Sunday, May 21, 2006 | 7:39 a.m.
He was a topless club owner with suspected ties to the mob, the kind of pedigree that, even in Las Vegas, might be expected to cause at least mild discomfort among the city's elite.
But on this hot night in July 2000 at the upscale bistro Piero's, Rick Rizzolo - with a half dozen of his bikini-clad strippers in tow - easily mingled with some of the city's most prominent citizens during a benefit for his favorite children's charity.
For Rizzolo, it may well have been the pinnacle of his political influence and the apex of his place in Las Vegas society.
Those who had come to socialize with Rizzolo at Piero's, a few blocks from the Strip, and bid on sports memorabilia displayed by his nearly nude dancers included a city councilman, a top local prosecutor, a former mayor and the city's convention boss.
When it was over, they sang the praises of Rizzolo, the man who made it an evening to remember - all willingly looking past his other darker life as the strong-willed proprietor of the Crazy Horse Too, one of the city's most notorious strip clubs.
That indifference to the darker side could change as early as this week, however, if Rizzolo pleads guilty in federal court to a tax conspiracy charge stemming from an intense federal investigation into a string of beatings and other illicit activities at the Crazy Horse Too, 2476 S. Industrial Road.
For years, as he hobnobbed with the upper crust, Rizzolo also had been hiring and socializing with a long list of ex-felons and underworld figures, including the brother of one of the Chicago mob's biggest names, Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo.
With those associations came persistent reports that patrons were being ripped off at the Crazy Horse and then pummeled by bouncers and bartenders when they protested. There also were allegations that drug trafficking and prostitution were common at the club.
Law enforcement authorities knew about Rizzolo's dark side and kept watch over it, and occasionally the media would pick up on it.
But the political establishment largely ignored it, treating Rizzolo as a legitimate businessman. He was licensed, wealthy and, most of all, he was known to take care of his friends in power, pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of his favorite candidates.
His annual Christmas parties often attracted the A-list in social circles, including dozens of elected leaders hoping to ingratiate themselves with him. Rizzolo once was even deputized by a Las Vegas constable.
But over the past quarter century, as corporate America took hold of the Strip, investing tens of billions of dollars there, Las Vegas began trying to clean up its image, hoping to shove some of the seedier elements that long had passed as business-as-usual into its past.
But if the city was changing, Rizzolo and the Crazy Horse Too were not, seemingly stuck in the old, coarser days many of Las Vegas' new leaders were eager to move beyond.
Rizzolo's years of mainstream popularity in Las Vegas came as no surprise to Don Williams, a political consultant here for nearly 40 years.
"This is Las Vegas," said Williams, who noted that, after all, the Strip was built on the mob's investment. "We've never been shy about being around guys with shady reputations.
"In this state it doesn't matter what the FBI or anyone else says about you. Until they prove it, you're innocent."
A former police detective who kept tabs on Rizzolo over the years said the topless club mogul "always seemed to get a pass" from local authorities.
"He had a lot of money to spread around," the detective said.
A little more than a year after the Piero's benefit, however, on the early morning of Sept. 20, 2001, Rizzolo's dark side started catching up with him. That morning, Kansas tourist Kirk Henry wound up paralyzed and nearly beaten to death in the parking lot of the Crazy Horse Too following an altercation with club employees over an $88 bar tab.
The beating led to a lawsuit by Henry against the club, and it invigorated an FBI racketeering investigation into other alleged criminal activities taking place there.
In February 2003, more than 80 federal and local law enforcement officers conducted a massive raid on the Crazy Horse Too - searching for, among other things, evidence of payments Rizzolo might have been making to Chicago and New York crime families.
The 47-year-old Rizzolo's plea deal and those of 16 of his managers, bartenders and floormen is the latest legal thunderbolt to strike the topless club business. It comes only weeks after a political corruption trial in which testimony from rival strip club owner Michael Galardi helped lead to the federal bribery convictions of two former Clark County commissioners.
Rizzolo's company that owns the Crazy Horse Too, The Power Company, also is prepared to plead guilty to a racketeering charge.
As part of the agreement with federal prosecutors, Rizzolo will face up to 16 months in prison. Rizzolo and his company will pay $1.7 million in back taxes, pay a $5 million fine and pay Henry another $10 million to settle the beating lawsuit. Rizzolo also has agreed to sell the Crazy Horse.
The government refused to discuss the deal.
But the agreement appears to benefit both sides.
