The owner of the Bare Elegance strip club in the Strip District, under federal investigation since 2001 on suspicion of drug-dealing and prostitution, says U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan's office should be disqualified from his case because her husband, Tom Buchanan, and his law firm have long represented him in business affairs.
The club's majority owner Curt D. Kosow, who lives in Florida, also says the office should be disqualified because his former criminal defense attorney, Stephen Kaufman, is now a supervisor under Buchanan in the U.S. attorney's office.
Kosow's new defense attorney, Paul D. Lazarus, of Miami, said the presence of two top prosecutors with outside connections to the case represents a conflict of interest.
In court papers filed this week, he asked U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster to recuse Buchanan's entire office and direct the Justice Department to appoint a new prosecutor.
"The plain fact is that Curt Kosow cannot know what confidential information may inadvertently have been imparted to U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan by her husband Thomas Buchanan during the 10 years that Thomas Buchanan has represented [Kosow] in connection with the Bare Elegance club," Lazarus said.
"Kosow has no way of knowing whether his former attorney, Stephen Kaufman, may have come into contact with other prosecutors and/or agents involved in this investigation and may have said or did something which even inadvertently revealed privileged matters."
Mary Beth Buchanan said she couldn't comment on the court filing because it contains information about an ongoing grand jury investigation.
But she said the office has internal precautions to guard against conflicts and referred questions to the office's professional responsibility officer, Robert Eberhardt.
Eberhardt said a former responsibility officer, Paul Brysh, had reviewed the specifics of the case two years ago and determined there were no conflicts.
Eberhardt said Kaufman, who had left the prosecutor's office for private practice and then returned about a year after initially representing Kosow, distributed a list of the cases he had handled as a defense attorney when he came to the U.S. attorney's office.
Under Justice Department rules, Kaufman isn't allowed to talk to anyone in the office about those cases, and no one is allowed to talk to him about them.
Lori Lecker, spokeswoman for Tom Buchanan's firm, Buchanan Ingersoll, said Lazarus is wrong in his assertion that Buchanan has been Kosow's lawyer for 10 years.
Although Kosow is one of Buchanan Ingersoll's clients, she said Tom Buchanan's personal work for Kosow amounted to less than 30 hours over the course of a few months in 1996.
"Tom and his wife are both attorneys and take the attorney-client privilege very seriously," Lecker said in a statement. "As a matter of policy they don't discuss confidential matters with each other and certainly didn't do so in this case."
But Lazarus said Tom Buchanan or his firm has represented Kosow since 1995 in legal disputes with his partners that have generated four lawsuits. Those disputes, he said, involve some of the same allegations that are the subject of the grand jury investigation. Tom Buchanan, he said, might even be called as a witness.
"At the very least," Lazarus wrote, "this creates an appearance of impropriety."
While Lancaster is expected to rule on the motion soon, the status of the case itself remains unclear.
Lazarus said Kosow had been negotiating a plea with the U.S. attorney's office with his previous lawyers, but he said he's not in discussions now.
In April 2001, the FBI and the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS executed search warrants at Bare Elegance and Kosow's house in Ohio Township.
Agents say he used the club for dealing Ecstasy and cocaine, laundered proceeds through the business and prostituted strippers from 1998 to 2001. He is also accused of not paying taxes.
To date, the investigation has generated one prosecution. Nicole R. Droppa, a former stripper and daytime manager at the club, pleaded guilty to tax charges in 2002 and agreed to help the prosecution.
At the time of her plea, prosecutors said records seized from Bare Elegance showed that Kosow had been paying his employees in cash to avoid taxes.
Droppa received a year of probation and is now a teacher.
Bare Elegance is still open, but prosecutors have filed papers to seize it.
Torsten Ove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620.