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Councilwoman Is Called to Testify in San Diego

A federal grand jury is probing ties between three councilmen and strip club owners.

May 16, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Prosecutors are calling a City Council member to testify before a federal grand jury investigating possible illegal financial ties between the owner of a string of strip clubs and three city councilmen whose offices were raided by FBI agents Wednesday.

Councilwoman Toni Atkins, whose office was not raided, said Thursday that she was served with a subpoena and is scheduled to testify Friday morning.

Sources said federal prosecutors are attempting to determine, among other things, if Councilmen Ralph Inzunza, Charles Lewis and Michael Zucchet ever spoke to Atkins and others about a bid by strip club owner Michael Galardi to expand his existing nude bar or open a new one.

Inzunza and Lewis received political contributions from Galardi and his associates.

"I intend to fully cooperate," Atkins said. "I have nothing to hide."

Inzunza, Lewis and Zucchet -- all in their first full council terms -- were said to be talking Thursday to criminal defense lawyers after FBI agents raided their offices Wednesday and carted off files and computer tapes.

Meanwhile, City Atty. Casey Gwinn, after meeting with Mayor Dick Murphy, ordered a review of city records by his deputies.

Gwinn declined to say which records will be reviewed, but sources said the review will look into zoning or other land-use actions involving Galardi's Cheetah's club or other establishments featuring nude entertainment.

"We are going to carefully evaluate any and all related matters handled by the city over the last three years," Gwinn said.

Gwinn said the raid "creates a public perception, a cloud over city government." Sources close to the case said federal investigators in Las Vegas became interested in the three councilmen during a probe of Galardi and his father, Jack. The Galardis, who own a dozen nude bars and an X-rated Web site, are a perennial target of federal officials, a source said.

Two Las Vegas bars owned by Michael Galardi also were raided Wednesday, as was a private office. Galardi and his attorney could not be reached Thursday for comment.

In 2000, Galardi sought city permits to open a second nude bar in San Diego but was turned down by city employees because the neighborhood was not zoned for adult entertainment. In the ensuing months Galardi and others associated with his business made several thousand dollars in political contributions to Lewis, Zucchet, Atkins and Madaffer.

In 2001, Galardi was among several cabaret owners who unsuccessfully lobbied city officials not to change the city's ordinance regulating strip clubs. The council voted to toughen the definition of what constitutes "lascivious conduct" and to require nude dancers to stay at least six feet away from patrons.

Contributions from Galardi and his associates later became an issue in the election campaigns of Lewis and Inzunza, with opponents demanding that they return the money and renounce the support. They refused and were elected handily in 2002.

"I would treat Cheetah's the way I treat developers and attorneys," who often contribute to political campaigns, Inzunza was quoted in 2001 in the San Diego Union-Tribune as saying. "I look at it project by project. I think if it makes sense, it makes sense."

Lewis was making his first run for office and Inzunza had been elected in 2001 to fill the unexpired council term of Assemblyman Juan Vargas. Both were council aides before being elected; Zucchet was a staff member at the firefighters' union.

Under the City Charter, the ability of individual council members to influence zoning and other land-use matters is severely restricted. The charter prohibits council members from directly contacting city staffers with responsibility for such issues.

Even if a council member who took a contribution from Galardi were found to be lobbying on his behalf, proving that such lobbying constituted a bribe would require proof that the lobbying was a "quid pro quo," lawyers said.

City officials said Thursday that neither Galardi nor his lobbyist, Lance Malone, a former Las Vegas police officer, have filed any recent requests to expand Cheetah's or open a second bar.

Two years ago Galardi opened Jaguar's Gentleman's Club in Las Vegas, part of a resurgence in nude entertainment in the gambling capital.

Murphy sought Thursday to reassure constituents that despite the distraction of an FBI raid and U.S. attorney's investigation, City Hall is not paralyzed.

"Police, fire, water, sewer, parks and library service will not be interrupted," Murphy said. "As a former Superior Court judge, let me remind everybody that in America people are presumed innocent until proven guilty."

The Galardis have owned nude bars in Atlanta, Arizona, Florida and the Carolinas in recent years. They have feuded with Las Vegas officials over zoning and liquor license matters and once were so angry at Clark County officials that they sought to have their bar annexed to the city of Las Vegas. In 1999, in open session, police told the Clark County Commission that Jack Galardi was being investigated by a grand jury in Atlanta.

Cheetah's in San Diego is in a business district not far from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

Cheetah's/Las Vegas is often listed on nude-industry surveys of the best nude bars in America and maintains a Web site with links to pornography and escort services.

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