San Diego's top law enforcement officials, a state appeal court judge, the president of San Diego State University and the city's Catholic bishop have written the White House in support of a presidential pardon for a wealthy benefactor convicted in 1973 of a felony charge of providing an illegal gratuity to a federal prison official.
The letters, obtained by The Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, reflect an extraordinary demonstration of support from some of San Diego's most prominent leaders for a pardon in one of the most sensational prosecutions in the city's history.
Dominic (Bud) Alessio was convicted in 1973 after federal prosecutors showed in a nationally publicized trial that he lavished gifts on a prison administrator at the same time his father and an uncle received visits with women and other preferential treatment while serving prison time for income tax evasion. He eventually served five months of a six-month sentence in federal prison.
In a brief interview with The Times on Wednesday, Alessio said he wants to clear his name and indicated that he sees nothing wrong--or newsworthy--in the pardon application.
"Why would anybody want a pardon?" said Alessio, 46, a businessman and investor in real estate and restaurants. "It's something everybody is entitled to apply for. What I went through 15 years ago, which I can't believe is newsworthy today, was a very dark period of my life. It was a very bad thing."
Some of the federal investigators who worked the tax evasion and prison bribery cases contend that the letter-writing campaign for a White House pardon is another example of the Alessio family spreading its influence.
"That's his nature to make friends with big people," said Lenard Wolf, who was the lead FBI agent on the bribery case.
The pardon application contains letters from San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy; then-San Diego police Chief Bill Kolender; Gerald J. Lewis, then a state Court of Appeal justice; Thomas B. Day, president of San Diego State University, and Leo T. Maher, bishop of the San Diego Catholic Diocese.
Also backing Alessio's pardon application, filed in May, are some of the city's most influential businessmen, including William S. Cowling II, president of Dixieline Lumber Co.; Donald L. Daley, chairman of the board of the Daley Corp., and C. Terry Brown, president of Atlas Hotels.
The letters suggest that many of the San Diego leaders view the infraction for which Alessio was convicted as minor. Kolender, in three letters in 1983 and 1985, insisted that "Bud was a victim of circumstances and did what any son would do for his father."
Considered Case Serious
Federal prosecutors with the Organized Crime Strike Force in Southern California considered the case far more serious. They contended that prison officials were bribed with food, lodging and entertainment gifts in return for allowing John and Angelo Alessio to conduct secret rendezvous with women friends. In all, six people were convicted or pleaded guilty in the case.
The case was highlighted in Life and Time magazines, and the San Diego press voted it the second-biggest news event of 1972, behind the city's unsuccessful attempt to become host of the Republican National Convention.
John Alessio, Bud's father, was a protege of C. Arnholt Smith, the San Diego financier who later went to jail in the midst of a scandal involving tax evasion and grand theft. As the Smith empire began unraveling in the late 1960s, John Alessio, a millionaire known as "Big John," and his brother, Angelo, went to prison in what was then one of the largest tax evasion prosecutions in the Western United States.
While incarcerated in Lompoc, the brothers were treated to many favors, including weekend meetings with women in the prison chapel building and at a Lompoc motel, the government said. Several prison officials were provided with a wide range of gifts, including a San Diego Bay sailing junket on Smith's yacht.
After a lengthy trial held in Los Angeles, Bud Alessio was found innocent of bribing the prison officials. But he was convicted of a felony charge of providing a gratuity and was subsequently fined $10,000. He later served five months of a six-month sentence in federal prison.
Two of the investigators who worked on the cases said the letter-writing campaign for the pardon showed a similar pattern of behavior.
'Scratch My Back'
Wolf, the lead FBI agent on the bribery case, said: "That's the way he (Bud Alessio) operates. You know, scratch my back, I'll scratch your back. Butter up people who can do favors for you when you need them."
Added A. David Stutz, one of the IRS agents on the tax case: "That's their style. That's the Alessio style. That's the way they do business."
Bud Alessio's attorney, Thomas Nugent, strongly denied that the community leaders wrote the letters as a quid pro quo.