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Donation or Bribe? Case May Clarify the Line

Three San Diego councilmen plead not guilty to charges that they took money for pledges to help change the rules for nude clubs.

August 30, 2003|Tony Perry and Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — As three San Diego City Council members were arraigned on federal corruption charges Friday, legal analysts agreed that the case involves one of the murkiest areas of law: When does a political contribution become a bribe?

To the cheers of their supporters, rookie Councilmen Michael Zucchet, Charles Lewis and Ralph Inzunza strode confidently into federal court to enter pleas of not guilty to charges of wire fraud and conspiracy issued by a federal grand jury a day earlier. Zucchet and Inzunza are also charged with extortion.

Michael Galardi, owner of Cheetahs Totally Nude Club, also pleaded not guilty. Cheetahs lobbyist Lance Malone and club manager John D'Intino are set to be arraigned next week.

The three councilmen are accused of receiving illegal campaign contributions after promising to help repeal the city's "no touch" law, which requires dancers at nude entertainment parlors to wear at least G-strings and pasties when they are within six feet of customers. All remain free on personal surety bonds.

"I'm not corrupt," Lewis said after the arraignment. "I care too much about my district to sell it out."

Zucchet, holding his wife's hand, told reporters, "I am completely innocent of these false charges. I am looking forward very much to my day in court where that will be proven."

The indictment asserts that the strip club owner and his associates attempted to bribe the councilmen to kill the "no touch" law, passed three years ago, because it reduces profits for the club and its dancers.

Prosecutors will have to prove that conversations recorded by FBI wiretaps show a bribery attempt and not just the normal discourse between politicians who need campaign contributions and businessmen who have an issue before the City Council, lawyers said.

"There is no bright line test to determine" when solicitation of a contribution becomes a bribe, said Los Angeles attorney Jan Handzlik, who has handled numerous political corruption and bribery cases. Without a standard, each case must be judged individually, he said.

"It's the Potter Stewart test: You know it when you see it," said Handzlik, referring to the famous comment from the late Supreme Court justice about how he identified pornography.

UCLA law professor Daniel Lowenstein said the San Diego case is unusual because it involves only campaign contributions, not allegations of money being provided for personal use. Knowing the difficulty of convincing jurors that a contribution is a bribe, prosecutors usually will not file charges unless they can point to money given for personal use, he said.

Lowenstein, former director of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, is the author of a 70-page research paper, "When Is a Campaign Contribution a Bribe?" His conclusion: "There's no easy answer."

"Conceptually and legally, it's an extremely difficult question," he said. "I hope this case goes all the way to an appellate court, maybe the Supreme Court. It's just the kind of difficult case that could provide a standard."

Other lawyers cautioned that the excerpts of wiretapped conversations between the councilmen and the strip-club defendants may sound sinister because they involve an industry viewed by many as undesirable.

"In the interest of justice, I think maybe the lawyers will need to explore whether the stigma of the industry is creating more concern here than is appropriate," said lawyer Michael McDade.

At trial, lawyers said, the nature of the business should be irrelevant.

"This is a very defensible case," said lawyer Kerry Steigerwalt, who helped Lewis in the early stages of the grand jury investigation. "Jurors are going to be asked: How is this any different than developers who contribute money to council members and then feel comfortable going to them when they have an issue?"

But persuading jurors to be as tolerant of contributions from a strip-club owner and his associates as from a mainstream business will be difficult, said Justin Brooks, executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice at the California Western School of Law in San Diego.

"It's always more difficult when you can't frame your actions as having been in the best interest of the community," Brooks said.

The 36-page indictment, released Thursday, contains snippets of the conversations between the council members and the three Cheetahs defendants and between the club owners themselves.

In one conversation, Galardi allegedly asked Malone about Zucchet's election opponent: "Who's the guy he's running off? We could bribe him too." The council members' conversations with Galardi and Malone appear less incriminating, although there is allegedly talk of needing campaign money and how to develop a strategy to get the "no touch" law repealed.

As the November election approached, Inzunza allegedly told Malone, "It's the final push for our boy Zucchet. We need probably about three thousand." In the indictment, only one quotation is attributed to Zucchet.

In a conversation with Inzunza and Malone, Zucchet allegedly said he would not oppose changing the law: "OK. I don't have a problem with that, and I'll do the lifting" at the council committee level.

Galardi, Malone and D'Intino are also charged with attempting to bribe a San Diego Police Department vice officer with payments of more than $40,000. The indictment does not allege that the council members knew of that attempt.

Federal Magistrate Larry Burns allowed the three council members to remain free after each posted a $25,000 personal surety bond. Bond for Galardi, who lives in Las Vegas and is also under investigation there, was set at $250,000.

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