Lawsuit details sex, abuse at Cheetah. Club denies ‘fabricated claims,’ sues one dancer for slander.
By Chris Joyner – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
KENT JOHNSON/THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Alison Valente, former Cheetah exotic dancer, has sued the club for systematic physical and sexual abuse she says she sustained as part of a pattern of criminal behavior associated with the club’s private VIP rooms. The club has counter-sued Valente for slander and denied the allegations. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Posted: 6:00 a.m. Monday, January 09, 2017
Alison Valente was an adult entertainer at The Cheetah for more than a decade, and by her own reckoning, she was one of the Midtown strip club’s top earners.
But Valente said she was improperly fired from the world-renowned club in 2015 — a destination for visitors, professional athletes and well-heeled patrons for four decades — after complaining about a practice of pairing high-rolling customers with dancers for illegal sexual contact and bullying those who refused to play along.
Valente and five other former Cheetah employees told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they witnessed everything from inappropriate touching to sexual intercourse in the club’s private VIP rooms.
Moreover, they described the dangers faced by strippers who did not want to cross the line. The women said patrons secretly drugged, assaulted, and in one case, raped one of them in an atmosphere where they said Cheetah customers were led to believe they could expect sexual favors from dancers if they were willing to pay for it.
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The dancers all worked at the club within the past five years, some as recently as within the last year. Each described a system that evolved over the past five years where a group of security guards known as “floormen” facilitated the conduct with a select group of dancers willing to violate club rules on sexual contact with patrons for preferred bookings in the VIP rooms. Patrons paid the dancers, who then paid the floormen a percentage for help booking the room and ignoring illegal activity that took place inside.
Those involved made thousands of dollars, the dancers told the AJC. The dancers who spoke to the newspaper said they were cajoled and threatened to engage in the behavior themselves. Those who wouldn’t said they found it harder to get into VIP rooms where they could make more money.
This alleged scheme of sex, protection and kickbacks is spelled out in two separate but nearly identical lawsuits filed by Valente and another former Cheetah entertainer. The complaints, both filed earlier this year by the same attorney, claim club management and bouncers ran a “sophisticated organized crime syndicate” of sex and drugs that “became an integral part of The Cheetah’s operations.”
The Cheetah and club owner Bill Hagood have hired high-profile defense attorneys Steve Sadow and Ed Garland, both of whom say the dancers’ claims are false. In a statement, Sadow described Valente and other women who spoke to the AJC anonymously as “vindictive, discharged strippers, some of whom may well have been fired for engaging in the very same misconduct that they claim was tolerated by management.”
Despite blanket denials by the club’s lawyers, The Cheetah made VIP rooms less private and banned dancers from tipping floormen almost immediately after being contacted by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News, moves it later said were unrelated to the news organizations’ reporting.
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In her lawsuit, Valente said she refused to join a group of dancers known as the “F Girls” who engaged in sex acts with customers in exchange for VIP room bookings. Valente said she declined to pay kickbacks to floormen and, as a result, she said she was threatened, abused and “drugged into near unconsciousness” for not playing along.
The Cheetah denies Valente’s allegations in a counterclaim filed in her lawsuit, and is counter-suing the Atlanta woman for slander and defamation for repeating her claims to news organizations, including the AJC.
Valente’s statements “wrongfully depicted the Defendant as something it is not, and were calculated to harm The Cheetah’s reputation as a sophisticated, upscale Gentleman’s club,” the counterclaim alleges.
The Cheetah, located in Midtown, has been one of Atlanta’s marquee adult entertainment clubs for four decades, popular with visitors, professional … Read More
In her complaint, Valente said floormen refused to assist her and other dancers when customers broke the rules and became sexually aggressive.
“As a top earner at The Cheetah, Ms. Valente was viewed as direct competition to the floormen’s underground regime,” Valente said in her suit, “and it was made clear to her through repeated intimidation that they wanted her earnings and that she would have to participate in the illegal activities if she wanted to stay employed at The Cheetah.”
One night in February 2015 in the club’s private “penthouse,” Valente said she witnessed two dancers engaged in sex acts with two male customers. In her complaint, Valente said she appealed to a floorman to intervene, but he responded, “Shut the —— up.” Valente said she took her complaint to a supervisor who Valente said ignored it — an allegation the club denied in its court filing.
Valente said she was fired the day after she complained about what she witnessed. She was terminated for excessive “chargebacks,” when customers or their credit card companies challenge a VIP room charge or a dancer’s performance and ask for a refund. Valente disputes the allegation and in court filings she claims some of the alleged chargebacks occurred on days she did not work or days the club was closed. Claims of chargebacks never occurred until she started complaining to management about working conditions, she said.
