Relief. That's what Deputy Mayor Michael Zucchet said he's feeling these days. It's an oddly cool answer from a man who, in light of Mayor Dick Murphy's resignation last week, may end up in charge of an imploding city government and, arguably more important at the time, was just days away from the start of his federal corruption trial. Zucchet is confident he'll be acquitted, but it's not a surprise witness or new evidence that has lightened his load-it's that the long-awaited trial, which commenced Tuesday, would finally be underway. For the accused, it's been a long time coming.
Indeed, nearly two years have passed since FBI agents armed with search warrants descended on City Hall and tossed the offices of City Councilmembers Ralph Inzunza, Charles Lewis and Zucchet. Timed with related raids in Las Vegas, it was the government's first public move in a more than two-year-long secret investigation that has spawned multiple indictments in both cities.
The San Diego indictment of the council members-as well as lobbyist Lance Malone, strip-club mogul Michael Galardi, Galardi's employee John D'Intino and Lewis staffer David Cowan-coupled with the ensuing pretrial maneuvering, have shed light on an alleged conspiracy to repeal San Diego's “no touch” ordinance, which prohibits adult entertainers from coming in contact with patrons.
It's a plot that involves a complex web of politicians, reputed mobsters, strippers, go-betweens, a police officer acting as a double agent and a government mole. Although that cast of characters is certainly titillating, the case's dramatic turns-including the sudden death of Lewis last year and the revelation that Galardi and D'Intino signed plea agreements and agreed to testify against Zucchet, Inzunza and Malone-have only added to the intrigue. As one observer put it, Elmore Leonard couldn't possibly have conjured it all.
But for the defendants, any parallels between their current situation and a work of fiction have certainly been shattered by the specter of ruined political careers, steep fines and federal prison time. And while Inzunza, Malone, Cowan and Zucchet are eager to get the trial over with, that an unknowable end is now only weeks away has undoubtedly turned relief into anxious anticipation.
No doubt equally as anxious to make their case is the prosecution team, comprising four assistant U.S. attorneys, who, after five years of taxpayer-funded investigation and preparation, are under intense pressure to make sure the charges stick.
Of the four remaining defendants, all but one, Cowan-who faces a sole count of making false statements to a government agency-are charged with wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and extortion. Malone was additionally charged with interstate travel in aid of racketeering.
According to a trial memorandum filed last Thursday by the prosecution, “the essence of the charges is, that between August, 2000, and May 15, 2003, Inzunza, Zucchet, Lewis, Galardi, Malone and D'Intino conspired to devise a scheme... to deprive the City of San Diego, its City Council and its citizens of their intangible right to honest services of their public officials including City Council Members and a San Diego Police Officer, to be performed free from corruption, favoritism, fraud, bribery, undue influence, conflict of interest and deceit.”
In the document, the prosecution contends that Galardi, D'Intino and Malone hatched a scheme to stop the monetary hemorrhaging the city's no-touch ordinance was causing for Cheetahs, a Galardi-owned strip club in Kearny Mesa. The government alleges that the trio attempted to get the ordinance overturned by giving thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Lewis and Zucchet, all the while paying Russ Bristol, a San Diego vice detective working undercover as a dirty cop, tens of thousands more to provide them with advance warning of vice-squad activities.
According to the memo, “... the politician defendants accepted the money and agreed to be corruptly influenced in the performance of their official duties, by advancing the repeal of the no-touch provision in the City Council, thus directly benefiting the financial interests of Malone, Galardi and D'Intino.”
In the indictment, the prosecution also alleges that agreement took shape at an April 30, 2003, meeting of the City Council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, during which Thomas Waddell, a Galardi employee, posed as a constituent from Zucchet's district and raised the issue of strip-club regulation. Zucchet then requested that the matter be referred to the city attorney.
According to the indictment, when he was interviewed, Cowan allegedly lied to FBI agents when he claimed that he had never discussed the no-touch ordinance or related issues with Malone. The prosecution contends that during a recorded phone conversation with Malone, Cowan suggested the idea of having a concerned citizen appear before the committee.
