ROME — The general was focused on the wrong privates, it seems.
Then-Lt. Gen Ron Lewis, the top military aide to U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, visited a strip club in Rome last year, according to an inspector general report released Thursday. He apparently tipped his server 81 percent—and then claimed any suggestion of impropriety was unfair since he was at a different club, a “high-end establishment with a respectable clientele that had a DJ, a bar area, and a dance floor where couples were dancing.”
The modified “It Wasn’t Me” explanation rarely works under normal circumstances. But for a U.S. general to make such a claim about visiting one of Rome’s best-known strip clubs—one named Cica Cica Boom—is almost laughable.
The club advertises “sexy shows” and “lap dances” all over the city—at one point, its name appeared on Rome’s taxi receipts. It is steps from the American Embassy near the posh Via Veneto, and employees often hand out business cards to attract mostly foreign clientele and Italians who can afford the extravagant prices. The strip club in Grande Bellezza (Great Beauty), which won the 2014 Oscar for best foreign film, is said to be modeled after Cica Cica Boom.
It is a popular place for emerging Italian porn stars who can be booked ahead of time at an extra fee—two hours maximum. There is a private room, also for rent by the hour, where sexual favors are performed short of intercourse, though it has no camera. The room is apparently a place for “favors” and not “acts,” according to a 2007 lawsuit and investigation.
That year, Italian authorities closed down the club temporarily after someone complained in a divorce court about their husband spending €1,600 in one night there and finance cops tried to unravel how the club did a business of around €40,000 each night. Among those listed in the complaint were two Venezuelans who spent €2,800 in one night.
The Pentagon concluded last year that Lewis charged $1,755.98 on his government credit card at Cica Cica Boom and another $1,121.25 at a bar in South Korea called Candy Bar; both establishments are frequented by prostitutes. Lewis also engaged in “inappropriate” behavior with women, the report concluded. But for all the titillating details, the only substantiated charge in the report is credit card misuse, making false statements, and conduct unbecoming of an officer.
It was the latest embarrassment for a military that has been plagued by embarrassing scandals involving its generals and admirals. Even so, Thursday’s inspector general report was notable for the detailed exploits apparently taking place during Carter’s business travel.
Carter and Lewis were in Rome to meet with European partners in the ongoing campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Just a few steps from their hotel sat Cica Cica Boom.
As soon as you walk into the club, you know it is all about sex, in case the name outside didn’t tip you off.
Tuxedo-clad bouncers let you in at street level into a plush hallway. The stairway down is lined with doors with tiny numbers near the card key locks written out in engraved cursive. The stage looks out to a floor made up largely of seemingly bored women and married men looking for fun on the way home from work, a visit to the club Thursday night revealed.
There are large oversized white leather chairs for two with stirrups on the lower part by the front legs, and towels in neat stacks around. Dark lighting with white accents makes everything appear the same fuzzy reddish color. There are railings on the ceiling that look like you could pull curtains to divide the rooms.
Cica Cica Boom charges €400 for a bottle of champagne. The lap dance is added in, no charge. The dancers are encouraged to get clients to buy at least two bottles of Dom Perignon during the evening.
Condoms cost €20 apiece; munchies are free.
According to documents related to the 2007 suit, the club assures its clients that it is a “bug free” environment and that the club’s CCTV cameras are not pointed at any of the tables. There is heavy security and no one is allowed to take cellphone pictures—which likely protects clientele like Lewis from the spying eyes of wives and military investigators.
In the report, Lewis, 51, said he spent time with seven locals, most of them female, during his three-hour visit at the club, and drank “more than moderation,” according to the report. He also said he was surprised by the price of the champagne.
“The manager said that the champagne was $400 or 400 Euros or whatever it was a bottle. You know, I just, I was a little taken aback myself… I think there were two or three bottles of champagne, lots of drinks and, you know… there’s not an itemized list,” the report quotes Lewis as saying.
When he went to pay, his personal debit card would not work. So he—along with a “waitress type” sent by the bar to make sure he paid—returned to the hotel where Carter and the Department of Defense officials traveling with him were staying. Lewis knocked on a staffer’s door, at 1:40 a.m., and asked for his government credit card to pay the bill, which the staffer was holding. He later paid the government back for the charges.
Prostitution may be legal in Italy, but behavior unbecoming of an officer is not allowed under the Unified Code of Military Justice, particularly for the top adviser to the secretary of defense.
Carter abruptly removed Lewis as his top aide when the allegations first emerged a year ago, ending the ascent of one of military’s fastest rising leaders, one who went from a one-star to a three-star in just a few years. Lewis has since been demoted to a two-star and could face further reduction in rank.
—Nadeau reported from Rome; Youssef reported from Washington