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Judge gives Gotti a pass in strip club trial

From Art Harris
CNN Atlanta Bureau

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.

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His two attorneys argued behind closed doors to U.S. District Judge Willis Hunt Thursday that Gotti's constitutional rights bar him from being forced to testify in the trial of Atlanta strip club owner Steve Kaplan.

"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 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 said Friday.

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

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?

"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.

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."

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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