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Launce Rake

Strip Clubs Scrutinized

7 November 2005

Strip clubs have long been magnets for controversy, and a series of recent issues at Las Vegas clubs have renewed the debate over the strip club industry.

The twin political scandals swirling around strip club baron Michael Galardi, four former Clark County Commissioners and two convicted San Diego city councilmen has highlighted the issue for club critics who say the industry is a breeding ground for corruption.

Among other examples:

Four people pleaded not guilty to charges that they conspired to kill Timothy Hadland for criticizing North Las Vegas' Palomino Club and its owner. Those charged in the May 19 murder included a club worker. Hadland was found near Lake Mead with fliers for the club scattered around his body.

Rick Rizzolo, owner of the Las Vegas club Crazy Horse Too, is under scrutiny by federal investigators who have raided the club. He's also the target of a civil lawsuit filed by Kansas City resident Kirk Henry, who had his neck broken in a beating he received at the club. The high-profile cases get the media attention, but Metro Police say they regularly bust dancers in cases that do not make the newspapers. All the clubs and many of their dancers draw citations for soliciting prostitution, police officials say.

"You can do things legally, but I'm not going to tell you that you can't go in there and get sex for money," said Capt. Anthony Stavros, head of Metro's vice squad, speaking generically of all the strip clubs. "Some clubs tolerate it less than others."

Another commonality among the clubs, or at least many of them, is the presence of drugs, including methamphetamine, he said. That doesn't mean that the illegal activity is always easy to bust.

The female dancers may make agreements to meet a lap-dance customer for prostitution later, away from the club. Drugs are rarely out in the open. And police have limited resources.

"We don't spend a lot of time in clubs," he said. "We have to prioritize. We want to get juvenile prostitution. No. 2 are the pimps who prey on juveniles. No. 3 are the street prostitutes, and No. 4 are the pimps. Between those four, we stay pretty busy."

Mike Johnson, senior counsel for the Alliance for Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based organization devoted to "family values," among them tough regulation of adult businesses, believes that crime and the sex trade go hand-in-hand.

"'Inherent' is a good word," he said recently. "This industry does not attract people of high moral character."

Scandal and political corruption follow the strip-club industry and affiliated sexually oriented business, Johnson said. The impact is clear to those who look for it.

"It is widely recognized that sexually oriented businesses cause dramatic secondary effects to their communities," he said. "All the studies show and prove that anywhere these businesses are allowed to proliferate, you have dramatic increases in cases of rape, drug abuse, prostitution and a host of other problems.

"It causes urban blight."

To curb abuses in the clubs, Johnson supports a distance separation, typically 6 feet, between dancers and customers. Such a rule, tossed by the Clark County Commission in 2000, is an anathema to strip club operators and dancers because it makes lap dancing impossible.

A "no touch" rule was what led Galardi and his lieutenants into a long, unsuccessful and ultimately criminal campaign in San Diego that led to the conviction of former Clark County Commissioner turned Galardi lobbyist Lance Malone.

Malone and the two councilmen face sentencing this week. Four former Clark County Commissioners are involved in a parallel case in Las Vegas involving Galardi and the ordinances regulating strip clubs. That case is scheduled for next year.

For every adult-business critic there is an advocate for the dancers and clubs that they work in.

Judith Lynne Hanna, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland, said she has been studying the adult industry since 1995, has been in more than 100 clubs and read the scholarly literature.

Her conclusion is that strip clubs are no more a threat to the community than any other industry.

"I have yet to see anything disproportionate to the industry," she said. "There is pedophilia in the churches, but they don't regulate the church. Maybe they (church leaders) should have a distance requirement."

Modern clubs are not harboring criminals, she insists. "You have really upscale clubs. They don't want to have problems. They want to keep their licenses. They want to keep their clientele."

She scoffs at anecdotal reports that the industry is destructive for dancers. Some dancers will be self-destructive, but that isn't true for most, Hanna believes.

"For some of the women who have no education, this is a godsend for them," she said. Losing the ability to dance would hurt, not help, their communities.

"That might drive them (the dancers) into prostitution or onto welfare."

The argument is shared by others, among them Dolores Eliades, owner and manager of a pair of Las Vegas strip clubs. She is the daughter of Pete Eliades, who opened one of the first -- she says the very first -- of Las Vegas' high-end topless clubs with his Olympic Garden cabaret in 1989.

If federal prosecutors win convictions in Las Vegas next year to match their win in San Diego, that shouldn't color the entire industry, Eliades said.

The industry, threatened by rule changes, will respond through the political process, she added.

"There are people running adult businesses in Las Vegas that are not corrupt people," she said. "These are people who have families, who go to church, create jobs and pay taxes. They have the right to participate in the political process."

And participate they do, especially the Eliades clan, with contributions totaling tens of thousands to both parties and candidates from both parties.

"We have a right to have our voice heard," Eliades said.

Other industries also pump out regular contributions to candidates, she noted.

"Contributions, in themselves, by and large don't change minds. And why would contributions from people in the adult entertainment industry be any different from the money that goes to politicians from developers, gaming companies or other industries?

"We have no problem operating in the American way... You never ask for anything you're not entitled to."

Despite the spotlight on some strip club activities created by the Galardi trials, the local industry does not appear likely to face rules changes anytime soon. Commissioner Chip Maxfield said recent consideration of rule changes for sexually oriented businesses have not focused on strip clubs.

Clark County Manager Thom Reilly said county officials are meeting with their counterparts from the city of Las Vegas in an effort to make rules uniform and consistent.

He said the focus, for now, has been on the escort business -- which police have always said is a cover for prostitution -- and the sex clubs at which consenting adults meet for more than simple conversation.

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