MIAMI (CBSMiami) — The first day of sentencing got underway Wednesday in the case of Miami Beach's "B-Girls".
The girls seduced men in swank hotels like The Delano, then allegedly lured them to seedy private clubs on Washington Avenue so they could be plied with liquor then swindled out of thousands, appeared in Miami federal court to give opening statements Wednesday.
CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald reports some of the ten Bar Girls convicted over the past year will appear in Miami federal court as government witnesses, to testify against a handful of defendants who authorities say are linked to Russian organized crime.
On trial are four reputed mob associates, along with a Sunny Isles Beach investor who once dabbled in local politics. They're accused of orchestrating a fraud scheme to run up the credit card bills of South Beach tourists by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Accused of being at the helm of the alleged racket: Alec Simchuk, 46, formerly of Hallandale Beach, who was out of the country in 2011 when federal prosecutors charged him and 17 others with fleecing unwitting male patrons. Simchuk, who was arrested in July, pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges and agreed to testify against his club colleagues and investors.
The trial, before U.S. District Judge Robert Scola, is expected to last six weeks.
Standing trial are Stanislav Pavlenko, 41; Albert Takhalov, 31; Kristina Takhalov, 31, and Siavash Zargari, 48, who live in the Aventura and Sunny Isles Beach area. Longtime Sunny Isles real estate broker Isaac Feldman, 51, is the fifth defendant.
Feldman, who lost a bid for a city commission seat in 2010, invested $25,000 in one club controlled by Simchuk and Albert Takhalov. Feldman "lost everything," said his attorney, Myles Malman.
According to the charges, Simchuk and the other defendants operated the alleged ring for a year at the Caviar Bar and the Stars Lounge, both at 643 Washington Ave.; Nowhere Bar, 653 Washington Ave.; Steel Toast, 758 Washington Ave.; Tangia Club, 841 Washington Ave., and Club Moreno, 1341 Washington Ave.
According to court records, Simchuk and the others leased the private clubs, obtained credit-card merchant accounts, flew in B-Girls from Eastern Europe or the Baltic States with 90-day visas, rented apartments for them and sent them out to hotels like the Delano, Clevelander and others along Ocean Drive to seduce male visitors into coming to their private clubs.
In Simchuk's plea agreement, he admitted that his organization ran up bogus bills for booze, wine and champagne on the credit cards of bedazzled male tourists, prosecutors said. The scam cost customers between $400,000 and $1 million, according to the plea agreement.
In total, the B-Girls, who received 20 percent commissions for bringing in customers, ripped off about 90 patrons, mostly tourists or businessmen with telltale signs of wealth, such as expensive watches or shoes, authorities say.
One victim from Philadelphia, who was approached by two B-Girls at the Delano Hotel, complained he was taken for $43,000 at Caviar Beach on Washington Avenue. His American Express bill included dozens of charges for booze.
In court papers, the victim is identified as "J.B." According to defense lawyers in the case as well as published reports, the victim was John Bolaris, a former Philadelphia TV weatherman who gave an interview to Playboy magazine for an article about the case.
Defense attorneys said Tuesday that Bolaris is known in Philadelphia as a "man about town."
Bolaris is expected to testify for federal prosecutors, who tried to limit cross-examination of him by defense attorneys.
Prosecutors argued in court papers that defense attorneys want to pose "questions that are designed to merely smear a victim."
But Feldman's lawyer, Malman, said his goal in questioning J.B. is "to establish that he consciously and intentionally tried to pick up two women at the bar at the Delano Hotel, spent large amounts of money on alcohol in an effort to impress them and/or to induce them to engage in physical relations with him, and is in reality no victim at all," according to a court filing.
Scola, the judge, sided with the defense lawyers, ruling Tuesday that they could question J.B. about anything he has said publicly about the case to Playboy or other media.
An FBI agent who led the undercover investigation said B-Girls went "hunting" in pairs, worked between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., lured "wealthy males" back to the clubs and ordered multiple bottles of booze without telling the victims the price.
"The clubs are not open to the public and operate solely as a front for fraud," FBI agent Alexander V. Tiguy wrote in an April 2010 affidavit.
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