By Anna Merlan
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By Albert Samaha
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Peter Gatien lives in an exquisite East 63rd Street townhouse, just steps from Fifth Avenue. So it is understandable that the 46-year-old impresario has never quite grasped why Chelsea residents have long been repulsed by the clamor surrounding Limelight, Gatien's flagship nightclub. When you live in quiet splendor on the Upper East Side, it is the rare evening when you find someone urinating or vomiting on your doorstep (unless, of course, there has been a mean kegger at the nearby Metropolitan Club).
If you believe his ongoing public relations campaign, Gatien has been the victim of a government vendetta, persecuted by dishonest prosecutors and DEA agents. As to how he managed to survive this jihad, well, chalk that up to his innate innocence and a good lawyer.
Having pleaded guilty last Friday to state tax evasion charges, Gatien now finds himself a convicted felon, though he believes he is still worthy of a liquor license for his Sixth Avenue club. Stripped of the ability to sell (overpriced) booze, Gatien knows Limelight would quickly sink (shit, you can score cranberry juice and Pepsi at the local teen canteen).
So Gatien is now bombarding local Community Board members with feel-good mailings about how his nightclub is actually good for the community, what with its planned kiddie playground and other outreach efforts. "We want the neighborhood to feel like this is the kind of place they can come for lunch or for a cup of coffee," Gatien told the Timesrecently. "We don't want to be self-serving."
As he makes his final stand, Gatien wants neighbors, journalists, local politicians, and most importantly State Liquor Authority officials to believe that he was unaware of the drug dealing and criminal activity that once flourished at Limelight. While a motley array of pushers and club kids pointed the finger at Gatien during his federal trial last year, the businessman was acquitted of drug distribution charges. But since the burden of proof at an SLA hearing is far looser than at a criminal trial, Gatien may be dogged by a court record that painted him as a degenerate drug-abuser who allowed Ecstasy and cocaine to be peddled at his nightclubs.
In addition to trial transcripts, SLA officials might want to review statements made to federal investigators by Steven Lewis, Gatien's former Limelight deputy. Indicted along with Gatien in 1996, Lewis is scheduled to face trial in April on drug distribution charges. On four occasions in 1996 and 1997, Lewis and his attorney met with prosecutors and federal agents in a bid to work out a cooperation agreement. During these meetings, known as "proffer sessions," Lewis gave investigators an insider's account of criminality at Limelight and within Gatien's organization. As part of an agreement with federal officials, the statements by Lewis who eventually chose not to become a government witness could not be used against him.
Government notes from the debriefings of Lewis who is now the executive director of Life, the hot Bleecker Street club surfaced recently in a court filing. Highlights of those proffer sessions, as well as two other DEA interviews with Lewis, include:Lewis said that on "several occasions" he tried to throw certain drug dealers out of Limelight, but was stopped by Gatien. He added that, with regard to other pushers, Gatien "specifically directed" him to admit those drug dealers. "Let these people in. They are OK," Lewis quoted Gatien as saying. Lewis said that one of these dealers bragged to him, "I give Peter Gatien more [money] from my drug sales than he makes at the door." One preferred crew of nightclub regulars "all carried drugs and guns into Limelight." Gatien informed Lewis of an upcoming NYPD raid on Limelight in September 1995. To prepare for the cops, Gatien showed Lewis and other employees a list with the names of 20 to 25 individuals who were not to be allowed into the club on the night of the expected police visit. "Gatien told Lewis that there is an impending raid on club" and because "these people are drug dealers" Lewis "is not to let these people in." When NYPD investigators arrived at Limelight, few of their intended targets were present, according to a DEA affidavit. Following his arrest, Lewis told federal agents that Gatien "pays off everybody" and apparently learned about the police raid from a detective he bribed. In discussing Gatien's NYPD contacts, Lewis said that if a competing club was successful, Gatien would "attempt to have police investigate" and "give citations" to the competitor. Before and after the Limelight raid, Gatien supervised the shredding of business documents, telling Lewis, "We are not keeping any more records." Gatien, Lewis recalled, was "very strict about the shredding policy" and had an employee who was "paid to do nothing but shred." That worker or Gatien "would walk around doing nothing but picking up paper off of desks" or out of employees' hands and then shredding the documents. Lewis recalled that prior to the Limelight raid, Gatien promised to provide him with an attorney and pay any expenses he incurred as a result of the police action. The "only thing" Gatien asked for in return, Lewis told the DEA, was that Lewis "tell the authorities that Gatien knew nothing about narcotics sales." Lewis added that "Gatien stated that it was important that he (Gatien) knew nothing about what was going on."
Three years and one acquittal later, Gatien still desperately needs everyone to believe that he was, in fact, operating in the dark.