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Idiot’s Guide to Gold Club Trial

Confused by all the sordid tales from the Gold Club Trial? Page 2's Bill Simmons explains the whole affair.

Take the Bada Bing strip club from “The Sopranos,” stick it in Atlanta, supply a surreal assortment of celebrities, lawyers, athletes, mafiosos and strippers, inject the tension of Michael Corleone’s racketeering trial in “Godfather II,” then toss in a bunch of goofy sexual anecdotes.

Carmen Electra, Dennis RodmanWhat would you have? You guessed it! It’s the Gold Club Trial, which captivated sports fans all summer in an “I feel dirty, but I can’t stop reading about it” sort of way.

Since the trial abruptly ended last week and since media coverage was spotty at best, I thought it was my civic duty to sift through the online archive of stories on the special “Gold Club Page” at the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s website (, explain why there was a trial in the first place, pick out all the salacious details, explain the plea bargain and throw in an occasional cheap shot along the way.

Without further ado, here’s one man’s “Cliff’s Notes” version of the Gold Club Trial. The boring stuff comes first …

In a nutshell, what happened? Who are the “bad guys” here? Why did they have a trial?
Back in November 1999, Gold Club owner Steve Kaplan was indicted on a full array of federal racketeering charges, including credit-card fraud, prostitution, money laundering, police corruption and even inappropriate ties to the powerful Gambino crime family.

Steve KaplanOther than Kaplan, names in the indictment included Larry Gleit (the GC’s chief financial officer); Roy Cicola and Norbert Calder (former GC managers); Reginald Burney (a retired police officer allegedly on Kaplan’s payroll); Michael DiLeonardo (alleged Gambino family captain); and Jacklyn “Diva” Bush (a former GC stripper and alleged prostitute).

When the trial kicked off last May, the prosecution argued that Kaplan took control of the club in ’94 and basically turned it into the Bada Bing — encouraging lesbian sex acts, offering free sex to special customers, condoning drug use, bribing local policemen (with money and sexual favors) and buying himself protection from the Gambino crime family — while skimming millions from unreported tips and unreported revenue.

(And just for the record, is there a better possible Mafia name than the “Gambinos”? You couldn’t make that one up.)

What was Team Kaplan’s defense?
Other than the “this is crazy, we didn’t do it” defense, some of the attorneys unveiled excuses of the “dog ate my homework” variety. For instance:

  • Kaplan’s lawyer (Steve Sadow) claimed the feds were framing his client for two reasons: They wanted to seize Kaplan’s $50 million in assets, and they wanted to enhance their own careers. According to Sadow, Kaplan was targeted because he was a “stereotypical New York Jew,” marking the first time the “Stereotypical New York Jew Defense” has been used in a court of law.

  • Diva’s attorney (Bruce Harvey) claimed that his client wasn’t a prostitute — she was simply an “exotic dancer who had the knack of coaxing men into buying one $350 bottle of champagne after another.” Of course, part of that “knack” was offering sex to some of those men … but let the record show, she wasn’t a prostitute.

  • Gliet’s attorney (Don Samuel) pooh-poohed the allegations of credit-card fraud, noting that the indictment alleged 18 customers were defrauded — a minuscule number when you remember that the club admitted over one million patrons in five-plus years and roughly 85 percent of GC customers used credit cards. Of course, 84.999999 percent of those customers would never say a peep for fear of having their names dragged into the trial, but that’s beside the point.

    AttorneysDid the defense ever play the OJ Simpson Memorial “Race Card”?
    Of course, they did! Burney’s defense attorney (Dwight Thomas) lobbed allegations of racism against the prosecution, noting that three black athletes (Jamal Anderson, Terrell Davis and Patrick Ewing) were getting calls to the stand and somehow celebrities like “Ted Turner, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Joe Montana, Wayne Gretzky, John Rocker and Bill Gates” — all former Gold Club patrons, according to the defense — weren’t getting called.

    Did the prosecution introduce any additional arguments in their opening remarks other than what the feds already wrote in their indictment?
    Prosecution attorney Art Leach classified Kaplan as a voyeur who remained inside private “VIP rooms” and directed the sex-capades (a combination of Tony Soprano and Billy Baldwin in “Sliver”).

    According to Leach, Kaplan came up with a game plan: lure as many celebrities as possible (with free lap dances, lesbian sex shows and occasional sex acts) in order to raise the overall profile of the club. Once that happened, Leach claimed, Kaplan believed that big spenders would start pouring in (easy pickings for overbilling and general credit-card fraud). And he was right.

