Southern California -- this just in

« Previous Post | L.A. NOW Home | Next Post »

U.S. attorney decides against retrial for former San Diego councilman in strip-club case

October 9, 2010 |  8:27 am

Zucchet2The U.S. attorney's office in San Diego has decided not to seek to retry former Councilman Michael Zucchet on charges involving political contributions from the owner of a strip club.

When the case burst into public view in 2003, it hinted at a culture of corruption at San Diego City Hall in which political favors were traded for money.

But the case proved to be built on weak evidence, a strained interpretation of the law and questionable conduct by federal prosecutors.

Three members of the City Council and a top aide were indicted for their supposed roles in offering to have the council overturn the city's "no-touch" law that banned lap-dancing at nude entertainment establishments -- a law the strip club said was hurting its profits.

The contributions had been reported on the council members' financial disclosure forms. And no repeal of the law was ever introduced. Still, federal prosecutors asserted that the officials had violated the "honest services" provision of the law in meeting with the strip club owner's lobbyist.

Councilman Charles Lewis died before trial. His aide, David Cowan, was acquitted of lying to the FBI.

Councilmen Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza were convicted by a federal jury in July 2005.

But U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller threw out the jury's guilty verdict on seven counts against Zucchet. He allowed a retrial on two remaining guilty counts but said they barely merited it.

The jurist upheld the conviction of Inzunza but told him that he probably had strong grounds for appeal. Sentenced to 21 months in prison, Inzunza remains free on appeal.

Miller also took the unusual step of scolding prosecutors for their conduct during the trial -- particularly allowing a prosecution witness to allege that the council members received $10,000 in cash, an allegation not contained in any of the charges.

Overturning the jury's verdict, Miller noted that FBI wiretaps of Zucchet's phone calls showed that he repeatedly had said that any change in the no-touch rule would have to be approved by the Police Department before the council could endorse it.

The U.S. attorney attempted to have the seven guilty counts reinstated. But in 2009, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Miller.

The U.S. attorney's decision on whether to retry Zucchet on the two remaining counts was delayed while the U.S. Supreme Court, in cases not involving San Diego, ruled on the "honest services" fraud section of the law, which has been used by federal prosecutors to bring corruption charges without proof of a classic bribery attempt with a quid-pro-quo.

In June the Supreme Court moved to restrict prosecutors' use of the "honest services" strategy.

On Friday, the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego announced that it "has elected not to proceed with a new trial on the remaining counts" against Zucchet. Officials declined further comment about the case that dominated local news for months, if not years, and was dubbed "stripper-gate."

A court hearing is set for Wednesday for the U.S. attorney's decision to be accepted by the judge -- a formality.

The decision to ask the grand jury to bring charges against Zucchet and the others was made during the tenure of U.S. Atty. Carol Lam, later pushed from office by the Bush Administration for reasons not involving the San Diego case.

Zucchet, 40, a Democrat, resigned from the council soon after being convicted. A onetime legislative director for the firefighters' union, he is now general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Assn. and is heavily involved with negotiations about pension benefits.

In an interview Friday, Zucchet acknowledged that the case has been exhausting and left him with substantial legal bills. He said he can always measure the length of the ordeal by the age of his daughter.

He noted that his wife was eight months' pregnant when the FBI raided his office at City Hall. Their daughter is now 7 years old and in the second grade.

--Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Former Councilman Michael Zucchet; credit: Associated Press