The prosecution's case will rely heavily on the hundreds of hours of taped meetings and phone conversations collected by the FBI through wire taps and with the cooperation of Tony Montagna, a government mole who became one of Galardi's closest associates. Although many of the most damning of the recorded conversations have already been made public-including those featuring Zucchet agreeing to do “the lifting at the committee level” and Inzunza telling Malone, “Here's what we'll do. I'm gonna say that I received a couple of e-mails in the past, and that I understand what's going on”-a source close to the prosecution told CityBeat that more than 20 hours of previously unreleased tape will be heard at trial.
The prosecution is also expected to call Galardi, D'Intino and Montagna, who are expected to testify that the contributions made to Zucchet and Lewis were actually bribes.
“I think the tapes really hurt the defense because of the suspicious nature of the communications,” said Gary Gibson, an adjunct professor at California Western School of Law who has followed the case. “Throw Galardi in the mix and he's just like a cherry on top.”
It doesn't look good for Zucchet and Inzunza, he said: “You could eliminate Galardi and still have a case for the prosecution, but Galardi really puts the dagger in both of their hearts.”
In its memo filed last week, the prosecution seemed just as confidant that its evidence would speak for itself, but conceded there will still be some room for argument.
“The critical fact which will be contested... and which will be decided by the jury, is whether the defendants acted with the requisite intent to defraud,” wrote prosecutors.
But Gibson says that regardless of the evidence, it shouldn't be much of a stretch for a jury. And while he agrees that it may be a perversion of justice, he says the public's predisposition to believe politicians are corrupt is a harsh dose reality for Zucchet and Inzunza.
“The news of the day is killing the defendants,” he said. “It's the worst possible public environment to try this case. The public perception of politicians is ‘crook.' The public perception is they are bought, exclusive of this case. People think that the City Council was bought over the pension fund....
“Given our current political climate, I don't think the prosecution will have a very difficult time with this as long as they can make a tie that [the then-City Council candidates] were getting something for something. That's all the jury instructions are going to [require].”
Experts say the best strategy for the defense their is to focus on the fine line between bribes and campaign contributions. Although the somewhat nebulous charges don't include bribery, some experts say it's the essential underlying issue. The defendants weren't charged with bribery because federal bribery statutes only apply to federal officials.
“The allegation would be that these politicians were making decisions on the basis of campaign contributions and other quid pro quos rather than representing the voters and making their minds up as independent representatives,” said Elizabeth Garrett, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Politics at the University of Southern California. “Under all of these statues... you have to prove that honest services weren't rendered... that these politicians were making decisions because there was undue influence, a corrupt influence, by other people.”
But the issue gets hazy when you attempt to discern a difference between legal campaign contributions and bribery, something a jury may ultimately have to do.
“Everyone who contributes to a politician does so because he believes the candidate will vote a certain way,” said Inzunza's attorney, Michael Pancer.
“That's the problem with campaign contributions-even done properly there is an element of influence in them or thanking a politician for something you liked,” said Garrett. “And so the very difficult issue with any of this is, when does it become corrupt.”
Garrett said the government may address that question by showing the contributions were unusual or violated local campaign laws in some way.
“As a prosecutor, you would be using that as evidence, that there was something going on here other than an ordinary campaign contribution.”
But Pancer said he's confident that the dozens of contributions made by Galardi and his associates were, as far as Inzunza knew, legal. “Every one was properly reported according to campaign law,” he said.
Shaun Martin, a professor of law at the University of San Diego, said that ultimately the difference between a bribe and a contribution may be in the eye of the beholder.
“The defense's principle impression that they are going to want to get across,” he said, “is, ‘I thought everything was OK here. Yes, I accepted money, but I accepted money from thousands of people and these guys were no different. And do I meet with people who give me money? Yes, and here's a list of the hundreds of other people I met with. But I only do things in my job that I believe in,' and their point is going to be that ‘Everything I did I believed in and you can't prove otherwise. You can't prove I had a corrupt motive here.'”
The prosecution is expected to rely on Galardi's testimony to establish that motive, but the defense has already indicated its intent to discredit him by calling Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Johnson as a witness. As the former lead prosecutor in the related and ongoing Las Vegas corruption case against Galardi, Malone and a host of Las Vegas politicians, Johnson was dismissed from the government's team after Galardi made his plea agreement and named Johnson among the government and law-enforcement officials he had previously influenced with money and favors. It's an allegation Johnson has denied, and although as of press time the judge had yet to rule whether he would allow Johnson to testify, it could severely undermine Galardi's credibility and hurt the prosecution's case if a fellow U.S attorney takes the stand and tells a jury the star witness is a liar.
