“Honest services.” The words are not only in the language of one of the charges against San Diego City Councilmembers Ralph Inzunza and Mike Zucchet—conspiracy to deprive citizens of honest services via wire fraud—they concisely say what the whole case is about. Honesty. It's so elusive in the business of government representation, and, sadly, it's been that way for a long, long time.
In fact, dishonesty is such an ingrained part of representative government that resignation to it was one of the pillars in attorney Michael Pancer's argument late last week as he wrapped up his defense of Inzunza, paraphrasing German Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck's famous quote, “Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made.”
It's not pretty behind the façade as legislation is being created, Pancer told the jury—this kind of thing happens all the time; it's an unfortunate fact of life. What he was really saying is that, yes, it's true—Inzunza was caught conspiring with a lobbyist to commit dishonest acts-but that doesn't necessarily mean he technically broke the laws he's accused of breaking.
It's an incredibly cynical defense, and it underscores this point: It matters a great deal to Inzunza and Zucchet whether or not they're convicted of corruption, but when it comes to the rest of us judging their fitness for public office, the jury's verdict doesn't matter a lick.
The federal government accused Inzunza, Zucchet and their now-deceased former colleague Charles Lewis of being on one side of a conspiracy to use, in prosecutors' words, “disguised money,” “sham issues,” “bogus e-mails” and “counterfeit concerned citizens” to get rid of the so-called “no touch” law that separates strippers from horny men and strip-club owners from greater sums of money. The City Council members would handle the quo in the quid pro quo.
On the other side of the alleged conspiracy, doling out the quid, are Cheetahs strip club owner Michael Galardi, Cheetahs manager John D'Intino and Galardi's lobbyist, Lance Malone. They gave Inzunza, Zucchet and Lewis thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and-allegedly-thousands more in cash, and at the same time paid tens of thousands of dollars to an undercover vice cop who was tipping them off to scheduled covert police operations to monitor the no-touch law.
The fun and games began with D'Intino and Malone meeting Inzunza at an Inzunza 2002 reelection fundraiser. The strip-club guys had pegged Inzunza as their man in San Diego—any guy who's opposed to banning beer on the beach must be A-OK with strippers grinding on the laps of the paying public, they figured. And they were right; Inzunza was ready to play ball. Running in a race he was expected to win easily, he happily accepted Galardi's Las Vegas money, delivered by Malone the bagman, but he also wanted money for Zucchet, who was running in a close race against Republican Kevin Faulconer.
In one of many bugged phone calls, Inzunza told Malone that Zucchet was also “fine” with getting rid of the no-touch law. Soon after, campaign checks totaling $6,750, from people reimbursed by Galardi, were delivered to a Zucchet fundraiser, but they were returned because Zucchet didn't want to be tainted by Las Vegas money. Inzunza then went back to Malone and again solicited money for Zucchet's campaign, and future checks were written by people with San Diego addresses—as was requested by Inzunza. Galardi's money went to Tony Montagna—a Galardi security guy who was also a wire-wearing FBI informant, who turned the money over to the FBI, which in turn found people in San Diego to write checks for Zucchet's campaign and reimbursed them. The defense would argue that, sure, Galardi spent the money, but it was the government that created the checks that might not have otherwise been generated.
It starts looking bad for Inzunza and Zucchet when it comes to the “sham issues,” “bogus e-mails” and “counterfeit concerned citizens.” Inzunza, in particular was very concerned about appearances. As a way of allegedly getting the no-touch law repealed, Inzunza and Malone devised a scheme to bury the repeal in a proposal to further burden strip clubs by increasing fees, parking requirements and distance requirements between clubs and churches, parks and schools. Inzunza told Malone he didn't want the repeal, which would be unpopular and could be linked to the campaign contributions, to wind up on the front page of the daily paper. He predicted the enhanced burdens on the clubs would throw the press off the trail.
“If... for any reason this gets out to the media, I'm gonna tell them I wanted to make the ordinance tougher,” Inzunza told Malone in a phone call.
And Inzunza was right in the middle of an idea to launch a phony e-mail campaign. If he and all the other City Council members were to receive e-mails asking for a crackdown on strip clubs, it would provide the political cover necessary to get the ball rolling. He also suggested forwarding an e-mail to Russ Bristol, the cop Malone and Galardi thought to be corrupt, creating a “paper trail,” Inzunza said, that would allow Bristol to go to his bosses and say he was being asked to look into the matter. Galardi offered Bristol $50,000 to testify before the City Council that the no-touch law was counterproductive.
Malone's energy was aimed at an April 30, 2003, meeting of the City Council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee (PS&NS), on which Zucchet and Lewis sat.
