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Federal Probe of Rap Label Expanded

January 15, 2003|Chuck Philips | Times Staff Writer

Expanding its investigation into the empire of music mogul Irv Gotti, federal authorities Tuesday seized the bank accounts of several companies involved in producing a soundtrack for his label's first film project, "Crime Partners."

The movie was produced and co-written by Gotti's friend and business associate, Kenneth McGriff -- who also is the convicted head of a notorious New York City drug gang called the Supreme Team that dominated the crack trade in Jamaica, Queens, during the 1980s.

FBI agents and a Justice Department task force issued seizure warrants Sunday on a number of bank accounts connected to McGriff, including a firm called Picture Perfect Entertainment, which contained nearly $500,000 of funds advanced by Gotti's Murder Inc. label.

Murder Inc. is financed by Island Def Jam, a New York unit of Vivendi Universal, the world's largest music corporation.

Gotti, whose real name is Irving Lorenzo, was unavailable. Authorities are trying to determine whether start-up money for Murder Inc. is linked to illegal sources. Gotti and McGriff also are being investigated for possible connections to recent violence in the rap community.

A representative for the company said: "Island Def Jam made an agreement to acquire the rights to distribute a soundtrack album. The company is not aware of any illegal conduct in connection with the matter and is cooperating fully with the government's inquiries."

McGriff is in custody on an unrelated parole violation, but his attorney, Robert M. Simels, said the funds seized by the government are from legitimate sources.

"There is no basis to seize these funds," Simels said. "It's true that Kenny McGriff was at one time convicted of a crime involving drugs. But that doesn't mean that Kenny McGriff is a drug dealer for the rest of his life. The funds are legitimate."

Over the weekend, law enforcement authorities also issued restraining notices to members of McGriff's family informing them that the government intended to seize several of their personal bank accounts. In addition, FBI agents seized the bank accounts of a New York company called Tuxedo Rentals, which authorities contend is a front for credit card fraud and narcotics trafficking. The FBI arrested two of McGriff's associates, Jon Ragin and Derek Hayes, who ran Tuxedo Rentals.

McGriff is scheduled to appear in a Baltimore court Friday for a gun-related parole violation. Authorities say he violated his parole by firing a weapon at a shooting range three years ago in Baltimore.

"I know there is a contention that all of Irv Gotti's funds for Murder Inc. came from illegitimate sources, including my client," Simels said. "But when all the facts surface in court, the government is going to find out that isn't so."

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