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VOL. 123 | NO. 49 | Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Council Wrangles With Strip Club Ordinance

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis City Council's discussion about regulating strip clubs lurched back to life this month with council passage on the second of three readings of a controversial ordinance.

Much of the council's debate dealt with passing an ordinance that would replace the one passed by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners last year that covers the unincorporated county as well as Memphis.

The ordinance now in place would ban strip clubs from serving beer. The measure the council is considering after a three-month delay would let the clubs stay in the bar business. Alcoholic beverage sales are a key ingredient in the operation of the clubs.

The pace of the debate could slow by third and final reading March 18. The council is already hearing from critics who are urging the council to leave the county's ordinance in place and do nothing further.

Speaking to members of the Cordova Leadership Council last week, Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz pointed to the significant role strip club owners and their attorneys played in drafting the proposed city ordinance.

"It's clearly a situation where the clubs want that ordinance adopted because there are deficiencies in it that the clubs could take advantage of in federal court," Ritz told the group of about 100. "This is as intense a legal game as it is anything else. The clubs have untold amounts of money."

Throw stones here

Ritz spoke on the other side of Germantown Parkway from a construction site owned by topless-nightclub kingpin Steve Cooper.

Cooper claims he is having an Italian restaurant built there. Ritz and many others are convinced he intends to open a strip club despite zoning laws that prohibit such a business on the land and intense neighborhood opposition.

It was the main topic of discussion among the residents who also heard from City Council member Shea Flinn. Flinn favors a city ordinance and in particular one that would restrict adult-oriented businesses to a "red light district" or "battle zone."

"I'm taking credit for my idea, so they'll know where to throw the stones," he said as he stood to the side of the audience.

He told the group that the issue isn't a simple one. Flinn said he believes the businesses are "harmful" but also believes they have a constitutional right to exist.

One right after the other

The renewed council debate came the same week that a central figure in the two-year-long undercover police and FBI investigation of the clubs was sentenced to two years' probation by U.S. District Court Judge J. Daniel Breen.

John Bernstein was a top manager at the city's best known strip club, Platinum Plus. When Tunica Caberet opened on South Third Street with Platinum Plus owner Ralph Lunati having a stake in that club as well, Bernstein set up shop as manager of the new club.

By then undercover Memphis police officers had infiltrated Platinum Plus and were at the new club in March 2006 when Bernstein talked about the business model for Tunica Caberet.

The bottom line of the talk by Bernstein is referred to in formal language in his guilty plea last September in Memphis federal court to one count of racketeering conspiracy.

Bernstein "informed Tunica Caberet personnel that Platinum Plus was 'built' on the 'two-girl show,' referring to the performance of oral sex ... between dancers in exchange for money from club patrons," it reads. "John Bernstein then stated that the 'two-girl show' was going to continue at Tunica Caberet."

The guilty plea refers to both clubs as houses of prostitution. Both clubs were closed in late 2006 when the investigation surfaced with raids and indictments.

Parts of the proceedings against Bernstein remain sealed by federal court order. Bernstein fared better than Lunati, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison in a plea deal with prosecutors.
Lunati and Bernstein each objected through their attorneys to dancers at the clubs being classified as "victims" in the court proceedings. It was a factor in Lunati's sentencing by U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays.

Ritz told those at the Cordova Leadership Council meeting last week that the dancers are victims.

"The victims in this business are the women. It's not you and me and our children and other things. It's the women who get caught up in this," he said.

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