It allows Rizzolo to move on with his life and avoid a stiffer prison term on the more serious racketeering charges. It also spares his father, Bart Rizzolo, brother Ralph Rizzolo and sister Annette Patterson from facing criminal charges.
"This whole process has taken a tremendous toll on Rick," said his longtime lawyer Tony Sgro, who negotiated the deal. "It causes an immeasurable amount of anxiety to wake up every morning and wonder what the government will try to do to you next."
Sgro said the biggest impact of the lengthy investigation was on Rizzolo's health. In the last eight months, Sgro said, Rizzolo has had three heart attacks and surgery to place seven stints in the arteries leading to his heart to relieve blockage.
"He's at a point now where he can move forward, and he knows his family can move forward, too," Sgro said.
As for the government, the deal earns it convictions without having to go to the expense of a long trial. The government also accomplishes its main goal of forcing Rizzolo from the topless club business.
Longtime Las Vegan Fred Doumani, one of Rizzolo's friends, said he is happy that Rizzolo now can put his troubles with the government behind him.
"I've never believed any of the accusations against him," said Doumani, who himself has tangled with the government over the years. "Finally this deal gives him peace of mind."
One person who is not happy about Rizzolo's deal, though, is "Buffalo" Jim Barrier, a colorful wrestling promoter who owns an auto repair shop next door to the Crazy Horse Too.
"This is not enough prison time for a guy who has left a trail of destruction," said the 53-year-old Barrier, who has been embroiled in a longstanding feud with Rizzolo that has spilled over to the courts. "The average citizen couldn't get this sweetheart of a deal."
Barrier - who took photos of a battered Henry in the Crazy Horse Too's parking lot and later gave them to Henry's lawyers - recently filed for a $1 million lien against the proceeds of any Crazy Horse sale.
Barrier said he feels like he has been in a "demilitarized zone" the past six years, while being forced to fend off Rizzolo's efforts to evict him.
During that time, Barrier said, he has heard Crazy Horse customers complain about being overcharged for lap dances on their credit cards, and he has seen others emerge from the club bloodied. He even found a dead body once in a car behind the club.
"It's been terrorism in the parking lot - bodies down everywhere," he said. "Rizzolo is nothing but a thug."
But the silver-haired Rizzolo, a Valley High School graduate, also is a man who has tremendous entrepreneurial skills and a huge business drive.
In a 1999 profile, the Las Vegas Business Press described Rizzolo, a father of three children, all of whom attended Catholic schools, as a workaholic who put in 18-hour days.
He has an extensive sports memorabilia collection and is known as a big-time New York Mets fan and an avid chess and backgammon player. He's also regarded as a local high roller, often spotted at such casinos as the Hard Rock, Bellagio and MGM Grand, sometimes in the company of his favorite strippers.
From time to time, Rizzolo has been seen in the presence of movie stars and sports celebrities, including his good friend, San Diego Padres catcher Mike Piazza, who spent much of his career with the Mets.
Piazza's father, automobile dealer Vince Piazza, helped Rizzolo open a Crazy Horse Too club in Philadelphia in January and is president of the company that owns the club's liquor license, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Rizzolo, the Business Press reported, built his Las Vegas club up from a 1,200-square-foot, 12-dancer business to a 26,000-square-foot operation with 1,500 dancers.
In a deposition that Rizzolo gave in the Henry case in July 2005, he said the club grossed $800,000 to $1 million a month, which translates to annual gross sales of $9.6 million to $12 million. He estimated that the club attracted 600,000 to 700,000 customers annually.
His wealth has allowed him to become a major campaign contributor.
The bulk of his contributions, records show, have gone to Las Vegas municipal candidates who have jurisdiction over his business. From 2000 to 2003 alone, Rizzolo contributed at least $73,000 to those candidates.
That included $10,000 each to Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and Municipal Judge Toy Gregory, $7,000 to Municipal Judge Betsy Kolkoski and $5,000 each to Municipal Judges George Assad, Bert Brown and Cedric Kerns, and Councilmen Gary Reese and Lawrence Weekly. Former Councilman Michael Mack also received $6,000 in contributions from Rizzolo.
Rizzolo also gave $5,000 to Gov. Kenny Guinn's successful 1998 campaign and $10,000 to his 2002 re-election bid.
By far, Rizzolo's closest relationship with a politician has been with former Las Vegas Councilman Michael McDonald.
Throughout much of his tenure in office, McDonald was dogged by ethical questions about his friendship with Rizzolo.
