CLEARWATER — In March, a young St. Petersburg entrepreneur named Lokesh James walked into a strip club and spent more than the average American's salary: about $50,000.
It was a slow Wednesday night at Bliss Cabaret, a full-liquor topless bar on Ulmerton Road, and James, a newlywed recently separated from his wife, entered the neon and darkness alone.
But within three hours he had become a stripper's dream, spending a small fortune on booze and lusty tips. By sunrise the next morning, his Bank of America credit card had been charged 12 times.
Such bacchanalian extravagance is the turf of rap and football stars, and James, at 32, seems an unlikely man of means. In fact, he now says the whole thing was a big-money scam. Last month, he sued for theft.
James told his attorney, David Sockol, that his night at Bliss Cabaret was a much quieter affair. He said he spent $625 on bottles of Michelob Ultra and a few strippers in a private room.
Charge slips, Sockol said, show several more swipes over James' $20,000 credit limit with what he believes are forged signatures, some minutes apart. Among the spending: Bliss Dollars, a kind of stripper gift certificate, and thousands in bartenders' tips.
Sockol said it's an open and shut case of "strippers and thieves," with swindlers figuring James might be too humiliated to fight.
"It's not like he was out there making it rain," Sockol said, with a nod at the strip-club ritual of sprinkling dollar bills. "It's one thing to be an idiot and show off to a couple of strippers. It's another thing entirely to go to a male bartender and say, 'Hey buddy, here's two grand.' "
Club staff blame the suit on buyer's remorse. But Doug Berube, a bartender named as a co-defendant because he charged James' card, no longer works there, and club manager Patrick Bennett would not say why.
Neither Berube nor Michael Tomkovich, a Jacksonville strip-club magnate who owns Bliss and the Tampa Gold Club, returned messages this week.
The wild pricing, Bennett said, could have come from the dancers, who work as contractors and set their own rates.
But spending that much in one night is no small feat. With $50,000 James could have, at $20 a song, bought a week of endless lap dancing or rented a Tampa Gold Club "sky box," a private suite with a covert entrance for limousines, for 60 hours straight.
At Bliss, a club near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport that once offered a full buffet, that money could go even further. The club's Wednesday drink specials, for instance, could have netted James 10,000 Long Island iced teas.
"Honestly, $50,000 in one night to me sounds like a big joke," said James Kovacs, manager of Tampa's Pink Pony Nude Show Club.
Bankers, Sockol said, have rejected pleas to cancel the charges. James, who runs a startup firm selling "smart home" audio-visual systems, could potentially get about $120,000 if he wins the suit.
Chargebacks, in which sobering patrons dispute charges, are a scourge to which strip clubs are "particularly sensitive," said Dave Manack, editor of Clearwater's E.D. Publications, a national adult-nightclub industry trade magazine.
"You get husbands nailed by their wives or employees nailed by bosses, and suddenly it's, 'I didn't do that,' " Manack said. To validate charges, some clubs now require fingerprint scans.
James isn't the only patron to cry foul at a bill. In 2007, a Georgia Tech graduate celebrating at a Panhandle strip club racked up a $53,000 bill. Though blamed on 19 bottles of champagne and "an effort to show off," the club later offered a refund.
Last year, a DUI attorney sued downtown Miami's Goldrush strip club for plying him with so much liquor his "irrational state of mind" consented to a $19,000 tab. That case remains open.
Bennett, the Bliss manager, pointed to James' arrest in March on a charge of scheming to defraud as an indicator of his wrongdoing. That unrelated case, Sockol said, remains open.
A month after James' visit, the club, preparing for the Republican National Convention, bought a new laser lighting system costing $20,000.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]