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“Family Values” Wisconsin State Senator Has Put $50,000 Into Rick’s Cabaret International

Green Bay- Though a political moderate, state Sen. Robert Cowles doesn’t mind touting his conservative views on social issues.

“I’d like to think,” the Green Bay Republican said last week, “that I have family values.”

But you wouldn’t know it from looking at his investment portfolio.

According to his latest ethics statement, Cowles had more than $50,000 invested in two companies — Rick’s Cabaret International and VCG Holding — that operate numerous upscale strip clubs throughout the United States. Under state law, Wisconsin officials have to disclose only whether their investments are above or below $50,000.

Along with owning 15 strip clubs, Rick’s Cabaret also runs an extensive number of erotic Web sites, holds an annual Gentleman’s Club Owners Expo and publishes several magazines, including TEEZE and Exotic Dancer.

The firm’s Web sites include names such as “coupletouch,” a site for swingers to meet one another; “naughtybids,” an online auction site for all things porn, such as one-on-one stripping shows and props used by porn stars in their films; and “xxxpassword,” which gives subscribers entry to unlimited porn sites for $39.95 a month.

“Get access to all of the hardcore movies and videos available,” the X-rated site states. “Get keys to them all right here and benefit from your total access. Whether you want LIVE XXX streaming action or you want to watch PORN cinema classics, we have them all.”

Rick’s Cabaret, which is based in Houston, used to have two even raunchier Web sites, with titles such as “smutdog” and “dancerdorm,” according to its past news releases, but neither was active last week.

Cowles, a state lawmaker for 25 years, made it clear that he knew that he had some money invested in strip clubs. He declined to say how much exactly he has put into the two stocks, which are the only ones of their kind traded on NASDAQ.

But the veteran lawmaker said he had no idea about the companies’ other enterprises.

“God, I didn’t know that,” he said while hearing about the Web sites. “Oh, my God, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that.”

Cowles, who is running unopposed for re-election this fall, said he decided to diversify his investments a few years back, so he told his financial adviser, Gary Tremble, to put his money in more public companies.

Diversify he did.

Cowles listed his investment in VCG Holding in his last two ethics statements. He reported he had invested less than $50,000 in the company by the end of 2006, but he upped his stake to more than $50,000 a year later.

VCG Holding’s stock closed at $3.69 on Friday, down from its 52-week high of $15. Company officials have said they expect an uptick in business this month when the Democratic National Convention is held in Denver. The Lakewood, Colo.-based firm runs six strip clubs in Colorado. Overall, it owns 19 adult nightclubs and one “upscale dance club” in nine states, according to its Web site.

Cowles first listed his ownership in Rick’s Cabaret in this year’s ethics statement. The firm announced recently that it expects to see a jump in revenue at its Minneapolis strip club when the Republican National Convention is held there. Rick’s Cabaret also owns clubs in New York, Charlotte, N.C., San Antonio and Philadelphia.

The stock closed at $13.69 on Friday, having dropped by more than half since its 52-week high of $29.79. The company took a hit in 2006 when federal prosecutors in New York alleged that members of two mob families artificially manipulated the prices of a dozen stocks, including Rick’s Cabaret’s.

“It’s an embarrassment,” Cowles said of his investments, emphasizing that he has not visited a strip club since he was in college. “I didn’t know they were into that rotten stuff. That’s bad.”

He said he probably would ask Tremble, his longtime adviser, to sell off the stocks as soon as possible.

As of late Friday, 19 hours after Cowles spoke to No Quarter, that apparently hadn’t happened.

Reached in San Diego, Tremble took the blame for the investments. He had not yet talked to Cowles, he said.

“Just so you know, that’s my decision to make them,” Tremble said of the investments. “I’m here to make money for him.”

Tremble, who previously worked in Green Bay and Milwaukee, said he sold off a chunk of Cowles’ stock in the two firms this summer, but he said the senator still had a small stake in both, declining to provide specific numbers. Tremble said he does expect the two stocks to rebound.

The investment adviser said he understood it was risky business for a politician to invest in risqué businesses.

“It’s questionable,” Tremble said of the stocks. “But it is listed on the exchanges.”

Cowles, who is divorced and has no children, said he does impose some restrictions on his investments. For instance, he said, he would not buy Exxon stock for a number of years because of the oil company’s poor environmental record.

He said it’s difficult for a public official to find any stock that is totally clean.

But some public companies, he acknowledged, look worse than others.

“This investment stuff is sticky,” Cowles sighed. “And you’ve pointed out something that doesn’t look good.”

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