San Diego officials convicted of corruption

Acting mayor, councilman guilty of taking payoffs from strip club owner

July 19, 2005|By Tony Perry | Tony Perry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN DIEGO -- A federal jury convicted two San Diego City Council members yesterday of a scheme to take illegal campaign contributions from the owner of a strip club who sought to ease a rule against contact between dancers and customers.

Jurors deliberated less than three days before finding Councilmen Michael Zucchet, who is also the acting mayor, and Ralph Inzunza guilty.

Each could face three to four years in federal prison at sentencing for conspiracy, extortion and wire fraud.

Zucchet and Inzunza, both 35, and Councilman Charles Lewis were indicted two years ago after a lengthy investigation by the FBI and federal prosecutors in Las Vegas and San Diego. Lewis died of cirrhosis a year later.

It is unclear who will succeed Zucchet, whose conviction leaves California's second-largest city rudderless at one of the most troubled points in its history. Mayor Dick Murphy resigned and left office Friday, seven months into a second term cut short by mounting problems at City Hall.

Charges were filed this year against six members of the city pension board and a $2 billion pension deficit is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. attorney's office.

The campaign investigation had begun as a probe into the strip club and pornography industries in Las Vegas. It spread when FBI agents, listening to wiretapped conversations of strip club owner Michael Gallardi, heard references to buying influence in San Diego.

In hundreds of secretly recorded conversations, the council members were heard discussing campaign contributions with Lance Malone, Gallardi's lobbyist. They were also heard discussing Gallardi's request that the city lift a now four-year-old ban on nude dancers coming within six feet of patrons.

But on none of the recordings is an explicit agreement made by the council members to try to change the law in exchange for the contributions.

Still, after a six-week trial that began May 4, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller instructed jurors that if they could infer from the conversations that an agreement had been made, then they could vote for conviction.

Late in the trial, Gallardi, who had pleaded guilty and agreed to testify, provided a dramatic moment when he told jurors that he had given Malone $11,000 in cash to give to the council members. None of the charges involved allegations of cash payments.

Jurors also convicted Malone, a former Clark County, Nev., commissioner.

Jurors acquitted David Cowan, an aide to Lewis, of a charge of lying to the FBI about the council members' having discussed changing the "no-touch" law for strippers.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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