Though McDonald abstained on votes related to Crazy Horse Too, he was accused of using his position to benefit Rizzolo - allegations he strongly denied.
Most of Rizzolo's political and business dealings have been directed from his huge office at the Crazy Horse Too.
He told Henry's lawyers that the office has a 16-screen surveillance system, a bar, crystal cabinets, a sectional black leather couch, a barber's chair, bookshelves, a desk, a conference table and a restroom.
Rizzolo acknowledged being security conscious, saying he has a video camera outside the private rear door to his office "so I don't walk out into the alley and get robbed or something." The front door to his office, he said, is locked at all times, and he has doorbells outside both doors to his office.
Last year, as the federal probe intensified, Rizzolo divorced his longtime wife, Lisa, creating speculation among law enforcement that it was a ruse to hide assets from the government.
Lisa Rizzolo wound up with $7.2 million in investment accounts, a $1.1-million Canyon Gate home, a $1.2-million oceanfront residence in Newport Beach, Calif., and a $390,000 lakefront condominium in Chicago. She also got a Mercedes, two Range Rovers and $83,333 a month from Rizzolo for five years.
Rizzolo kept for himself a 2005 Mercedes, a 1958 Corvette, property in Philadelphia and ownership of the Crazy Horse Too.
Even in his early days of managing the Crazy Horse Too for his father 21 years ago, Rizzolo attracted law enforcement attention.
He was questioned under oath in the Henry case last year about his role in the 1985 baseball-bat beating of a Crazy Horse customer who was left with permanent brain damage.
Goodman, then a criminal defense attorney, represented Rizzolo, who ended up pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge in the beating.
"I walked outside the club and they told me there were four or five guys outside beating on the signs with a baseball bat," Rizzolo said in the deposition. "And when I walked out the door, I got hit with the baseball bat.
"Then a fight (occurred). ... I got the baseball bat from one guy who hit me, and then I was just swinging the bat trying to keep them all off me. And then there was a big hoopla after that."
But what gained Rizzolo more attention from authorities was his connection to a series of mob figures.
Sgro acknowledged that Rizzolo has befriended some underworld figures.
"Rick's lifestyle is colorful," Sgro said. "It's flamboyant and it's outspoken. It's no secret that over the course of his life he has made the acquaintance of persons who have been accused of being organized crime figures. But those acquaintances do not translate into criminal conduct."
Sgro said that during the course of his lengthy negotiations with the government in the racketeering case, he was never presented with evidence to corroborate allegations that Rizzolo's mob ties were anything other than social relationships.
"There was no smoking gun," he said.
The result, Sgro explained, is that Rizzolo's plea agreement does not include any references to organized crime.
But Rizzolo's relationships with mob figures have been well documented over the years.
His ties first surfaced in the early 1980s when he became friendly with Joseph Balzano, a drug dealer and reputed New York mob associate who later was given federal protection after a botched underworld attempt on his life.
In a February 2002 deposition in the Henry case, Rizzolo said he met Balzano while the two worked next door to each other at a commercial center on the corner of Paradise and Flamingo roads. Balzano was a shift manager at the old Crazy Horse Saloon topless club, owned by one-time mob-connected lawyer Joseph Monteiro, and Rizzolo managed the neighboring Speakeasy Italian restaurant.
During that period, Rizzolo also befriended Tony Albanese, suspected by authorities of being a hidden partner in the Crazy Horse Saloon. The men once discussed opening a spa next to the strip club. Albanese, however, turned up dead in 1981. His severed head, partly eaten by coyotes, was discovered in the desert near Needles, Calif. The slaying remains unsolved today.
Monteiro eventually hired Rizzolo to manage the Crazy Horse Too, a job he continued to hold after his father bought the club in February 1984. A year after the sale, Monteiro was convicted in federal court of accepting $42,000 stolen in a bank robbery.
By 1986, Rizzolo has testified, he became the majority owner of the Crazy Horse Too.
The following year, Rizzolo brought attention to himself when he hired former Metro Police detective Joe Blasko as a bartender right out of prison. Blasko, who died in 2002, had served time behind bars for his role in a 1981 burglary linked to the infamous "Hole-in-the-Wall" gang, run by Anthony Spilotro, the Chicago mob's overseer in Las Vegas at the time.
Blasko, whose job at the police department was to investigate organized crime, was fired in 1978 for suppling Spilotro with sensitive law enforcement information, including the names of undercover police officers and federal agents.