Valente and several other former Cheetah entertainers also have filed a class action lawsuit claiming they were misclassified as “independent contractors” and are seeking back pay from the club and other damages.
Sadow said club management never received any claims of sexual assault or alleged drugging of strippers. “Only now, in an apparent scheme to extort money, have these fabricated claims surfaced,” he said.
“The Cheetah has been open for nearly 40 years. It has served customers in Atlanta and visitors to Atlanta during the entire time and there has never been a claim of any illegal conduct against the club,” he said. “The club will not stand idly by and allow its excellent reputation to be besmirched.”
Sadow and The Cheetah’s legal team said they would produce multiple current Cheetah employees who would dispute the allegations. The AJC and Channel 2 gave The Cheetah more than a month to produce those sources, but they did not.
Jim McDonough, Valente’s attorney, compared Sadow’s statement to “victim shaming.”
“As we have seen again and again lately, it takes multiple victims coming into the light before any allegations of abuse are actually taken seriously,” he said.
‘I was literally sexually assaulted’
The AJC does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault and, with the exception of Valente, who agreed to come forward, the newspaper is not identifying other dancers who agreed to speak to a reporter. Some of the women have left stripping while others have gone to other clubs where they feel safer.
One entertainer who has since moved on to another Atlanta club said sexual assault inside the VIP rooms happened frequently. In one session, she said a customer stuck his finger inside her vagina. When she protested, the customer reported her to one of the floormen who told her to refund the man for the VIP room, she said.
“I could have called the cops and gotten him in big trouble,” the woman said.
She said she didn’t call the authorities because the club pressured employees to keep police away. The Cheetah was her first experience dancing nude and she said she was naïve about what to expect.
“Not until I quit did I realize that doesn’t have to happen,” she said.
Another former dancer told a nearly identical story. “I was literally sexually assaulted,” she said. “There are so many girls with stories like that.”
Former entertainers from The Cheetah, a midtown adult entertainment club, have come forward with claims of systematic physical and sexual abuse … Read More
When contacted by the AJC, club owner Bill Hagood said his attorney had advised him not to comment.
“The only thing I call tell you is that’s a lie,” he said. “I can’t believe this.”
Hagood said the claims amount to “extortion” on the part of Valente and others.
But the former Cheetah strippers who spoke to the AJC said they were the ones who were mistreated. They expressed frustration that because they chose to strip, they felt men believed they were entitled to assault them.
“We didn’t feel like we had any protection because,” one woman said, “who’s going to believe a bunch of strippers?”
Private VIP rooms gave cover
Located on Spring Street, The Cheetah has been a landmark adult entertainment club for decades, popular with convention goers and bachelor parties. Inside, dozens of nude or nearly nude woman strut down runways in a cavernous room that includes a restaurant and several semi-private areas where customers pay a nominal seat rental on top of a cover charge.
Women circulate freely among the overwhelmingly male clientele, striking up conversations, sitting in laps and performing $10 table dances.
At The Cheetah, as in many higher-end strip clubs, the greatest earning potential for dancers is in the VIP rooms — private or semi-private enclaves where customers pay extra for personal attention. Dancers can make more than $1,000 a night if they get booked into VIP rooms, and that’s without sexual contact with a customer.
But even in such close quarters there are supposed to be iron-clad rules: absolutely no touching and absolutely no sexual contact. Garland, one of the club’s lawyers, told reporters with the AJC and Channel 2 that employees are regularly reminded of the “no touching” policy. There is to be no physical contact between strippers and the club’s clientele, he said.
“The Cheetah is the safe place to work,” Garland said.
Lawyer: club not liable for misconduct ‘behind closed doors’
In reporting the story, a journalist with the AJC visited The Cheetah on a weeknight in October. Within 30 minutes of arriving, a Cheetah entertainer, clothed at the time, approached the reporter in the club’s main room, and uninvited, sat in his lap, wrapping an arm around his back. The reporter declined an invitation to leave the main room and go somewhere “more fun.”
The reporter also witnessed physical contact between other customers and entertainers in the main room, although no contact that would be described as lewd. Floormen also were present on the floor where violations of this policy were in full display. Such casual contact between dancers and patrons, while technically against the rules, appear to be widely tolerated at many Atlanta strip clubs.
Garland said allegations of an organized climate where sexual activity in the club’s VIP rooms was nurtured are “fantasy,” but he acknowledged that some of the club’s many strippers may not follow the rules.
“Clearly some dancers don’t follow that (policy) because they are trying to get money out of customers,” Garland said, adding that the club’s entertainers are “smart as hell.”
“When they are caught the customers are kicked out and the girls are sent home,” he said. “How is a club to know which girls will do that?”