BUFFALO, N.Y. (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 shielding mob-linked drug dealers has “unfairly prejudiced the government and 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 venue for the criminal trial for Pharaoh’s Gentlemen’s Club operator Peter Gerace and former DEA agent Joseph Bongiovanni.

In February 2021, a federal grand jury returned an 18-count indictment against childhood friends Gerace and Bongiovanni.

Bongiovanni is charged with conspiracy to defraud, conspiracy to distribute drugs, accepting bribes to shield drug dealers from being detected by law enforcement, obstruction of justice, and making false statements.

Gerace is charged with conspiracy to defraud, maintaining drug-involved premises, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking and bribery from 2005 to 2019.

Gerace is also charged in a separate indictment with witness tampering, possession with intent to distribute, and distribution of cocaine.

Both have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The case has been plagued by a revolving door of defense attorneys.

In addition, John L. Michalski, a state Supreme Court judge questioned by FBI agents about his relationship with Gerace, died by suicide, and a former strip club employee and government witness died Aug. 1 under suspicious circumstances at a home in the Village of Wellsville. Her cause of death has not been determined, authorities said.

On Wednesday, attorney Eric M. Soehnlein appeared on behalf of Gerace, and the trial was moved again to begin Jan. 8, 2024.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office argued in its motion to change the trial venue that this is “easily the most heavily covered federal criminal case in Buffalo.”

As a result, prosecutors alleged that some witnesses faced threats and intimidation, and victims’ privacy rights were at risk following some media reports. In addition, prosecutors mentioned safety concerns involving one of the largest motorcycle gangs in the country if the trial was to remain in Buffalo.

The reporting often includes critical comments from defense attorneys, who prosecutors accused of attacking their motives, denigrating witnesses, and even criticizing a District Court judge.

On the other hand, prosecutors said they have “not induced any publicity in this matter,” and have repeatedly declined to comment when asked by reporters.

Prosecutors’ concerns about the reporting that the case has garnered are not new. In their motion Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it “repeatedly emphasized” how much of the reporting “has unfairly prejudiced the government and increased the risks to government witnesses”.

Prosecutors specifically mention how defense attorneys and others criticized their use of “Italian Organized Crime” and similar ethnic terms to prejudice the defendants and hype up the alleged mob 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 sought to portray the government as ethnically prejudiced crusaders unfairly prosecuting the defendants for nothing more than their Italian-American ancestry,” prosecutors said in their motion.

A federal judge eventually said there was no evidence that prosecutors targeted the defendants based on their ethnicity.

Prosecutors also alleged the defense has used the media to attack or disparage “what it perceives to be key government witnesses.”

All this coverage and alleged defense strategy can further encourage witness tampering and “frustrate the jury’s fact-finding mission as well as the overall orderly administration of justice,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

The government’s motion specifically targets Steve Cohen, who Gerace recently fired as his attorney. Prosecutors urged the judge to reject any claim by Gerace that “these tactics were implemented by an attorney he is firing.” A footnote in the motion mentions how Cohen’s LinkedIn profile emphasizes his “ability to use the media in aid of his client’s cases.”

Cohen said Thursday that Joseph Tripi, the chief prosecutor in the case, believes only the prosecution should benefit from media coverage.

“As more facts emerge that are more balanced and accurate, he’s beginning to panic and wants this to be venued in Rochester,” Cohen said.

Prosecutors requested the trial be moved to Rochester, where the government said it could not locate a single news article in that city’s primary 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 intend to present evidence that Gerace has close ties to the Outlaw Motorcycle Club, whose national president allegedly manages the Cheektowaga strip club.

Prosecutors said members of the motorcycle club were present in court gallery every day of a three-month racketeering and conspiracy case filed in 2015 against members of an affiliated group, the Kingsmen Motorcycle Club.

Their presence “created a stressful dynamic in the courtroom, caused issues with witnesses, and risked the orderly administration of justice.”

A hearing is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 15, but it is unclear if this change of venue motion will be resolved then.

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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.