ON JUNE 11, Seattle City Council member Judy Nicastro deposited $25,115 in donations into her campaign account. That $25,000 day helped push her month's total to a whopping $51,705. Nicastro celebrated her achievement with a press release that declared she "had set an apparent all-time record" for campaign contributions to a Seattle City Council candidate in a single month. The donations caught the eye of Moxie Media's John Wyble, a consultant to the campaign of one of Nicastro's opponents, Kollin Min. As Wyble, an experienced fund-raiser, scanned the donation list, he did not recognize many of the names, and some of the required information was missing. He filed a complaint with Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), the city's official elections watchdog. More generally, he wondered, who were all these people who were giving money to Nicastro?
THE STRIP-CLUB CONNECTION Nude-dance money flows to City Council campaigns. FROM 1996: The story of Frank Colacurcio Sr., the Bellevue boy who built a notorious nightlife empire.
A Seattle Weekly examination of Nicastro's campaign contributions found that, to date, at least 27 people connected to the Frank Colacurcio Jr. strip-club chainby blood, marriage, or through businesshave given Nicastro at least $17,000. Nicastro denies any wrongdoing and points out that her campaign has been zealous in its effort to comply with election laws. "I will return any money that has been illegally contributed," she declares. The biggest election scandal in recent history occurred in 1996 when Republican businessman Thomas Stewart tried to conceal donations to a city initiative campaign by having his employees pass along his money in their names. Concealing the source of a campaign contribution violates the city's elections law and can be punished with thousands of dollars in fines. Says Wyble: "$25,000 in one day raises some red flags."
On the day in question, Nicastro deposited $10,750 in checks from 17 Colacurcio business associates, their spouses, their children, and their childrens spouses. Since 1996, only two of the 17 have given money to Seattle political candidates. Eleven do not live in Seattle. All but two gave $650, the maximum allowed per four-year cycle. At least some of the givers say they coordinated their donations. They deny, however, concealing the source of the money, insisting they all gave their own money of their own volition. Ultimately, the SEEC will decide whether there is anything wrong with the cluster of gifts. It has the power to compel donors to answer questions under oath. The SEEC will not comment on whether an investigation is under way.
Colacurcio and his partners run four strip clubs in the Puget Sound area. Adult entertainment is an industry that is popular with many consumers but not so beloved by neighbors, politicians, and law enforcement. "It's an industry that is under siege," says Gilbert Levy, an attorney who has represented adult businesses in a variety of criminal and civil cases. Levy says he has encouraged his clients, including the Colacurcios, to participate in the political process to protect their First Amendment rights and their business interests. Besides those general reasons cited by Levy, Colacurcio has had specific proposals before the city bureaucracy this year: planned expansion of Rick's, a Lake City strip club, which involved getting a permit from the city's Department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU), and the rezoning of a parking lot at Rick's, which received City Council approval.
LAST NOVEMBER, several people with ties to Colacurcio attended a fund-raiser for Nicastro. According to documents from the SEEC's finding in an investigation, four to six people arrived at the fund-raiser early. They asked Stephen Spoonamore, a friend of Nicastro's who was helping organize the event, if cash donations were acceptable. "He stated that cash was acceptable," according to SEEC's ruling. The attendees then passed Spoonamore three sealed envelopes. The SEEC said that Spoonamore was ignorant of the Seattle campaign law that prohibits cash donations of more than $60 per person. At the end of the evening, John Sanders, Nicastro's volunteer treasurer, opened the three envelopes and found they contained $1,900 in cash from Colacurcio, his wife, and a business associate from Texas. Nicastro immediately informed the SEEC that there had been an inadvertent violation and returned the donations.
But Nicastro says she did not know that she received far more money, in checks at the fund-raiser, from at least seven others connected to Colacurcio through business or marriage. They contributed a total of at least $4,350 that night. Some of those donors also contributed to Seattle City Council members Heidi Wills and Jim Compton, who also are running for re-election.
THE SECOND ROUND of related donations was deposited in Nicastro's account on June 11the unprecedented $25,000 day. One of the 17 donors, attorney Gary Gill, who is married to a daughter of two of Colacurcio's employees, says he was not aware he had given money. "I maxed out to [Nicastro]?" he asked when learning of his $650 donation. Gill was aware that his wife had given to Nicastro. It is legal for couples to write one check for $1,300 from a joint account, representing a $650 contribution from each spouse, and apparently that's what happened.
Marsha Furfaro is the office manager at Talents West, a Colacurcio-owned company. She, her husband, Nick, who also is a Colacurcio employee, her daughters, Stacee and Nicole, and her two sons-in-law, Gary Gill and Frank Lucarelli, all had checks deposited in Nicastro's account on June 11. It was no coincidence, explains Furfaro, but it wasn't nefarious, either. "We all got togethermy familyand decided to support" Nicastro, she says. The reason the checks arrived at the same time was that she collected them. She explains Gill's ignorance of his own donation by saying that Gill's wife wrote the check and "included his name at the bottom." Everyone used his or her own money, she says.
When asked about the cluster of donations, Nicastro immediately made two pledges: She will freeze the donations until she is confident there was no wrongdoing, and she will return any money that was contributed improperly.
FOR SEVERAL MONTHS, Nicastro has been considered the most vulnerable of the five City Council incumbents seeking re-election. She has fought high-profile battles with two of the city's political powerhousesMayor Greg Nickels and organized labor. She has attracted three quality opponentsMin, realtor Darryl Smith, and real-estate broker Robert Rosencrantz.
"I know we are complying" with all campaign regulations, Nicastro says. Last month, she continues, her campaign was audited as part of an automatic process performed by the SEEC, and no violations were found. "Nobody donates to me expecting to get anything," she says. She notes that her independence and willingness to vote against people who have supported her in the past have been widely reported.
Nicastro says the only input she received from the Colacurcios on an issue in recent years concerned the Rick's parking lot. Their attorney, Levy, testified in favor of the needed zoning change at a public hearing. She says she was unaware of Colacurcio's plan to expand the Lake City strip club. She says Levy is the only one of the many donors that she even recalls ever meeting. "I wouldn't know who they were if they came up and kissed my cheek," Nicastro says.