Gene La Pietra, one of two front-running candidates in West Hollywood's third City Council election, owned two adult bookstores and an adult movie arcade in southeast Los Angeles County in the early 1970s and was convicted in 1971 for selling a pornographic film to a county sheriff's deputy, according to court records and legal documents made public by his opponent, Abbe Land.
The documents show that La Pietra, 38, who now owns a popular Hollywood discotheque and is an influential fund-raiser for gay rights organizations and other causes, was sentenced to six months imprisonment in Los Angeles County Jail and a $1,000 fine for the misdemeanor conviction of selling the film, described by county prosecutors at the time as depicting "sex, nudity and excretion."
But La Pietra and his attorneys at the time, David Brown and John Weston, said this week that the sentence was never imposed because it was set aside by a Los Cerritos Municipal Court judge in 1972 or 1973.
The conviction was disclosed by Land's staff, which produced Superior Court records of appeals made by La Pietra of his Municipal Court convictions, requests for injunctions filed against La Pietra by the cities of Norwalk and Bell Gardens and replies by La Pietra's defense attorneys, including an affidavit from La Pietra himself.
However, there are no existing Municipal Court records of the case. Eileen Bly, assistant to John Gomez, clerk of the Los Cerritos Municipal Court, said misdemeanor records more than 10 years old are routinely destroyed. In addition, the Municipal Court judge at the time has gone on to the Superior Court and says he does not recall the details of the case, and the county assistant prosecutor at the time cannot be located.
As a result, no court records are available indicating that La Pietra served any time in jail. Neither are there any documents showing that La Pietra's sentence was set aside.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge M. Ross Bigelow, who was the original judge in Los Cerritos Municipal Court in La Pietra's case, said he doubted that he would have voided the candidate's sentence. But Brown and Weston said another judge probably set the sentence aside because by November, 1973, Bigelow had been elevated to his Superior Court post.
Despite the uncertainty about the disposition of La Pietra's sentence, the candidate and his attorneys acknowledged his role in adult businesses in Norwalk and Bell Gardens and his 1971 obscenity conviction.
La Pietra, who said he sold the adult businesses in the mid-1970s, said his ownership of the bookstores and arcade was an example of his "pioneering spirit." He expressed confidence that the disclosures would not harm his standing among West Hollywood voters.
"I don't think I have to spend a moment justifying my actions," La Pietra said during an interview last week. "What am I being condemned for? Success? That seems the thrust of this argument. You can't be put on the defensive if you're proud of your past."
But Land said the documents would raise questions about his judgment and character.
"I think it will concern voters," Land said. "Pornographers are not traditionally considered a community's most upstanding citizens. Here we have a man who has been convicted of a crime who is portraying himself as an upstanding businessman in this community for the past 20 years. It makes you wonder."
La Pietra countered Land's insistence that the bookstores and movie arcade were strictly adult-oriented businesses. Instead, La Pietra described them as "novelty stores."
"These stores were general in nature," he said. "We sold adult materials and we sold novelty items like rings, jewelry, posters and key chains. I don't think either side of the business was out of proportion."
But Parke Skelton and Barbara Grover, Land's campaign managers, said, "The cities of Bell Gardens and Norwalk certainly decribed these places as adult bookstores." According to the re cords, the Hong Kong Cinema (La Pietra's Norwalk store) had an exterior sign advertising "Explicit Adult Movies" and a 40-foot-high overhead sign that read "Nude Movies."
"Those are not the kind of signs you normally associate with a tame novelty store," Grover said.
The documents indicate that La Pietra had bought both stores in Norwalk and Bell Gardens by at least March, 1972, although he said in an interview that he does not remember the exact purchase dates. According to records, he battled continuously with police and officials in both cities. City attorneys in Norwalk and Bell Gardens sought Municipal Court injunctions in an attempt to close both stores. Those efforts ultimately failed, but the stores no longer exist.
La Pietra complained in one affidavit filed in May, 1972, that police in Bell Gardens had seized more than 50 books and magazines from his store, Book City News, and that, in one case, they raided his home.