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San Diego Verdicts Rejected

Jury erred in convicting one ex-councilman, says judge. Another gets only a 21-month sentence.

November 11, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — In a rebuke to the U.S. attorney's office and the jury in the so-called Strippergate corruption trial, a judge Thursday dismissed most of the counts against one former city councilman and sentenced a second to less than half the prison time prosecutors had requested.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller said there was not sufficient evidence for the jury to have convicted Michael Zucchet on seven charges of allegedly seeking and receiving illegal campaign contributions from a strip-club owner in exchange for promising to try to change city law prohibiting nude dancers from touching patrons.

On two remaining charges -- conspiracy and wire fraud -- Miller granted a request from Zucchet's attorneys for a new trial but added that evidence on those charges was "barely sufficient" to merit a trial.

Ralph Inzunza, the second former councilman, was sentenced to 21 months in prison on similar charges after Miller rejected prosecutors' request for a sentence of 57 months.

Even as he sentenced the tearful Inzunza, Miller offered him words of encouragement: "I have no doubt you'll bounce back.... You have a lot of good left in you." He allowed Inzunza, 36, to remain free on bail pending appeals.

Miller said the prosecution's star witness -- the strip-club owner, who testified that he tried to bribe the council members -- lacked credibility.

And he criticized prosecutors for not warning the defense that the witness, Michael Galardi, owner of Cheetah's Totally Nude, planned to testify that he gave his lobbyist $11,000 to split between Zucchet, Inzunza and a third council member. None of the charges alleged such a payment.

Assistant U.S. Attys. Michael Wheat and John Rice, lead prosecutors, declined to say whether the government would appeal Miller's ruling or seek to retry Zucchet on the two charges. A hearing is set for Dec. 12.

U.S. Atty. Carol Lam, who rarely speaks to the press or public, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

Zucchet, 35, talking to reporters outside the courtroom, said that he was overjoyed at Miller's ruling but that the damage of the case would remain even if the two remaining charges were dropped.

"As happy as I am, I'll never get my name back, I'll never get my job back," said Zucchet, standing beside his tearful wife, Teresa, who is expecting the couple's second child.

"I'm financially ruined," he said. "My physical and emotional health and the health of my family has been devastated."

Zucchet, Inzunza and then-Councilman Charles Lewis, all Democrats, were indicted in August 2003 for allegedly taking illegal campaign contributions from Galardi and his associates. Lewis died in 2004.

City Council aide David Cowan was also indicted, on a charge of lying to the FBI. He was acquitted by the same jury that, after a six-week trial and 16 hours of deliberation, convicted Zucchet, Inzunza and lobbyist Lance Malone on July 18.

Malone, 43, a former Las Vegas police officer turned lobbyist, was sentenced Thursday by Miller to 36 months in prison.

Galardi pleaded guilty to attempted bribery and testified for the prosecution in exchange for a recommendation for a reduced sentence.

A key part of Galardi's testimony brought complaints from defense attorneys.

He testified that, in addition to campaign contributions, he had sought to bribe the council members with $11,000 in cash. He said he had forgotten to tell the FBI about the cash when he was interviewed after his guilty plea.

Miller said that Galardi's testimony was unsupported by evidence and that defense attorneys were "unfairly surprised at trial with the government's nondisclosure."

The July convictions added to the sense of chaos at City Hall, where officials have been wrestling with a $2-billion pension deficit and criminal investigations into alleged conflicts of interest on the pension board.

Federal officials spent nearly three years gathering evidence in the strip club case.

The FBI secretly wiretapped hundreds of conversations involving the council members. A convicted felon was recruited by the agency to get a job at the strip club and work as an informant. In May 2003, FBI agents raided City Hall and carried off file cases of information.

Although the council members are never heard on the wiretaps explicitly offering a quid pro quo for the contributions, the judge told jurors that if they could infer such an arrangement from the conversations they could vote for convictions.

Still, Miller, in dropping the seven charges against Zucchet, said it was not "rational" that jurors found Zucchet guilty on those charges. Prosecutors had asked Miller to sentence Zucchet to 37 months in prison.

Within days of their convictions, Zucchet and Inzunza resigned. As part of Tuesday's special election, voters in the beach and border districts selected candidates who will face a Jan. 10 runoff to fill those seats.

Times correspondent Neal Putnam contributed to this report.

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