Strip clubs point to bloody shoes in city tax dispute

Posted: July 26, 2013

WITNESS intimidation. Private investigators. Testimony from exotic dancers. Bloody feet.

Drop in on a meeting of the Tax Review Board these days and you might think a high-profile murder case is being heard.

What's really on trial? Lap dances.

Yesterday, the five-member city board held its second of at least four hearings on a case brought by the owners of Philly clubs Cheerleaders, Delilah's and Club Risque. The strip joints are appealing a recent city audit that billed them a combined $1.6 million in back taxes and penalties by applying the city amusement tax, 5 percent on an "admission fee," to the cost of lap dances.

The owners say they already pay that tax on their clubs' door charges and that lap dances should qualify for a tax exemption for theater productions.

Arguing for the owners of Cheerleaders and Risque, attorney George Bochetto questioned why city attorney Marissa O'Connell inquired during cross-examination about whether one of his witnesses was in good standing on his taxes.

"This is an attempt to intimidate the witnesses," Bochetto said. "It is obnoxious. It is sanctionable."

The witness was Russell Kolins, a private investigator hired to survey bars in the city for a point Bochetto is arguing. The board sided with Bochetto, ruling that Kolins' tax standing was irrelevant.

Bochetto said the incident was symbolic of the case, which he says is "selective" application of the amusement tax.

"It is obvious and clear that the clubs are being prosecuted," he said.

"These clubs are not being prosecuted," O'Connell countered. "These clubs are being audited."

Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said there is no effort to target the strip clubs. "Mr. Bochetto's assertion is utterly absurd. He should stick to the facts," McDonald said. "This is a case about taxes and not the peculiar drama issuing from Mr. Bochetto."

Yesterday's hearing also included testimony from two exotic dancers, who answered questions about their routines and how they get paid.

Risque dancer Mercedes Perez said she has many costumes - "nurse outfits, schoolgirl, I have gowns, things that are really glittery" - for the onstage personas she takes on. Bochetto used the questions to illustrate his point that stripping should be tantamount to theatrical acting in the eyes of the law.

In the first hearing, O'Connell took issue with a comparison between ballet dancers with uncomfortable toe shoes and strippers wearing high heels. As a former ballerina herself, O'Connell said, she knows that toe shoes are so painful they make dancers bleed.

Yesterday, Bochetto asked Perez if there is "a skill that you need to develop" to dance in strippers' shoes. She said there was.

"And have you ever bled in any of these kinds of shoes?" he asked.

"Yes," Perez said.


On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN

Blog: ph.ly/PhillyClout

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