Rap Music Chief Won’t Face Charges in Federal Probe

Rap Music Chief Won’t Face Charges in Federal Probe
Law: Racketeering investigation of “Suge” Knight ends, sources say. Label faces tax violation.
By CHUCK PHILIPS
Times Staff Writer

January 9 2002

A federal racketeering probe into allegations that Marion ‘Suge” Knight and his Los Angeles label, Death Row Records, committed acts of murder, drug trafficking, money laundering and gunrunning has resulted in a pair of misdemeanor tax charges.

Under a proposed plea bargain arrangement filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Death Row would plead guilty to failing to submit an income tax return; the label would pay a $100,000 fine and reimburse the government an unspecified amount of unpaid taxes.

Knight and his attorney said Tuesday’s action signals the end of an investigation launched in 1995 by the Los Angeles Police Department, FBI and three other federal law enforcement agencies. No charges have been filed against Knight, the original kingpin of gangsta rap music.

“The truth is the truth,” Knight said in an interview. “I appreciate the fact that, after looking into these lies and finding nothing, they had the integrity to say, ‘OK, this guy broke no law,’ and called it off.”

Federal authorities have declined to discuss or even confirm the investigation since it began six years ago. On Tuesday, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office refused to comment on whether Knight or Death Row were ever the target of a criminal probe.

But two law enforcement sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the entire investigation is over. The sources added that the probe into the more serious allegations has been inactive for nearly two years and is unlikely to be revived unless Knight gets into trouble.

On Monday, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles issued a one-page letter to Knight’s lawyer stating that no charges would be pressed against Knight for tax violations or money laundering, according to sources familiar with the document. The letter did not exonerate Knight on the allegations of murder, racketeering and other violent offenses.

Knight became famous during the early 1990s for running a small, cutting-edge record label that introduced the world to West Coast rap, launching the solo careers of such international stars as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. Death Row became the first hard-core rap label to consistently dominate the pop charts, selling more than 30 million albums and setting the stage for the global rap phenomenon. Gangsta rap music is typically laced with obscene language depicting criminal behavior, drug dealing, prostitution and the harsh realities of urban life.

Knight’s Father Enters Guilty Plea

The apparent shuttering of the racketeering probe ends an ugly chapter in the music business. The LAPD suspected Knight of masterminding the 1997 slaying of rapper Notorious B.I.G. with the help of corrupt LAPD officers, according to reports by numerous media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times. Those reports were based primarily on information provided by law enforcement sources and Death Row informants who also cooperated with authorities who oversaw the federal probe.

Court filings show that the government investigation turned up evidence that Death Row failed to pay taxes on $825,716 in income generated between Dec. 1, 1995, and Nov. 30, 1996. Knight blamed a former accountant, whose firm paid an $8-million, out-of-court settlement to Death Row after a lengthy legal battle.

Knight’s father, Marion Knight Sr., entered a guilty plea Tuesday for the tax offense, according to the court filing. The violation could carry a five-year probation sentence against Knight Sr., who is an officer of the Death Row corporation.

The plea bargain proposal was crafted by the U.S. attorney’s office and Knight’s attorney, David Z. Chesnoff.

“Mr. Knight and I appreciate the professionalism of the government in handling this investigation and are pleased that it has come to this conclusion,” Chesnoff said.

Knight added: “I’m not mad at the government. The government has a job to do, and I’ve come to respect the government when it does its work.”

In a separate but related deal filed Tuesday, Knight’s former attorney David Kenner agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor tax violation. Kenner will pay about $20,000 in tax penalties and could receive as much as one year in jail when the agreement is reviewed by a U.S. district judge this month.

Kenner declined to comment. His attorney, Don Re, said Kenner will pay the fine but intends to file a request for probation.

“David has so many health problems, including a serious heart condition that has repeatedly put him in and out of the hospital,” Re said. “That’s one of the main reasons we didn’t fight this.”

The Justice Department launched its racketeering probe to determine whether Knight’s thriving rap label was a criminal enterprise with street gang affiliations and Mafia ties.

The government began keeping tabs on Knight in the early 1990s, shortly after he and Compton rap producer Dr. Dre launched the first black-owned-and-operated gangsta rap label. Defying music industry convention, Knight strategically marketed music with violent lyrics and hired unemployed ex-convicts as well as members of the Crips and Mob Piru Bloods gangs to help build his gangsta rap empire.

The burly, 6-foot-3-inch entrepreneur sports a diamond studded ring that spells out the word “MOB.” He named his short-lived Las Vegas nightclub “662”–the numbers corresponding on a telephone keypad to the word “mob.” Although authorities began targeting a handful of Death Row employees for their alleged participation in assaults and other criminal activities, no arrests have been made.

As part of the probe, prosecutors tried to establish whether Knight’s label was underwritten with drug money from convicted Compton crack dealers Michael “Harry-O” Harris and Patrick Johnson. No money laundering charges were filed.

By 1995, sales of Death Row CDs had skyrocketed with the music transcending color lines, turning rebellious black outcasts such as Snoop Dogg, Dre and Shakur into suburban pop idols. The musicians became as famous for their violent lyrics as their run-ins with the law.

Knight had eight criminal cases on his rap sheet before he wound up in prison. He was incarcerated in October 1996 when a judge determined that he had violated his probation on a previous assault conviction by kicking a man during a scuffle at a Las Vegas hotel. The scuffle took place hours before Shakur was killed in September 1996 during a drive-by shooting. Knight was driving the car in which Shakur was shot.

After Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in March 1997, agents from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the LAPD began investigating Knight’s possible role in the slayings and other violent acts. Law enforcement authorities investigated whether Knight staged Shakur’s slaying and hired a hit man to kill Notorious B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher Wallace.

Three years ago, police raided Knight’s office and San Fernando Valley home and confiscated a Chevrolet Impala that authorities believed was used in the Wallace killing. Police returned the vehicle and other personal and business items without pressing charges.

Knight Calls Media Reports ‘Racist’

The killings of Shakur and Wallace remain unsolved. Recently, Rolling Stone and cable music TV network VH1 produced reports that suggested Knight was linked to the slayings. Those reports were based on information provided by former LAPD Det. Russell Poole, who worked on the murder investigations of Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. and recently filed a lawsuit against the Police Department.

Poole has criticized the LAPD, saying it did not vigorously investigate Wallace’s death because the slaying may have involved corrupt police officers linked to Knight.

“I believe that Suge Knight was involved in the murders of Biggie and Tupac,” Poole said. “In my opinion, neither Knight nor Chief Parks have been held accountable for what they’ve done.”

In a recent interview, LAPD Chief Bernard Parks dismissed Poole’s theories as “wild and inaccurate fabrications.”

Knight insisted that he had nothing to do with the shootings and that Poole’s theories are false.

“Underneath it all, what you’re going to find here is this is just about some former cop wanting to grab a bunch of money and a few moments of fame,” Knight said.

Knight, who was released from prison in September after serving five years, said he believes the media reports were racially motivated.

“Do you think they could get away with publishing this kind of crap about a white Hollywood executive? No way. It’s racist,” Knight said.

Representatives for Rolling Stone and VH1 said they stand by their reports.

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