    Who was the first athlete to get mentioned during the trial?
    None other than Knicks forward Larry Johnson! According to Leach, the “If I give free sex to celebrities, more of them will start visiting my club and increase the general buzz factor” lightbulb started flickering for Kaplan shortly after he purchased the club in ’94, when LJ (a patron one night) allegedly asked Kaplan for a woman. Kaplan happily obliged, although there was no word whether LJ made the stripper dress up like Grandmama.

    Who was the first King to get mentioned in the trial?
    Gold Club1According to the defense team, the King of Sweden visited the Gold Club with his secret-service agents during the ’96 Summer Olympics. The King later denied the allegations, failing to add, “Hey, I live in Sweden! I’m the King of Sweden, for God’s sake! You think I need to pay to see hot chicks??? I’m the King of Freaking Sweden!!!!!!”

    Which witness had the liveliest testimony?
    Easily former GC exec Thomas “Ziggy” Sicignano, the first witness who testified that dancers were paid as much as $1,000 apiece for putting on X-rated sex shows and performing sexual acts for certain athletes. In my opinion, a strip club isn’t officially on trial until somebody named “Ziggy” testifies.

    Anyway, here were some of Ziggy’s stories:

  • In 1997, Kaplan arranged a one-night trip to Charleston, S.C., to surprise some New York Knicks who were there for an exhibition game, imploring the strippers to have sex with the players and paying six of them $1,000 apiece.

  • Later that year, Patrick Ewing and some of his Knicks teammates were escorted to a semi-private “Gold Room” with “six to 10 girls” for a night of groping and lap dancing. Ziggy testified that, “Girls were having a good time, jumping on the players” and remembered hearing someone yell out, “There are no rules tonight!”

    (If you’re ever in a room with a group of NBA players and strippers and somebody yells out the words, “There are no rules tonight,” start running for your life. Just trust me.)

    Gold Club

  • In 1994, Kaplan (a big Knicks fan) invited John Starks to the club; Starks took in a lesbian sex show and had sex with one of the women. Ziggy remembers being surprised that Starks was involved, because he thought Starks was a devout Christian and family man.

  • In 1996, Kaplan arranged for Andruw Jones and a friend to watch two of the GC strippers perform a live sex show in a local hotel room (paid for by Kaplan). Ziggy testified that Jones had sex with at least one of the women.

    (During Jones’s susbsequent testimony, the prosecutor asked which of the women Jones had sex with, and Jones answered, “Both of them,” adding, “to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t remember one of their faces right now.” One of my personal favorite quotes from the trial.)

  • In 1997, when the Indiana Pacers were staying in Atlanta, Kaplan brought dancers to their hotel and starting knocking on Pacers’ doors. According to Ziggy, they first tried Mark Jackson’s door, but Jackson declined, saying, “No, thank you, I’m a married man. I’m very happily married” and earning himself “1997 NBA Husband of the Year” honors from David Stern.

  • Ziggy also claimed the following athletes received sexual favors: Reggie Miller, Jerry Stackhouse, Dennis Rodman and Terrell Davis. Notice how there are never any MLS players involved in these strip club scandals? Where was Joe Cannon or Mamadou “Big Mama” Diallo during all of this? That league needs a good, old-fashioned sex scandal if it’s ever really going to make it, I’m convinced.

    Who did Ziggy refer to as “The Michael Jordan of Sex”?
    Aforementioned dancer (and alleged prostitute) Jacklyn “Diva” Bush. Ziggy remembered one time when Rodman — allegedly a frequent GC patron — was making out with a waitress in a semi-private room, and Kaplan realized that the poor girl was “out of her league,” so he summoned Bush from the Gold Club bullpen to “take care” of Rodman. Why did Rodman need special attention? I don’t know and I don’t want to know. In fact, let’s agree never to discuss this again.

    Andruw JonesAnyway, according to Ziggy, he and Kaplan brought Rodman, Bush and the aforementioned waitress to a local hotel and let them loose. As Ziggy said, “Diva organized everything, and she just took command of that room.”

    (I mean, what did he expect? She was the MJ of the GC!)

    Did Rodman make any other appearances in the trial?
    A former GC limo driver (Anthony Butina) claimed Rodman and Kaplan were friends and “They’d go up to one another, shake hands with one another, hug.” According to Butina, Rodman continually heaped praise on Kaplan for the way he handled his female employees.

    (The lesson here, as always: You know you’re doing something wrong with your life when Dennis Rodman is heaping praise on you.)

    Were there any memorable Mafia-related testimonies in the trial?
    Some forgettable professional criminals and low-level mafiosos testified — all banging home the “Kaplan was an associate of the Gambino family” theme — but there were two highlights over the two-month trial:

  • Prosection witness John Givens was described to the jury as a “confessed torturer,” whose crimes included kidnapping, torturing people and cutting one man’s ear off. (Mr. Blonde from “Reservoir Dogs” lives! I can’t believe it!)

