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Judge, tip skimmer legally blind

Steve Davidovici's fast-lane life barely downshifted this past week in U.S. District Court.

The Strip nightclub impresario on Wednesday put Department of Justice trial attorneys, a felony tax conviction and the threat of an 18-month prison sentence in the rearview mirror thanks to a surprisingly lenient house-arrest sentence from U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson.

Dawson's valentine to the central figure in a $7 million tip-concealment scheme dropped jaws throughout the legal community and was the envy of veteran criminal defense attorneys, who couldn't recall the judge showing such compassion for other defendants similarly situated.

"He's usually very tough on tax cases," one courtroom veteran said.

But we've learned the 48-year-old Davidovici is different. For one thing, he is said to suffer from a serious eye malady likely related to the stress he endured during the criminal investigation. In fact, according to his ophthalmologist, Davidovici is already blind in his left eye.

Perhaps his eye condition was to blame when his Mercedes was clocked in January going 64 mph in a 35 mph zone. Maybe he just didn't see the speed limit sign. Not surprisingly, the ticket was reduced to a parking infraction. (Download a pdf of the citation.)

A speeding ticket isn't news unless the recipient has sworn before a federal judge that he suffers from an eye problem that has left him legally blind.

But on the subject of selective eyesight, Dawson chose to overlook the obvious when he gave Davidovici eight months of house arrest and slapped former Pure doorman Mikel Hasen with a year-and-a-day prison sentence: the level of culpability. The kingpin in this tax-dodging caper gets to wear an ankle monitor while his stooge gets fitted for a penitentiary jumpsuit.

Dawson said he was concerned about any appearance that he was showing favoritism to Davidovici, but he was even more concerned for the defendant's health.

"I don't want to be the person who decides whether he has his sight or not," Dawson said.

The judge's humanity was touching, but was he somehow unaware of the debilitating stress most criminal defendants experience in the justice system? They not only lose sleep, but they often lose years off their lives. If Davidovici loses any sleep, it will be in his own bed.

Wednesday's sentencing came after the judge reviewed a 26-page defense memorandum that painted Davidovici in the most glowing terms. Friends, employees and family members recalled the defendant's many charitable acts. The over-the-top portrait left little doubt that the image making was the work of professionals.

As it turns out, the defense memorandum was carefully crafted with help from criminologist Joel Sickler of the Justice Advocacy Group of Alexandria, Va. Defendants hire gentlemen with Sickler's expertise when they're trying to put the best spin on challenging courtroom circumstances such as Davidovici's. That is to say, up to 18 months in the federal slammer.

In his missive to Davidovici's friends and employees seeking letters of support, Sickler carefully outlined the do's and don'ts of presenting the defendant in the best possible light. (Download a pdf of the document.)

That light is tarnished not only by his tax conviction, but also by his propensity for being a vindictive foul-mouth who isn't afraid to threaten former employees and his ex-wife.

Although Sickler informed potential letter-writers that, "You must accept the fact that he is guilty," he quickly added, "You may, however, express surprise at his involvement in the events that have led him to this point. No one could have imagined that this unfortunate episode would occur at this time, or at this point of his life."

Well, actually, guys getting caught skimming a mountain of tips isn't unique in Las Vegas. I have to express my own surprise, though, that anyone in the center of a $7 million hustle might believe he wouldn't eventually attract the attention of the buzz kills at IRS Criminal Investigation.

Sickler's instructions continued: "Following the introduction, please offer your view or assessment of Steve's character and any knowledge you may have about him as a father, family man, employer, charitable volunteer, businessman or friend. List and illustrate some of the good qualities you believe Steve has exhibited. Remembrances of those he has directly helped charitably and also the organizations he has personally assisted or been involved with, even regarding beneficial fund raising efforts. Sharing your perceptions of Steve as a person of good will and generosity who has consistently worked toward the betterment of the community is important. Testimonials from family who can attest to Steve's devotion and love for his elderly mother and handicapped sister will contribute to exemplifying good character priorities as family oriented."

The Department of Justice trial attorneys and IRS investigators, meanwhile, provided the court exhibits that included a recording of an epithet-hurling Davidovici attempting to run former Pure employee-turned cooperating witness Greg Jarmolowich out of the nightclub business. Mr. Warm and Fuzzy went from zero to Scarface in no time flat.

And there was more guidance from Sickler: "Redemption, acceptance and honesty are the hallmarks of rehabilitation, and are something judges are particularly interested in. If you feel Steve embodies any of those characteristics, please say why and point to a specific example of his post-offense efforts at 'making things right again.' For instance, you may have visited him recently wherein he made no excuses and expressed regret for the disappointment he has caused his family, friends, employees and business partners. If so, please discuss that moment in your letter. If possible, you may wish to say something along the lines of 'he regrets not being more careful about his activities and now wished he had done certain things differently.' If this is a subject you are not familiar with however, we suggest you omit any comments about this particular issue."

The courtroom image expert implored letter writers to send their efforts to him for review.

Davidovici didn't receive 18 months. He didn't get 18 minutes.

As if that weren't enough to qualify for a "Ripley's: Believe It or Not" episode, on Thursday Dawson called a hearing after receiving calls from reporters seeking information about his son Brian Dawson's status as a bartender at a nightclub with a link to Davidovici. At the hearing, the clearly uncomfortable judge noted that his adult son doesn't live at home and he doesn't know how he earns his living. He then stayed Davidovici's sentence, which includes three years of probation, until it's determined whether the judge has a conflict in the case.

Brian Dawson has worked as a bartender at the Gallery Nightclub and has a sheriff's work card for Chateau, both of which have been associated with Davidovici.

Dawson surely must recognize the potential for trouble here.

Any judge who can't see the perception of conflict gives new meaning to the adage, "Justice is blind."

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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