In order to balance the public's negative perception of politicians stemming from the bad news coming out of City Hall, the defense may attempt to float the theory that the prosecution is politically motivated.
“The fact that the businesses involved were strip clubs, that the defendants involved were liberal Democrats and that the attorney general was John Ashcroft concerns me,” Pancer told CityBeat, referencing Ashcroft's 2002 order to drape a semi-nude statue in Department of Justice headquarters with a curtain. “The man has a problem with bare breasts, even bronze bare breasts.”
The U.S. Attorney General's office didn't respond to CityBeat's request for comment, but a Department of Justice insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the defense's theory isn't entirely without merit.
“I believe there was an agenda in the Ashcroft administration to go after people who engage in sex-based trade even if it's not illegal,” the source told CityBeat. “So it's not necessarily that I would imagine that these people are not guilty... it's just that maybe this case was pursued a little more vigorously than some other cases might be, given the DOJ's limited resources and the fact that this was a strip-club owner.”
Martin said he finds the theory plausible but thinks “it's a little far fetched to say that these city councilmen were somehow targeted or anything like that.”
For his part, Gibson dismissed any links to Ashcroft's personal views on bare breasts as defense spin, which he says would never be admitted.
While the judge has yet to rule on a request by Zucchet and Inzunza that he decide the case, rather than a jury, Gibson says he's not sure a bench trial would improve the defendants' chance of being found not guilty. He says it could also potentially reopen the door to evidence that was previously excluded on the grounds that it might prejudice a jury, such as recorded converstaions between Inzunza, Zucchet and Malone regarding their past experiences in strip clubs and massage parlors.
“The point of those rulings was that jurors can't deal with this professionally,” he said. “It's not going to prejudice the judge.”
And Gibson said there are other good reasons why the prosecution might agree to allow the judge to decide the case.
“At the end of the trial, if you lose, you don't have 12 people shitting all over you in front of the cameras,” he said. “And at the end of the trial, if you win, it was a federal judge who [decided] it, so you're covered both ways.”
It's a strategy that speaks to the high stakes for all involved.
“It will look very bad for the U.S. attorney if they have tried a corruption case against a politician and lost and had the view that their evidence was flimsy,” said USD's Martin. “Anytime you mess with the political branch in a democracy, it will look very bad for you if you lose, and it will be detrimental for your political career.... Every U.S. attorney has to be appointed, and everybody wants to move up.”
“It will not be [like on the TV show] Oz. It will not be the country club,” said Martin, referring to federal prison, where Zucchet and Inzunza could end up if found guilty. “They will lose their careers and lose their liberty, but they will not be breaking rocks in the hot sun and they will not be subjected to a lot of the other physical abuses that high-security prisoners are subjected to. They will still get to play ping-pong-they will not have to do other unpleasant things.”
And, finally, the city:
“Obviously, the city of San Diego has something at stake, but it's unclear which way the city looks better,” said Martin. “Do we look better because we are cleaning house, or do we look better because a jury has found that our people aren't corrupt?”
Ralph Inzunza-By many accounts, power-hungry City Council member who once had big political aspirations but now seems to be barely going through the motions. The prosecution's case would have us believe he was the main man orchestrating things on the San Diego end and helped bring in then-candidates Michael Zucchet and Charles Lewis.
Michael Zucchet-Deputy mayor of San Diego who's scheduled to take over the reins of the City Council when Mayor Dick Murphy steps down in July-and remain in power until a new mayor is elected. Unless he's convicted for corruption, that is. If he's convicted, it'll probably be because he allegedly promised to “do the lifting” on changing the no-touch law at the City Council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee meeting, during which he asked the city attorney to look into the matter.
Charles Lewis-Former member of the City Council indicted along with Zucchet and Inzunza who managed to avoid trial by dying last year. He was alleged to have enjoyed some Blue Man Group action in Vegas courtesy of Lance Malone, who thanked Lewis for his efforts after the committee meeting.
Lance Malone-Otherwise known (by Inzunza, at least) as “The Great Lance Malone,” he's the integrity-challenged former Vegas politician and cop who became a wheeler-dealer lobbyist for Michael Galardi. The prosecution alleges, essentially, that Malone orchestrated the whole sordid affair.
