San Diego mayor, councilman convicted

7/18/2005, 7:27 p.m. ET
The Associated Press 

SAN DIEGO (AP) A federal jury Monday convicted San Diego's new acting mayor and a city councilman of taking payoffs from a strip club owner to help repeal a "no-touching" law at nude clubs, the latest blow to a city awash in scandal.

Michael Zucchet, who became interim mayor over the weekend, was found guilty of conspiracy, extortion and fraud on his first business day in office. He was immediately suspended from the position, his attorney said.

Councilman Ralph Inzunza, who was convicted of the same charges, also was suspended.

The jury also returned guilty verdicts against former Clark County, Nev., Commissioner Lance Malone, who worked for strip club owner Michael Galardi to repeal San Diego's ban preventing nude dancers and patrons from touching each other. The repeal effort failed.

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

It was not immediately clear who was running City Hall, where the council planned to meet at 2 p.m. Murphy's permanent replacement will be chosen in an election July 26 or a possible November runoff of the top two finishers.

The verdicts were reached on the fourth day of deliberations. Zucchet sat staring straight ahead, occasionally glancing up at the ceiling, as the verdicts were read.

Each defendant could face three to four years in prison. Outside court, their attorneys vowed to appeal and maintained the men had done nothing wrong.

Inzunza contended that his actions were part of the normal political process. "I will be back," he said.

Zucchet left without talking to reporters. His attorney, Jerry Coughlan, said his client had no immediate plans to resign, pending an appeal, and maintained that Zucchet, too, was only doing his job.

"There isn't a single public official in this country that hasn't done the same thing," Coughlan said.

Zucchet and Inzunza, both 35, were accused of taking $34,500 in cash bribes and campaign contributions from Galardi. Malone allegedly delivered the wads of cash.

The R-rated trial began in May and featured hours of wiretapped conversations, lunches and locker room meetings and a 310-pound bodybuilder turned FBI informant.

The prosecution's key witness was Galardi, the owner of Cheetahs strip club in San Diego and three other nude bars in Las Vegas. Galardi testified that he hatched the bribery plan because San Diego's "no-touch" law was hurting business at Cheetahs.

Galardi pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing. He also has pleaded guilty in a parallel corruption probe in Las Vegas, and is scheduled to testify at that trial, which begins in January.

Prosecutors said the evidence of the plot could be found on secretly recorded conversations dating to 2001. In one 2003 conversation, Malone told a Las Vegas strip club employee before he posed as a concerned San Diego citizen at a council committee that the less he knew about the plot the better.

"It's called plausible deniability, baby," Malone said.

After a 2 1/2-year investigation, FBI agents swarmed City Hall in May 2003, a few weeks after that conversation, searching the offices of Inzunza, Zucchet and Councilman Charles Lewis, who was indicted but died last year of liver disease.

During the trial, defense attorneys sought to portray Zucchet and Inzunza's dealings with Malone as part of the legislative process and suggested that their clients both Democrats were being targeted by a Republican U.S. Attorney for political reasons.

"Does anybody think we'd be here if this case involved real estate development?" Michael Pancer, Inzunza's attorney said during closing arguments that stretched over four days.

To Rich Gibson's Home Page