Kaplan’s behalf “are not investigators in the traditional sense,” Sadow says. “They are people that we hired who are able to talk to these individuals and obtain truthful information that these individuals would otherwise not say.” ‘AGGRESSIVE FROM THE BEGINNING’ Federal prosecutors “are so used to defendants being unable to communicate with their witnesses that they are just stunned when we are aggressive in trying to find out what the witnesses are saying,” Sadow says. “We have been aggressive from the beginning.” Sadow says he has recordings of witness encounters that are included in the government’s witness tampering allegations against Kaplan. “It was not what was characterized by the government,” he says. “They weren’t intimidating anyone. They were attempting to interview them in a surreptitious fashion.” It is, he says, akin to federal agents’ use of confidential informants. The attorney says he also has documents written to Kaplan by several federal witnesses “in which they talk about the government trying to get them to lie.” Sadow denies that anyone working on Kaplan’s behalf ever physically assaulted witnesses. “My question is, if it happened Dec. 2, 1999, where have they [federal prosecutors] been?” Leach says that charging suspects free on bail with witness tampering is rare. “In the broad scheme of cases, we have no more than one percent” where allegations of witness tampering are made, he says. “We’re more concerned in Strike Force cases always with the type of people we’re dealing with who are connected to the Mob. But it can happen in any case, depending on what the individual is willing to do to affect the outcome.” According to a superceding indictment unsealed Wednesday, Kaplan’s alleged ties to the Mafia often played a role in his alleged intimidation of witnesses. U.S. v. Kaplan, No. 1:99-cr-609 (N.D. Ga., Sept. 1, 2000). Among them: � In 1988, after a soldier in the Gambino crime family, then headed by John Gotti, was killed at a Manhattan nightclub that Kaplan operated, Kaplan escorted a witness to meet with crime family members. According to the indictment, Kaplan warned the witness to leave town without talking to law enforcement authorities. � In 1995, Kaplan allegedly became involved in using “threatened force, violence and fear” to extort thousands of dollars from the owners of a New York strip club called Scores and assume control of the club. When the club’s manager was fired and sued, Kaplan ordered the ex-manager to drop his litigation “if he did not want to get hurt or killed by associates of the Gambino organized crime family,” the indictment states. � While the FBI and IRS were investigating the Gold Club last year, Kaplan threatened and persuaded at least one employee of the Gold Club to “withhold information from federal investigators and from the federal grand jury,” according to the indictment. � Kaplan also allegedly arranged two cash payments totaling $5,000 to a Florida loan shark associate and others so that individual “would not implicate Kaplan when interviewed by criminal investigators from Atlanta,” according to the indictment. In the motion to revoke Kaplan’s bond, Leach accuses the Gold Club owner of “engaging in the use of force to intimidate witnesses by using misleading conduct, such as tricks and bogus schemes, to deceive witnesses into talking to people sent by Kaplan and by harassing witnesses, all with the intent either to influence the testimony of the witnesses or to get the witnesses to withhold testimony relating to this case.” In U.S. v. Gotti,(E.D. N.Y., 1986) — a similar case stemming from the federal prosecution of Gambino family don John Gotti — Leach noted that Gotti hired individuals to act as bogus detectives to locate and influence witnesses. “As in the Gotti case, defendant Kaplan hoped to effect the outcome of his judicial proceeding by intimidating or misleading witnesses in an effort to shape their testimony,” Leach wrote. “It is highly unlikely that anyone other than Kaplan would hire ‘detectives’ to approach witnesses that had or would be testifying against him.” Says Leach, “I think he [Kaplan] viewed it as a trial preparation strategy. I honestly believe it got out of hand. The individuals conducting the activities were not professionals. They were employees of the Gold Club.”

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