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California and the West

Former San Francisco Mayor Alioto Dies

Bay Area: Popular politician had an up-and-down career in office and in law practice.

January 30, 1998|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"If there were two people in a room and Joe were one of them, he'd be making a speech. If there were 100 people in the room, it would be Joe and 99 spectators."

The indefatigable mayor incurred repeated slurs as well as continuing adulation.

The most personally devastating brickbat, which probably did the most to short-circuit Alioto's political career, was the Look article on July 23, 1969. It stated that Alioto "was enmeshed in a web of alliances with at least six members of La Cosa Nostra."

"Thirty years from now, someone will say to my grandchildren of their grandfather, 'He was a Mafioso,' . . . and that hurts," said an enraged Alioto.

He filed a $12.5-million libel suit. Eleven years and four trials later, Alioto accepted a settlement of $350,000.

The Washington indictment, charging that Alioto illegally split fees with two state officials in an antitrust case, was dismissed before it went to a jury.

Alioto twice went before the State Bar of California in disciplinary proceedings. A 1987 charge of fee-gouging (taking a $5.2-million fee out of a $9-million settlement) was dismissed. In 1996, a State Bar hearing judge recommended suspension of Alioto's license for mishandling client funds and refusing to pay a court-ordered judgment. Alioto branded the accusations "phony" and retained his license while challenging the proceeding.

The multimillionaire also endured financial problems. A family venture in the shipping business failed. He was hit with a $3.2-million malpractice judgment, an acrimonious split with two lawyer sons, a demand for back rent on his law office and a suit by granddaughter Michela to recoup a $1.6-million trust fund she won for skiing injuries and which she said she had loaned the firm. In 1993, Alioto's Pacific Heights mansion was close to foreclosure. The Internal Revenue Service demanded back taxes.

So instead of returning to politics, which he had dreamed of doing, Alioto continued to practice lucrative law.

Born Feb. 12, 1916, the articulate and sophisticated Alioto excelled from the beginning. At Sacred Heart High School, he was editor of the paper, president of the student body and a member of the basketball and debate teams. At St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., he was editor of the yearbook, president of the student body and class valedictorian.

He studied law on a scholarship at Catholic University of America in Washington and began his career with the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. He spent World War II working for the Board of Economic Welfare.

Alioto is survived by his wife, Kathleen; six sons, Lawrence, Joseph M., John, Thomas, Michael and Patrick; two daughters, Angela and Domenica; and 11 grandchildren.

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