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Music, movie figure who beat back big 1980s payola case faces new charge in NYC gambling probe

Joseph Isgro leaves the courtroom after making bail in New York, Wednesday, July 30, 2014. The Hollywood record promoter and movie producer who successfully fought a major payola prosecution but later admitted to loan sharking is facing new charges in a New York City gambling case. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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Joseph Isgro leaves the courtroom after making bail in New York, Wednesday, July 30, 2014. The Hollywood record promoter and movie producer who successfully fought a major payola prosecution but later admitted to loan sharking is facing new charges in a New York City gambling case. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - He's been one of the nation's most influential record promoters, the producer of an Oscar-nominated movie, a defendant who successfully fought racketeering charges in a high-profile payola case, and an admitted loan shark who shook down borrowers in ritzy Beverly Hills.

Now the roller-coaster life of Joe Isgro is taking another plunge, with new charges that he helped run a mob-linked gambling operation.

Isgro, who once helped get airplay for songs by such stars as Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, pleaded not guilty to gambling, conspiracy and money laundering charges Wednesday in New York City. He for years has denied any connection to organized crime.

Isgro declined to comment as he left court, but his lawyer, Aaron M. Rubin, said his client "strenuously denies the charges."

"We're looking forward to having our day in court," Rubin said.

The case begins a new chapter in the tale of a Hollywood figure whose own story sounds like the makings of a movie. Indeed, it was a screenplay-in-the-making as recently as last year, according to a press release from the intended writer, whose office didn't immediately respond to an inquiry Wednesday about the project's status. The planned title: "Hit Man."

Isgro, 66, has been a music-business player for decades, coming to prominence when independent promoters exerted enormous influence over what songs Americans heard on Top 40 radio. As a leading promoter, Isgro ran a company that grossed as much as $10 million a year during the 1980s.

He came under scrutiny after a 1986 NBC News story examined what it called the resurgence of payola — bribing radio station employees to play certain records, a practice that spurred congressional hearings and legislation in the 1960s. The TV report suggested promoters were winning airplay with cash and cocaine and raised the spectre of Mafia involvement.

Labels rapidly jettisoned independent promoters, at least temporarily, and federal authorities began probing record-promotion practices. Indicted in 1989, Isgro denied doing anything illegal.

Some associates pleaded guilty, but he went to trial in Los Angeles in what was seen as the biggest payola case in decades. It collapsed when a judge threw out the case mid-trial in 1990, saying prosecutors had withheld key information from Isgro's lawyers and calling it "outrageous government misconduct."

Prosecutors tried unsuccessfully for six more years to revive the case — before the lead prosecutor pleaded guilty himself to unrelated charges of taking more than $133,000 from informants and felons.

Meanwhile, Isgro pressed ahead with a record label he had founded, releasing albums by funk master Rick James and others. He also dived into the movie business, serving as executive producer of the 1992 biopic "Hoffa," starring Jack Nicholson.

In 2000, Isgro was arrested outside a Beverly Hills shopping centre where prosecutors said he lent money at interest rates of up to 5 per cent a week, browbeat borrowers who fell behind and ordered henchmen to beat them. Isgro pleaded guilty to extortion and served about three years in prison.

Prosecutors in that case said he was a soldier in the Gambino crime family, an assertion echoed in the new gambling indictment brought by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. It describes Isgro talking with a now-dead reputed mob bookie about sports betting payments and software in 2009.

Since his release from federal prison, Isgro has continued making music distribution deals. And he has said his alleged Gambino ties are bunk.

"I'm a soldier, all right — a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War," the Purple Heart recipient told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. "And a proud member of the Isgro family."

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Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz

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