Michael Galardi-The man with the money and the burning desire for more, Galardi's the strip-club mogul who hated the no-touchy-feely law in puritanical San Diego so much that he committed wire-fraud conspiracy and racketeering, charges to which he's pleaded guilty. He's now cooperating in the case against Inzunza, Zucchet and Malone.
John D'Intino-Shady Cheetahs manager and bagman who delivered money to undercover cop posing as corrupt vice officer on numerous occasions, and delivered stacks of campaign checks to Inzunza, Zucchet and Lewis. Nailed on gun charges, too. Like Galardi, he's cooperating with the feds.
David Cowan-Indicted former member of Lewis' staff and current member of City Councilmember Tony Young's staff whose brother reportedly scored a job in Vegas thanks to Malone. Cowan, charged with making false statements to the feds, allegedly suggested Malone use a “concerned citizen” to bring up the no-touch law during the committee meeting.
Thomas Waddell-The “concerned citizen.” A Galardi employee, Waddell allegedly traveled from Las Vegas to San Diego to pose as a resident of Zucchet's district and bring up the matter of strip-club regulation.
Jack Galardi-Michael Galardi's dear ol' dad. So displeased with his progeny that he sued him for embezzling from the Las Vegas Cheetahs. Jack, a big political fundraiser in the past, moved from Las Vegas to Atlanta, where he remains in the strip-clubs racket.
Russ Bristol-The San Diego Police officer who made Galardi and Co. believe he was a good cop gone bad. Accepted payments of tens of thousands of dollars mostly through D'Intino in exchange for alerting Cheetahs management about impending police checkups.
Tony Montagna-Perfectly named San Diego gym owner and apparent FBI snitch who wormed his way into the Galardi empire and became Michael Galardi's right-hand man. He's was the security director at Cheetahs and is thought to be the “cooperating witness” mentioned in the indictments, the guy who wore the wires and someone who passed money along from Malone to various individuals.
Eric Johnson-The original assistant U.S. attorney on the Las Vegas case who was removed after Michael Galardi claimed Johnson had attended Galardi-owned strip clubs and received, um, favors.
Based on the federal indictment and news reports
Jan. 4, 2001 John D'Intino, manager of Cheetahs strip club in San Diego, gives $400 to a San Diego vice cop in exchange for tips about scheduled raids. D'Intino doesn't know the cop, Russ Bristol, is working undercover for the feds. Over the course of two years, D'Intino would pay Bristol $43,600. Cheetahs employee Tony Montagna, relays the money from D'Intino to Bristol. Unbeknownst to D'Intino, Montagna is a long-time FBI spy and was wearing a wire.
April 7, 2001 A federal wiretap catches Michael Galardi hatching his scheme: “So I'll get Lance [Malone] down there, just start building little relationships with 'em. That's all it takes. Then once they know they can trust us, believe me, they'll fuckin' have that hand out.”
May 9, 2001 Galardi and lobbyist Malone attend a campaign fundraiser for Ralph Inzunza where they give Inzunza a bundle of checks. A month later, they do the same for Charles Lewis, a candidate for District 4.
June 13, 2001 Inzunza and Malone meet for lunch. Galardi later tells D'Intino that Malone handed Inzunza nearly $10,000 in checks. “He almost shit,” says Galardi.
July 19, 2001 Malone gives District 2 candidate Michael Zucchet checks totaling $6,750. Checks from Malone, Galardi and D'Intino are included in the bunch.
Jan. 15, 2002 By phone, Malone tells Inzunza he can get money for Zucchet, “very, very discreet this time.”
Feb. 13, 2002 Malone and D'Intino give Councilmember George Stevens $6,000 worth of checks for his 2002 bid for state Assembly.
Feb. 28, 2002 D'Intino attends a Zucchet fundraiser and hands over $2,000 worth of checks.
March 7, 2002 Galardi asks Malone who Zucchet's running against (it's Kevin Faulconer). “We could bribe him, too,” says Galardi.
May 13, 2002 Inzunza indicates to Malone a scenario in which, presumably at a City Council meeting, certain council members will mull over the evils of lap dances and the like, but, ultimately, as Inzunza puts it, “... we'll allow touching.”
