The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a motion Wednesday alleging that “overwhelming” media coverage, threats and intimidation of witnesses according to some news reports, and victims’ privacy rights created a “unique circumstance” in the case , which required the case to be moved to Rochester.
BUFFALO, NY (WIVB) – Federal prosecutors said Wednesday that the “overwhelming media coverage” in a high-profile criminal case involving a local strip club owner and former DEA agent accused of working with the Mafia to shield associated drug dealers, “which has unfairly disadvantaged the government and the state.” increased the risks to government witnesses.”
As a result, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York requested a new location for the criminal trial of Pharaoh’s Gentlemen’s Club operator Peter Gerace and former DEA agent Joseph Bongiovanni.
In February 2021, a federal grand jury handed down an 18-count indictment against childhood friends Gerace and Bongiovanni.
Bongiovanni is charged with conspiracy to defraud, conspiracy to distribute drugs, accepting bribes to protect drug dealers from detection by law enforcement, obstruction of justice and making false statements.
Gerace is charged with conspiracy to defraud, maintaining drug-related premises, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, sex trafficking conspiracy and bribery from 2005 to 2019.
Gerace is also charged in a separate indictment with witness tampering, possession with intent to distribute cocaine and distribution of cocaine.
Both have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The case was plagued by a change in defense attorneys.
In addition, John L. Michalski, a state Supreme Court justice questioned by FBI agents about his relationship with Gerace, died by suicide, and a former strip club employee and government witness died under suspicious circumstances on August 1 at a home in the village of Wellsville. Her cause of death has not yet been determined, authorities said.
On Wednesday, attorney Eric M. Soehnlein appeared on behalf of Gerace and the trial was postponed again to January 8, 2024.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office argued in its motion to change venue that this is “by far the most covered federal criminal case in Buffalo.”
As a result, prosecutors alleged that some witnesses faced threats and intimidation and that victims’ privacy was compromised, according to some media reports. In addition, prosecutors cited security concerns regarding one of the country’s largest motorcycle gangs if the trial were to take place in Buffalo.
The coverage often includes critical comments from defense attorneys who are accused by prosecutors of attacking their motives, denigrating witnesses and even criticizing a district court judge.
On the other hand, prosecutors said they “did not seek public attention on this matter” and repeatedly declined to comment when asked by reporters.
Prosecutors’ concerns about reporting on the case are not new. In its motion Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it had “repeatedly emphasized” how much of the reporting “unfairly disadvantaged the government and increased the risks to government witnesses.”
Prosecutors specifically mention how defense attorneys and others criticized the use of “Italian organized crime” and similar ethnic terms to disadvantage the defendants and exaggerate alleged gang ties. This was a story first reported by News 4 Investigates, followed by several similar reports in The Buffalo News.
“In particular, defense attorneys and others have attempted to portray the government as ethnically biased crusaders who are unfairly prosecuting the defendants solely because of their Italian-American ancestry,” prosecutors said in their motion.
A federal judge ultimately said there was no evidence that prosecutors targeted the defendants based on their race.
Prosecutors also alleged that the defense used the media to attack or disparage “what they viewed as the government’s most important witnesses.”
All of this reporting and alleged defense strategy may further encourage witness tampering and “thwart the jury’s investigative mission and the entire proper administration of justice,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
The government’s request specifically targets Steve Cohen, whom Gerace recently fired as his attorney. Prosecutors asked the judge to reject any claim by Gerace that “these tactics were implemented by an attorney he is firing.” A footnote in the motion notes that Cohen’s LinkedIn profile highlights his “ability to use the media to support his clients’ cases.”
Cohen said Thursday that Joseph Tripi, the lead prosecutor in the case, believes only the prosecution should benefit from media coverage.
“The more facts that come out that are more balanced and accurate, the more he panics and wants this thing to happen in Rochester,” Cohen said.
Prosecutors requested that the trial be moved to Rochester, where the government said it could not find a single news article in that city’s flagship newspaper, the Democrat & Chronicle.
Moving the case to Rochester would also protect the privacy and dignity of government witnesses “by allowing them to testify without the specter of a media circus hanging over the proceedings.”
Prosecutors said they plan to present evidence that Gerace has close ties to the Outlaw Motorcycle Club, whose national president allegedly runs the Cheektowaga strip club.
Prosecutors said members of the motorcycle club were present in the court gallery every day during a three-month racketeering and conspiracy trial in 2015 against members of an affiliated group, the Kingsmen Motorcycle Club.
Their presence “created a stressful dynamic in the courtroom, caused problems with witnesses and jeopardized the proper administration of justice.”
A hearing is scheduled for Friday, September 15, but it is unclear whether this change of venue request will be resolved then.
Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here And Follow him on Twitter.