South Beach club operator sentenced to 12 years for “bar girls” racket at Russian-style lounges

 

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

A South Beach nightclub operator was sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison for directing a bunch of “bar girls” to seduce and swindle customers at a string of Russian-style lounges.

Albert Takhalov was convicted in December along with two other businessmen of fleecing hundreds of thousands of dollars from dozens of male patrons by racking up bogus bills for champagne, vodka and caviar on their credit cards at seven private Miami Beach clubs.

Takhalov, 31, cried as he apologized to U.S. District Judge Robert Scola, saying he made a “great mistake” but “had no intention of breaking the law.” Other tearful family members asked for leniency, to no avail.

Scola, who found that Takhalov committed perjury on the witness stand at his trial, expressed no sympathy for the defendant, saying “he doesn’t have a right to lie.”

Takhalov’s defense attorney, Albert Levin, tried to convince the judge that his client should receive a sentence close to the three-year prison term given to the ringleader, Alec “Oleg” Simchuk, an admitted Russian mafioso who cooperated with the U.S. attorney’s office and testified as a government witness.

Levin said Simchuk, who had hired Takhalov as a credit-card processor for his clubs, “played the system” in the B-girls’ prosecution.

But the judge retorted: “You can say Mr. Simchuk was gaming the system. I think Mr. Takhalov gamed the system.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Thakur said Takhalov deserved to go to prison for at least 11 years, pointing out that he played a key role at five of the illicit clubs (VIP, Stars, Tangia, Nowhere Bar and Moreno) in South Beach throughout the duration of the racket from 2010-11.

Also sentenced Thursday: Isaac Feldman, 52, a high-profile Sunny Isles Beach real estate broker who invested in the Stars and VIP lounges. His attorney, Myles Malman, sought to portray his client as one of Simchuk’s investors who had no role in any club operations.

But the judge gave Feldman more than eight years in prison, citing his perjury on the witness stand at trial. His punishment exceeded the federal sentencing guidelines for his fraud offense.

A third defendant, Stanislav Pavlenko, 41, was also convicted at trial and is set for sentencing later this month. A fourth defendant, Siavash Zargari, 48, who did business with Takhalov at a Washington Avenue lounge, was acquitted.

All lived in the Aventura, Sunny Isles Beach and Miami Beach areas before their “bar girl” ring, which revolved around seven nightclubs, was busted by the FBI in April 2011.

The jury reached its guilty verdicts on a variety of conspiracy, wire fraud and money-laundering charges after an 11-week trial filled with tales about Miami Beach’s underground bar scene. The panel also issued acquittals on numerous wire fraud offenses involving credit card transactions and cleared Takhalov of bribing a U.S. immigration official to bring the bar girls from Eastern Europe.

Still, Scola ordered Takhalov, Feldman and Pavlenko into custody after trial because he found that they gave testimony that “I don’t believe was honest.” Several relatives and friends wailed openly in court when the judge issued his detention order.

The 12-person jury heard testimony from Simchuk, the admitted Russian mobster who organized the racket; a few bar girls who lured male customers from swank hotels like the Delano to the private bars; a former Fox TV weatherman who was taken for $43,000 over two nights, and an undercover Miami Beach police officer who posed as a dirty cop and worked as a bouncer for the clubs while recording the illicit activity.

The puppet master behind the scam: Simchuk, 46, a Russian native and naturalized U.S. citizen who testified in October about his partners and associates.

Simchuk, who pleaded guilty before trial, testified that he modeled the South Beach clubs after his former bars in Latvia and Estonia. He said he illegally brought many of the same young women who had worked for him there to South Florida.

The four defendants took the witness stand to fight the fraud charges, which is highly unusual during a trial. It backfired for all but Zargari. His testimony ended up serving two purposes as he deftly demonstrated his innocence while blaming Takhalov for contaminating their lounge, Tangia Club, with bar girls and credit-card fraud.

In 2010, Miami Beach police and the FBI launched their undercover investigation into the B-girl network after customers complained to their credit card companies about the outlandish bar tabs. The following year, 19 defendants were charged in the fraud conspiracy. Fourteen defendants, mostly women, have since pleaded guilty.

Almost all, including Takhalov’s wife, Kristina, who worked as a bartender, have already served short prison or probationary sentences.

A final defendant, Andrejs Romanovs, a Simchuk partner, is a fugitive believed to be in Eastern Europe.

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