One Acquitted, Another Sentenced; San Diego’s Crisis Remains

Now that the federal government and the City of San Diego are done, for the time being, battling molehills, they will have more time for scaling mountains. A recent federal court ruling should make for an easier transition. On November 10, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller took the unusual step of throwing out seven of nine guilty verdicts rendered by a jury this July against Michael Zucchet, a former city councilman, and very briefly, mayor. “As happy as I am,” said Zucchet, “I’ll never get my name back. I’ll never get my job back. I’m financially ruined. My physical and emotional health – and the health of my family – has been devastated.” He’s a lucky man compared to ex-councilman colleague Ralph Inzunza. Judge Miller handed down a 21-month sentence to Inzunza for extortion, fraud and conspiracy in connection with an exchange of campaign contributions for political favors. Judge Miller sentenced another individual, former Clark County (Nev.) Commissioner Lance Malone, to three years in prison.

 

The “scandal” in question was classic political pay for play – over the fairer sex. Zucchet and Inzunza schemed to collect $34,500 in bribes and illegal campaign contributions from a local nightclub owner in return for a promise to pressure other council members to repeal a ban on patrons touching dancers in local strip joints. Malone had lobbied on behalf of Michael Galardi, owner of Cheetahs in San Diego, plus a few nightspots in Las Vegas. Galardi wound up copping a plea, and testified for the prosecution. Over the course of its two-and-a-half-year investigation, the FBI secretly recorded about 200 face-to-face meetings and wiretapped another 100,000 phone conversations. That’s a whole lot of firepower just to protect some exotic dancers.

 

With the wages of sin now nearly paid in full, San Diego faces a far more pressing matter: an estimated $1.37 billion municipal pension deficit, a figure equivalent to nearly $1,000 for every man, woman and child in the city. During much of the go-go 90s and beyond, San Diego officials, egged on by powerful public-employees’ unions, pursued risky pension strategies that went bust. The consequences of this profligacy fell onto the lap of Mayor Dick Murphy, first elected in 2000, re-elected last year, and (unjustly) listed this year in Time (April 18) as one of America’s three worst mayors. Murphy resigned effective July 15 in the face of allegations of pension and other mismanagement. Zucchet took over, but barely had unpacked his office belongings when he received word of his convictions. He, too, vacated.

San Diego voters on November 8 hopefully took a step in addressing the pension crisis, electing a new mayor, Jerry Sanders, a Republican who served as city police chief during 1993-1999. He defeated, by a 54-46 percent margin, City Councilwoman Donna Frye, a Democrat who, as a write-in candidate last year, almost upset Murphy in his quest for re-election. Had Frye been elected (and would have, had it not been for a court ruling over disputed markups of write-in ballots), political pressure from unions would have been difficult to resist. In this year’s run, she reportedly received $400,000 in contributions from organized labor. Columnist-editor Michael Kinsley has a saying, “The real scandal is what’s legal.” Once in a while this dictum really holds true – just ask any San Diego taxpayer. (San Diego Union-Tribune, 11/11; other sources).