  • We found out that one of the defendants (alleged mafioso Michael DeLeonardo) went by the mafia nickname “Mikey Scars.”

    “Mom, Dad, I’d like you to meet my new boyfriend … this is Mikey Scars …”

    Jacklyn BushWho was the angriest person during the trial?
    Probably Antonio Davis, the married Raptors center who was erroneously identified by Ziggy as being one of the NBA players who had received sexual favors. Ziggy actually meant Dale Davis, Antonio’s then-teammate with the Pacers.

    What were the two greatest moments of the trial that involved Patrick Ewing?
    1. Ex club-manager Deborah Pinson testified that she inadvertently walked into a room where a dancer was performing oral sex on Ewing. When she complained to Kaplan, he allegedly called her stupid and added, “These are my friends. You won’t be complaining when we’re sitting in the front row of Madison Square Garden.”

    (So that’s how you get into the front row at MSG, huh?)

    2. Ewing testified that he received complimentary VIP rooms, dancers and sexual favors on two separate occasions — both times he received oral sex while Kaplan and Sicignano looked on (yukkkk). According to Ewing, “The girls danced, started fondling me, I got aroused, they performed oral sex. I hung around a little bit and talked to them, then I left.”

    (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the NBA … It’s FANNNNNNNN-tastic! I love this game!)

    Who was the lamest celebrity who allegedly received free sex from Kaplan?
    Stephen Baldwin. According to former GC manager George Kontos, Baldwin was escorted to a private Gold Room and asked if he wanted any sexual favors. Baldwin said he “wouldn’t mind,” according to Kontos.

    As for the stripper, she probably had this reaction: “Wait a second, which Baldwin is this? Not Alec, right? And not the guy from ‘Sliver’? And not the fat one? (long pause) All right … I guess I’ll do it …”

    What was the scariest story from the trial that will put the fear of God in you next time you visit a strip joint and hand somebody your credit card?
    Savannah businessman Mark Hornsby spent a night at the GC and later found out that his American Express card had been charged for more than $28,000 in six hours, which he disputed down to $10,000. Hornsby claimed he was misled into signing receipts for $15,000 worth of Gold Bucks, testifying, “I wasn’t really paying attention. There were $10,000 worth of Gold Bucks (the phony money used for tipping/paying the dancers) charged in 45 minutes. It doesn’t seem reasonable to me.”

    Was Madonna involved in this trial?
    MadonnaOf course, she was! You really think the Material Girl would allow a sordid, sex-filled strip club to carry on without a cameo appearance?

    According to Kontos’s testimony, Madonna allegedly visited the club one night and eventually asked if she could leave with a dancer named “Baby” … which means that at some point in the night, somebody said the words, “Madonna, this is Baby.”

    Why did the trial end? What were the plea bargain terms?
    Kaplan agreed to the following terms last week: spend three years in prison; relinquish the Gold Club; pay a $5 million fine; pay back up to $250,000 to customers for credit-card fees; pay restitution of up to $50,000 to Delta Air Lines; forfeit $38,400 in cash recovered during a government search. And he’s never allowed to sit in the front row of MSG for a Knicks game ever again.

    As for the rest of the defendants, two managers (Calder and Cicola) and Bush (the MJ of sex) all pleaded guilty to “misprison of a felony,” and the CFO (Gleit) pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor tax charge. All face jail time. As for Burney (the police officer) and “Mikey Scars” (the alleged mobster), their portion of the trial will resume at some point this month. It will be good to have Mikey Scars back in the news, won’t it?

    What happened to the Gold Club?
    On Aug. 1, Team Kaplan held a private party during the early evening that was attended by attorneys, defendants and members of a curious media. The goal? Drink as much liquor as possible because the feds were arriving to padlock the door at midnight. Said one of the attorneys on hand, “It’s the Gold Club, and nobody’s naked.It’s bizarre.”

    Michelle James(I mean, couldn’t they have invited Passion and Bush, for old time’s sake? It would have been the most emotional comeback since Dylan McKay returned to the Walsh House back in 1999.)

    At midnight, after everyone had departed, federal marshals chained and padlocked the doors, marking the end of the Gold Club Era in Atlanta. Sigh.

    So what did we learn from the Gold Club trial?
    We learned that strip joints take advantage of their customers. We learned that its possible for a strip joint to have mafia ties. We learned that it’s probably not a good idea to sign up for a strip joint “Membership Club.” We learned that celebrities enjoy strip joints and have trouble turning down free sex.

    We learned that professional athletes can exhibit bad judgement from time to time. We learned that the long arm of the law always wins in the end.

    In other words, I guess we didn’t learn anything.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.

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    Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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