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Mobster Gotti gets a pass in strip club trial

From Art Harris
CNN National Investigative Correspondent

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A federal judge Friday dismissed John A. Gotti as a possible witness in the Gold Club racketeering case, ruling that any testimony he might provide could prove to be self-incriminating.

Gotti, who was transferred to Atlanta's Federal Penitentiary on April 24, will now be returned to the federal prison in upstate New York where he has been serving a 77-month term for his mob activities.

Gotti is the son of John Gotti, the former Gambino crime family chief who is serving a life term and is reported to be ailing.

The government tried to downplay the significance of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Willis Hunt, contending the prosecution still has ample evidence to tie Atlanta strip club owner Steve Kaplan to illegal activities with the mob.

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Kaplan's attorney, Steve Sadow, claimed the decision was a loss for the defense because Gotti's testimony would "help clear" his client.

"Our argument is basically very simple -- that John should not be compelled to provide evidence by having to testify that could later be used in a criminal investigation," Gotti's New York attorney Richard A. Rehbock told CNN.

The judge, who heard arguments on the question in chambers Thursday, agreed with Gotti's attorneys in a ruling issued Friday.

"The court concludes that Mr. John A. Gotti has the right to invoke the Fifth Amendment in response to the four questions proposed by the government" because any answer would have a "tendency to incriminate," Hunt's order said.

Gotti had insisted he would invoke that constitutional right if called as a witness, even if the judge ordered him to answer, according to his attorneys.

The government's four questions, according the court order, were:

Do you know Steven E. Kaplan?

How long have you known Steven E. Kaplan?

Have you ever visited Steven E. Kaplan in Boca Raton, Florida?

Have you ever visited Steven E. Kaplan in Atlanta?

Prosecutors contended those questions were too generic for any defendant to claim that answering them could be incriminating.

The government's strategy was to show that Kaplan had a relationship with the mobster as a way to bolster the allegation that he paid protection money to the New York Mafia family.

"The government position is that they only want to ask innocuous questions, like 'Do you know Steve Kaplan?' But we don't consider that innocuous. It could set the ball in motion that there's a relationship," said Gotti's Atlanta attorney Linda Sheffield.

"We wanted to try to get the answers to those questions, but we will have no problem tying Kaplan to Gotti and the Gambinos in other ways," Assistant U.S. Attorney Art Leach told CNN.

In a telephone interview with CNN, Sadow claimed Gotti "would have made an excellent witness for the defense."

"If he had testified, we'd have the guy who would say he'd never had any business relationship or illegal transaction with Steve Kaplan," he said. "It would have been evidence we could have used to prove our case."

Bringing Gotti to Atlanta, Sheffield said, "was purely a sensational move. If they really need John Gotti, who has not even been indicted in this case, to win a conviction they've got a pretty weak case."

Gotti pleaded guilty April 5, 1999, to bribery, extortion, conspiracy, mail fraud and operating an illegal gambling business.

Among the charges against Kaplan is that he skimmed millions of dollars from Gold Club revenues to pay for protection from the Gambino family.

The indictment against Kaplan said he and Gotti had been in business together for many years in various nightclubs -- from New York to Boca Raton and now Atlanta.

One defendant in the case is Michael DiLeonardo, whose nickname is "Mikey Scars," who allegedly collected cash payments from Kaplan for the Gambino family.

Kaplan, DiLeonardo and five others accused in the case deny all charges.


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