The agreed-upon vehicle for setting things in motion was Malone sending a “concerned citizen” to the PS&NS meeting to ask for tougher regulations on strip clubs. Malone and Zucchet discussed the plan on March 16, 2003, in a meeting during which Zucchet said he'd do the “lifting,” meaning that once the “citizen” broached the issue, Zucchet would refer the matter to the city attorney for a report. Zucchet called Malone nine days later and left a message, confirming that raising the matter in “public comment” was “the way to go.” He told Malone he had not discussed the plan with Lewis but he had talked to Inzunza about it.
The committee meeting went according to plan. Malone's phony citizen lied about living in Zucchet's district and asked for increased distance regulations for strip clubs. Zucchet referred the matter to the city attorney, and Lewis subtly suggested expediting it, just as he'd told Malone he'd do. Malone reported back to Galardi—who had previously expressed frustration with the City Council members' inertia (at one point, he threatened to blow the whistle: if they “aren't going to be there for us... I'm on the news in front of my fucking club”)—that the meeting “went perfect.”
In order to prove its legal case against Zucchet and Inzunza, prosecutors had to show the jury—which was set to start deliberating July 13—a “clear and unambiguous” agreement to trade money for favorable action on legislation. The plan doesn't ultimately have to work for the jury to reach a guilty verdict, but prosecutors have to show “overt” acts that furthered the conspiracy along. They have those overt acts—plenty of them—but they might not have the clear and unambiguous agreement. In the absence of a smoking gun—“I will do my damnedest to get rid of the no-touch law if you give me money”—prosecutors have a mountain of circumstantial evidence, and during his closing argument, prosectutor John Rice weaved together the most damning excerpts of taped phone calls and meetings into a rather incriminating tapestry:
They have Inzunza and Lewis boldly asking Malone and (in Lewis' case) Galardi for money. They have lots and lots of conversations in which Malone, Galardi and D'Intino talk confidently about how they have Inzunza and Lewis in their pocket, and they have Inzunza pompously assuring Malone that he has Zucchet in his. They have Inzunza and Lewis using Malone's cell phone to call the cop Malone thought was dirty and saying precisely what Malone had asked them to say. They have Inzunza, Lewis and Zucchet scheming with Malone to advance what the government calls a conspiracy.
But defense attorneys might have done a sufficient job of poking holes in the conspiracy, arguing that what the City Council members were doing was placating a persistent campaign contributor—what one person close to the case called “playing footsie” with a lobbyist—and arguing that the FBI was overzealous in its attempts to make parts of the conspiracy happen that might not have otherwise occurred.
For his part, Zucchet appears to have put enough distance between himself and the alleged conspiracy. The best prosecutors have on him is taking what he thought was money cobbled together by Malone and working with Malone on the “concerned citizen” scheme and an agreement to refer the matter to the city attorney's office. Zucchet might have known the money was coming directly from Galardi, but the government hasn't proved it. At times, Malone and friends were concerned about whether or not they could count on Zucchet.
Best of all for Zucchet, he was the one who refused to talk to Malone's cop, opting instead to talk to a higher-up lieutenant to find out how the police regarded the no-touch law. A city attorney testified that following the PS&NS meeting, he informed Zucchet that increasing the distance restrictions on the strip clubs would be difficult, and Zucchet decided to kill the whole idea. And Zucchet had a plausible motive for climbing into bed with Malone-a desire to shut down a strip club in an area of Point Loma that Zucchet wanted to redevelop in a way that some might consider more wholesome. If that helped Malone, fine.
Inzunza's a different story. He quickly and eagerly cozied up to Malone and is the main reason Zucchet became tangled up in this messy business. Inzunza placed a call to Malone's “dirty” cop. Inzunza actively schemed with Malone to create phony e-mails and helped devise an elaborate ruse to deceive the media—and, by extension, the public—in order to help a campaign contributor. Like an ambitious, conniving snake, Inzunza slithered right up to the edge of criminal impropriety. The feds say he clearly crossed it; the defense says he didn't. It's a judgment call for the jury.
But in our view, Inzunza's behavior fits nicely with what we already knew about him. He lusts for political power, and he relishes talking about how he's going to brandish it. He has also shown contempt for some of the more tedious realities of public service—the long meetings he has to sit through and the meandering public speakers he's forced to endure.
Did he break the law? Maybe not. Is he capable of it? We think that perhaps he is. Is he fit for public office? We say no. Does he have a promising career as a Malone-esque lobbyist? Yep.
This episode—expensive as it was—shined light on some unsavory business, and the details should be troubling to people who crave transparency and honesty in government. Michael Pancer is right when he said politics as usual isn't pretty. If it happens all the time—and we believe it does—it's a hideous, repulsive beast. But he's wrong when he says we don't want to see how it's done; this is one sausage-making process we'd like to witness more of. That's the only way it's ever going to stop.
Write to email@example.com.