Through much of his tenure at the helm of the Crazy Horse Too, Rizzolo has maintained a close friendship with Joseph Cusumano, whom law enforcement authorities regarded as a top Spilotro lieutenant until the Chicago mob kingpin's brutal gangland slaying in 1986.
In a March 2003 deposition in the Henry lawsuit, Al Rapuano, the general manager of the Crazy Horse Too, testified that Cusumano was the "godparent" to all three of Rizzolo's children.
Cusumano was sent to prison in 1987 after being convicted of conspiracy to skim $315,000 from a Culinary Union life insurance plan. While in prison, Cusumano signed over his power of attorney to Rizzolo.
In October 1990, following his release from prison, Cusumano was wounded in an assassination attempt and sought refuge at Rizzolo's home. Later that year, Nevada gaming regulators listed Cusumano in their Black Book of undesirables banned from the state's casinos.
In 1994 the Rizzolo-Cusumano connection caught the eye of a "60 Minutes" news crew and a U.S. Senate Government Affairs subcommittee.
The "60 Minutes" crew aired a segment on the Senate panel's investigation into a failed bid by Rizzolo and his good friend, Doumani, to buy the troubled Bicycle Club casino in Southern California from the U.S. Marshals Service, which had taken it over after it was seized in a drug raid.
Cusumano was described at the time as the deal's "facilitator."
During his 2002 deposition, on the advice of his attorneys, Rizzolo declined to answer questions about his association with Cusumano. But Rizzolo later told the Sun and other media that he no longer associates with Cusumano, who spends much of his time these days in the film business in Hollywood.
But Rizzolo has associated with others tied to the Chicago mob, such as Fred Pascente, a former Chicago police officer convicted in 1995 on mail fraud charges.
Pascente was comptroller of the Crazy Horse Too in Chicago which, for a while, paid Rizzolo $20,000 a month as a consultant and for the rights to use the Crazy Horse name.
Rizzolo was with Pascente in early 1999 when he was arrested at McCarran International Airport for failing to register with police as an ex-felon. Later that year Pascente's name was added to the Nevada Black Book, and he lost his job at the Chicago Crazy Horse.
Rizzolo's ties to Chicago showed up again when he hired Rocco Lombardo, the younger brother of Joseph Lombardo, as a floorman at the Crazy Horse.
In the Henry case, Rizzolo testified that he met Lombardo in Chicago "when I was there consulting."
"He has martial arts schools and gyms. And I was training with him."
Rizzolo also acknowledged in his deposition that he had met Joseph Lombardo once but said he did not know much about him.
Rizzolo was coy when pressed if he knew whether the Lombardos were brothers.
"Is Joey the Clown Lombardo's brother?" he was asked.
"I wouldn't know," Rizzolo said. "His brother's name is Joey. I don't know if he is a clown or not."
Rapuano, in his deposition in the Henry case, suggested that Rizzolo had been in the presence of Joey Lombardo more than once.
Rapuano - who has agreed to plead guilty to a tax charge in the Crazy Horse investigation - recalled having dinner in Chicago "two or three times" with Rizzolo and both Lombardos.
Joseph Lombardo has long been regarded by Chicago authorities as a high-ranking Chicago mob member.
Last year he was one of 14 men indicted in Chicago on federal murder charges related to 18 unsolved slayings, including Spilotro's, dating back to 1970.
Another of Rizzolo's questionable hires at the Crazy Horse Too was Vincent Faraci, son of reputed Bonanno crime family captain "Johnny Green" Faraci of New York. The younger Faraci, who worked at the club as a shift manager until last year, has a felony mail fraud conviction on his record.
At the 2002 deposition, Rizzolo said that when hiring employees, he never inquired into their criminal history.
"We give everybody a shot," he said.
But he said he knew of Faraci's criminal history.
"I know about that because he was working for me when he was arrested," Rizzolo said.
Rizzolo also said he had met Faraci's father when he attended a wedding for Faraci in New York.
Both Faraci and Rocco Lombardo left the Crazy Horse last year, but they are among the Crazy Horse Too employees who have agreed to plead guilty.
Sgro downplayed Rizzolo's relationships with underworld figures.
"We still live in the United States," he said. "You can still associate with whomever you want."
Yet the attorney said he almost understands why the FBI looked into his client's ties.
"They had too many things that, in their view, were unexplained," he said. "But they've always had a whole lot of smoke and no fire."