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THE WORLD / DISPATCH FROM SAO PAULO, BRAZIL

Sex entrepreneur says he's a scapegoat, not a black sheep

December 03, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — The prince of pleasure chafes at what he sees as the utter absurdity of it all.

"A plane crashes into a building, the runway's too short, 199 people die, and who ends up arrested?" he asks. "Me. Oscar Maroni Filho! The owner of an exotic establishment."

Maroni is seated in a quiet corner of his Bahamas Club, at an hour when it's normally packed with patrons bent on fortifying the country's hard-earned reputation for licentiousness, the throbbing music punctuated by the periodic roar of aircraft at nearby Congonhas International Airport.

People come to the Bahamas Club for a different kind of liftoff, and the club provides the booze, entertainment, pole-dancing and upstairs suites to make it happen.

But today there is just a forlorn bartender guarding the rows of Johnny Walker, labels red, blue, black and gold. An outraged Maroni and his disbelieving entourage bemoan the unsightly concrete blocks that seal off the entrance, like padlocks on a speak-easy. They've shut down sin city!

"A scapegoat," Maroni calls himself, sipping his own patented energy drink, a hyper-caffeinated concoction. "Unfortunately, in Brazil people mix sex, politics and flight safety."

Say what?

How exactly did the city's best-known sex peddler -- though Maroni denies running a brothel -- get enmeshed in Brazil's fierce debate about airline safety?

Within days of a July plane crash, Brazil's worst aviation disaster, Maroni's new pleasure palace, an 11-story structure named, naturally, Oscar's Hotel, appeared on an official list of airport-area buildings whose height was deemed excessive, possibly hindering airport approaches and landings.

Sao Paulo Mayor Gilberto Kassab, a conservative who made his name taking on a billboard industry addicted to building-size images of half-naked women, soon made his move. Authorities shut down the Bahamas and moved to halt construction on Oscar's Hotel. Soon, Maroni was in jail.

Kassab is the chief villain in Maroni's rendering of a tale that, in his view, pits his libertarian, larger-than-life persona against a prudish "Mother Superior," as he refers to the city's top elected official.

"I was a convenient target," says Maroni, not long out of a 51-day jail stint, his physical bulk and shaved head placing him somewhere on a continuum between James Carville, Telly Savalas and Mr. Clean. "I was an electoral and political trampoline, for people to jump all over me."

To his critics he is something else: A dissolute smut peddler who puts his seedy business ahead of air safety, a pornographer who is finally getting his comeuppance after years of beating one rap after another, laughing at City Hall. He is a guy who boasts of having slept with more than 2,000 women ("I really fell for no more than 30"), who sponsored the "Miss Escort Girl" contest and once persuaded a 90-plus-year-old former comedienne to pose nude for his Brazilian edition of Penthouse magazine.

So there was little sympathy in July when authorities here moved to shut down the $27-million, 233-room, multi-restaurant hotel just a short jaunt from the Bahamas, connected via tunnel. The hotel was set to open in this month.

"If it were up to me, I'd demolish it tomorrow," Kassab said of Oscar's Hotel, leading a press assault on the nest of lewdness.

The drama has unfolded in the traumatic aftermath of the crash of TAM Airlines Flight 3054, which skidded off a rain-slicked runway and burst into flames after smashing into a cargo building. All 187 people on board and 12 on the ground died.

It was Brazil's worst aviation disaster and the second major Brazilian air crash in a year. Brazilians' confidence in their air-transportation system tanked. Lawmakers scrambled to do something. Maroni appeared in the mayor's cross hairs. No other building was shut down, though numerous other airport-area structures, including two hospitals, also exceed height recommendations.

Why only Maroni's building was targeted remains an unanswered question, though an anonymous pilot cited it in a television interview in the wake of the crash, drawing official attention.

From Maroni's standpoint, Hizzoner was appealing to a prudish undercurrent in the sensual land of the string bikini and the girl from Ipanema.

"The mayor was acting like a peacock," Maroni says, "telling everyone he would demolish my hotel."

Maroni, who exults in his own peacock tendencies, couldn't shut up. In a television interview, he was asked about goings-on at the Bahamas and other clubs in Sao Paulo. It is a mega-city where, as is elsewhere in Brazil, prostitution is rampant but is usually concealed under coded titles such as escort services, "American Bars," saunas and massage parlors.

"Yes, it's luxury prostitution," Maroni responded to the TV interviewer. "Let's not be hypocritical. Let's not be false."

Under Brazilian law, prostitution itself is not illegal, but pimping or otherwise profiting from the world's oldest profession is.

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