Thursday, Sept. 4, 1997 | 9:33 a.m.
Jeff Kutash, producer of the Riviera's "Splash" show, took the witness stand at his federal court trial on charges of bribing a judge and declared that his accusers -- including a longtime friend -- are liars.
He flatly denied having conversations with anyone about funneling $5,000 to District Judge Gerard Bongiovanni to guarantee a favorable outcome in a civil suit over control of "Splash."
The jury in U.S. District Judge Lloyd George's courtroom resumed deliberations today after listening to Kutash's testimony Wednesday along with closing arguments from prosecution and defense attorneys.
The Kutash incident began in October 1995 when a lawsuit was filed to oust him from control of "Splash." The case was assigned to Bongiovanni's courtroom.
Paul Dottore, a friend of Bongiovanni who worked part time at "Splash," testified that for a $5,000 bribe for the judge he could arrange a favorable resolution to the court case.
Starrlee Leavitt, a friend of Kutash who also worked at the show, said she approached Kutash with the deal and he accepted. She said he brought an unmarked envelope to her, which she passed along to Dottore.
Dottore testified that the envelope contained 50 $100 bills and he turned them over to Bongiovanni in a bowling alley locker room. The judge's subsequent court ruling favored Kutash.
Many of the conversations between Leavitt and Dottore about the bribe were recorded through FBI wiretaps.
But Kutash told the jury Wednesday that while the pair may have discussed a payoff, he had no knowledge of it or role in it.
"It's just not something I would consider," Kutash said, declaring that Leavitt "absolutely was lying."
But during closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Johnson said there could be no bribe deal like the one recorded on the wiretaps without Kutash's participation.
"The money's not going to drop from heaven," Johnson said. "This can't work any other way ... to make sense, to work out."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jane Shoemaker added that Leavitt had no motive to make up the story and wasn't going to come up with the $5,000 from her own pocket.
"When you think about it, the only reasonable interpretation is that she passed along the offer and he agreed to it," she told the jury.
Shoemaker argued that Kutash blundered by declaring that Leavitt had lied and leaving her "no room that she might have misinterpreted what he said."
But Defense attorney Oscar Goodman was adamant that Leavitt lied during the wiretapped conversations with Dottore when she said Kutash agreed to the bribe deal.
"The tapes don't lie, but liars on tape speak lies," Goodman said, noting that Leavitt later admitted she wasn't accurate when she told Dottore that she personally had received authorization from Kutash.
She conceded it was her "impression" that Kutash was willing to pay the bribe based on a message left by the producer for her with another "Splash" employee. That message indicated Kutash would be arriving in Las Vegas soon and would be bringing what she expected.
Kutash said the only thing he brought her was a magazine article she had been requesting.
If the jury believes Kutash, he will walk away a free man while prosecutors lick their wounds and regroup for the upcoming trial of Bongiovanni on many of the wide ranging corruption charges that had been related for the Kutash jury.
If the jury rejects Kutash's story and convicts him of four felony counts, it will indicate there is credibility in the snitches and paid informants that -- along with months of wiretap evidence -- formed the core of the prosecution case.
That might not bode well for Bongiovanni's chances, although much of the evidence pointing to corruption and bribe taking by the former judge was unchallenged by Goodman because it didn't pertain to Kutash.
Kutash's story was supported by an FBI recorded phone conversation two months after the alleged bribe incident.
Leavitt had called Kutash and tried to discuss the alleged agreement to influence the court case, but Kutash told her repeatedly that he had no idea what she was talking about.
"You never told me about this," Kutash can be heard saying. "This is all news to me. I didn't do anything."
Goodman argued that it would be a "tremendous miscarriage of justice" if Kutash were convicted because several of the witnesses made "unconscionable arrangements with the government" in exchange for their testimony.
Dottore, who was convicted of bank fraud and pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge, is working for a recommendation by prosecutors that will give him probation.
Leavitt was given immunity in exchange for her cooperation.
"They're asking you to believe liars beyond a reasonable doubt," the veteran defense attorney said.