Vice under fire: Efforts of Columbus officers questioned while FBI investigates

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COLUMBUS – While investigating activities inside Columbus strip clubs, undercover vice officers with the Columbus Division of Police spent more than $2,700 on tips and lap dances and more than $1,600 on alcohol, a 10 Investigates review of the expense reports dating back to 2017 show.

A department spokeswoman says the monies were evidence funds, which are still part of the city’s general fund.

10 Investigates also reviewed police investigative files, conducted interviews with attorneys, dancers, club owners and employees to get a better sense of the police investigations inside Columbus strip clubs.

What we found: the vice unit has cited more women for giving undercover officers lap dances than those who were actually cited for solicitation – which was what prompted police to investigate the Kahoots gentlemen’s club in March of 2017.

We also reviewed police officers’ personnel files, looked at past court cases and talked to those who have questioned the motivations of some of these officers along with others who are supportive of their efforts.

Among our other findings: of the 41 people who were charged over the past two years by both Columbus Police and other law enforcement agencies, 35 of them have worked at Kahoots.

That’s led some employees to suggest that the club was unfairly targeted.

Carla Hoover was one of several dancers interviewed by 10 Investigates. When we asked her if she thought something was afoot? She said: “Oh most definitely.”

Hoover was one among more than three dozen people who have been cited with for violating Ohio’s Community Defense Act – a rarely cited law the prohibits exotic dancers from having physical contact with patrons.

“Most of the girls were charged with literally giving a lap dance, which is technically illegal, but assassin. You go to a strip club for a lap dance. You don't go to a strip club to shake somebody's hand,” Hoover said.

The club’s owner, Joe Sullo, declined to comment when reached Thursday by phone.

The issue of Columbus police and other law enforcement agencies inside strip clubs drew national headlines after adult film star Stormy Daniels was arrested in July along with two other women – accused of violating the terms of Ohio’s “no contact” law by having their bodies make contact with the undercover officers.

Columbus city attorney Zach Klein chose not to pursue the charges – later dismissing them against Daniels and two other women after he determined that the officers acting in their official capacity weren’t technically patrons, so no crime was committed.

In the weeks that followed, dozens of other people who had been cited under the “no contact” law saw their charges dismissed.

Four of the vice officers involved in the Stormy Daniels sting have been sued in federal court, three of whom are accused in the federal lawsuit of using their conservative politics to target Daniels, who had already made headlines this year over her alleged past affair with Donald Trump and subsequent hush money she says she was paid to stay quiet over the alleged affair.

Internal emails obtained by 10 Investigates through an open records request show that the officers discussed Daniels prior to arresting her and two other women on July 11.

The internal emails also show vice officers shared a local news article about the fact that Daniels would be performing at the Sirens strip club along with a map showing a location and including a picture of her with Donald Trump.

A tip in early 2017 led to vice officers to investigate the Kahoots gentlemen’s club over allegations of “widespread drug use” and prostitution, according a police investigative file obtained by 10 Investigates through an open records request.

Jeremy Sokol, an employee of Kahoots, is actually supportive of the department’s efforts. He may be an unlikely source of support, given the fact he was actually a target of a vice investigation last year.

But after Sokol says he was cleared by authorities, he says he began working with the vice unit to clean up his surroundings.

When asked if he was supportive of the vice unit’s investigations inside strip clubs, Sokol said:

“Oh, very much so. And I've worked both sides of this. I've worked with these two detectives and it was an honor. It was a privilege.”

The department has declined 10 Investigates repeated requests to make the vice officers available for comment.

10 Investigates has also reached out independently to Det. Steve Rosser, who was among four officers sued following the Stormy Daniels arrest, said he was not being allowed to comment.

While Rosser’s personnel file includes both awards, commendations and citizen complaints – all but one were dismissed – he has been accused in the past of targeting establishments.

A 2015 Franklin County court transcript reviewed by 10 Investigates shows Rosser charged six bartenders with serving alcohol to an underage confidential informant that he brought into The Goat bar in New Albany – where Rosser's ex-girlfriend used to work.

In court records, Rosser said he had "no ill will" towards the bar but acknowledged knowing some of the bartenders and playing on the establishment's volleyball and euchre teams.

Judge David Tyack presided over the case and said the bartenders were entrapped.

When asked what led him to make that finding, Judge Tyack said: “It was because I didn't think any of these bartenders had the pre-disposition to do that – to sell to somebody underage.”

When pressed further about if his finding of entrapment led him to question the officer’s integrity, Tyack said: “I did at the time because his testimony was so inconsistent with what happened in the establishment. So it wasn't so much his integrity but his credibility.

10 Investigates: “Do you still question his credibility?”

Judge Tyack: “Yeah.”

The 20-member vice unit, which typically investigates incidents like alcohol complaints, human trafficking, gambling and narcotics, has been placed on hold for nearly two months while the FBI investigates.

Two issues – the arrest of Stormy Daniels and two other women at a Columbus strip club in July and the subsequent officer-involved shooting of a woman during a prostitution sting involving an officer who was already at the center of a separate criminal probe prompted Police Chief Kim Jacobs to place the unit on hold while an internal review was conducted. That review was later taken over by the FBI.

Officer Andrew Mitchell, the officer who fatally shot Donna Castleberry during an alleged prostitution sting on August 23, has been relieved of his duties but is still part of the police force.

An FBI spokesman told 10 Investigates Thursday that its investigation is “still ongoing.”

Part of the information that was forwarded to the FBI included a 40-page packet that makes damning allegations against the vice unit and Sokol. When questioned by 10 Investigates, Sokol denied any wrongdoing.

The police department has said the claims contained in the packet have not been substantiated. 10 Investigates is not detailing those allegations because no one has been charged and we could not independently verify them.