May 28, 2002 Lewis borrows Malone's cell phone and puts in a call to Galardi asking for “five” within a month. Less than 20 days later, Galardi, through an intermediary, gives him $3,000 in checks.
July 31, 2002 Inzunza dials up Malone and announces that “humble servant Ralph Inzunza” is calling for “the great Lance Malone.”
Sept. 10, 2002 Inzunza uses Malone's cell phone to call the undercover vice cop that D'Intino's been paying off.
Oct. 14, 2002 Inzunza calls Malone to tell him, “It's the final push for our boy Zucchet.... We probably need about three thousand.”
Oct. 30, 2002 Malone attends a Zucchet fundraiser and brings $3,000 in checks with him.
Nov. 6, 2002 Malone buys Lewis two tickets to see the Blue Man Group perform in Las Vegas.
Feb. 24, 2003 Malone calls Inzunza and tells him that he doesn't want Inzunza or Lewis to docket a discussion about abolishing no-touch restrictions. “You guys both took money from us,” Malone tells Inzunza, adding, “But Mike [Zucchet] didn't take money. I mean, he did, but he didn't.”
March 26, 2003 Malone leaves a message on Zucchet's voicemail, saying, “If there's anything you don't want to do, if you don't want to do it at all, then just let me know, buddy.” The following day, Patrick Schott, an aide to Inzunza, tells Malone, “We are kinda working on the, the ordinance, adjusting that ordinance.”
April 9, 2003 Lewis tells Malone that he heard from Zucchet that the San Diego Police Department wants the “no-touch” ordinance to stay the way it is (in spite of rumors that police were tired of enforcing it). Malone tells Lewis that's just their “official stance, but you know me-I don't do anything official.”
April 16, 2003 Malone meets Zucchet for breakfast and tells him Inzunza's going to “make a motion just to go back to lewd and lascivious” [translation: ask the City Council to rescind the no-touch rule and allow strippers and customers to physically mingle as long as it's nothing too freaky]. Zucchet tells Malone that he'll “do the lifting.” Malone tells Zucchet to “just get the item on the agenda.”
April 30, 2003 Galardi and Malone travel from Las Vegas to San Diego with Tom Waddell. Waddell appears before the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee and tells “Mr. Zuckit” (as Waddell pronounces it) that he's a constituent who's concerned that strip clubs are too close to schools and churches and stuff. Zucchet says he, too, is concerned and he'll try to bring up the issue to the full City Council.
May 1, 2003 Malone tells Lewis, “Thanks so much for helping me out yesterday.”
May 8, 2003 Schott tells Malone, “We just move it straight up to [City] Council as quickly as we could and, you know, try to quietly take the votes and move on with it.”
May 14, 2003 FBI agents bust into the offices of Zucchet, Inzunza and Lewis and come away with computers and files. At the same time in Las Vegas, agents raid two topless clubs owned by Galardi, where dancers wearing nothing more than bikinis and high heels are told to put their hands behind their heads.
May 16, 2003 Authorities reveal that they've had their eye on lobbyist Lance Malone, who they say was working on behalf of strip-club magnates the Galardis. Prosecutors start laying out their case to a federal grand jury.
Aug. 28, 2003 A federal grand jury issues a 39-count indictment against Zucchet, Lewis, Inzunza, Galardi, Malone, D'Intino and David Cowan, a Lewis aide.
Aug. 29, 2003 Zucchet, Inzunza and Lewis surrender themselves at FBI headquarters, preceded by Galardi and Cowan, and are later released on a $25,000 bond. Galardi, on the other hand, had to come up with 10 times that amount. All plead not guilty.
Sept. 2, 2003 In exchange for a more lenient sentence, D'Intino pleads guilty and admits that he, along with Galardi and Malone, thought that generous campaign contributions could get certain council members to push to overturn the no-touch rule at strip clubs.
Sept. 8, 2003 Galardi pleads guilty to one count of wire fraud, thereby becoming a witness for the prosecution.
Aug. 8, 2004 Councilmember Charles Lewis dies from what the medical examiner reported as complications from cirrhosis of the liver. Charges against him are dropped.
April 26, 2005 Inzunza and Zucchet ask a judge to decide their trial, rather than a jury.
May 3, 2005 Jury trial begins.
-Compiled by Kelly Davis