Politically speaking, this is the Year of the Ass at City Hall. The bare one, that is. Political contributions from people in and with ties to the nude-dance and porn industries are outstripping contributions from the usual top groups of givers—city workers, state employees, and attorneys. At least $38,000 in donations by people with ties to those adult businesses has been doled out to Seattle candidates this election cycle, almost all of it to three incumbent City Council candidates: Jim Compton ($7,100), Heidi Wills ($9,755), and the big winner, Judy Nicastro ($18,300—more than 12 percent of her current $144,000 total). The money comes from two groups of people—one with connections to nude-dance impresario Frank Colacurcio Jr., the other with connections to investor Roger Forbes, the longtime nude-dance/porn-industry figure. The two men's donations and the contributions of family members, employees, partners, attorneys, and friends are scattered across campaign ledgers at City Hall, often with little indication they are connected. Many live outside the city.
THE STRIP-CLUB CONNECTION Judy Nicastro's $25,000 day. FROM 1996: The story of Frank Colacurcio Sr., the Bellevue boy who built a notorious nightlife empire.
The closest the city's Ethics and Elections Commission comes to categorizing such donations is to rank total contributions to all campaigns by employer. As a bloc, city employees come in first this election season, at $16,000 total, followed by state employees, who have given $14,000 to various Seattle campaigns. When the donations of those connected to the two strip-club empires are collated and tallied—Seattle Weekly counts more than 50 such contributions this year—they top not only those of city and state workers but the contributions of Microsoft and Boeing employees combined.
One of those small empires is about to get much bigger. Colacurcio's nude-dance club in Lake City, called Rick's, has received city approval to add onto its existing club and expand into a former auto dealership next door. The $185,000 to $220,000 project will produce a 286-seat dance club, according to permits. Colacurcio has owned the adjoining property since 1998 and applied last January for the expansion permit from the Department of Design, Construction, and Land Use (DCLU). He got the permit on June 18.
Coincidentally, two days earlier the City Council had approved the rezoning of a parking lot at the club. The expansion issue handled by DCLU didn't surface during the council debate of the controversial parking lot, and council members say they did not know of the expansion permit pending at DCLU. But with all that Colacurcio business at City Hall coinciding with the campaign contributions, it's no wonder eyebrows are raised.
THE CLUSTER OF CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS is a surprise twist to an otherwise tepid election season at Fifth and Cherry. But the flow of strip-club-connected donations has been rising in recent years. Contributions to city candidates, including the mayor, by the two nude-dance factions now total almost $50,000 since 1999—big money when individuals are limited to making gifts of $650 per candidate per four-year campaign season. Overall during that four-year period, Forbes, Colacurcio, and their allies helped Wills' campaign with at least $12,600 in donations and Nicastro's with at least $18,700. Compton, who chairs the council's Police, Fire, Courts, and Technology Committee, has received $7,900, all from Colacurcio's group. Several other council members got at least $600 from either or both the club duo, and Mayor Greg Nickels has received $2,000 from Forbes.
Nicastro insists there was nothing shady about the donations. "My vote," she says, "is not for sale." Compton did not return a call for comment, and a Wills spokesperson referred questions about the campaign fund to the Ethics and Elections Commission.
WHAT DO THE STRIP CLUBS want for their money? Gil Levy, Colacurcio's attorney and a regular City Hall donor himself, says his client is merely playing the political game other business owners play: "You eat rubber chicken and make campaign contributions" to curry favor with city officials.
For the most part, City Hall has a kind of benign-neglect policy in dealing with the clubs. More benign than in some jurisdictions, anyway. Colacurcio, who is waging a contentious licensing battle with the City of Shoreline over one of his four local clubs, cites Seattle as a shining example of how government and nude dancing can peacefully co-exist. In an ongoing King County Superior Court lawsuit contesting a pending license suspension and claiming Shoreline is hassling dancers seeking adult-entertainer licenses, one of Colacurcio's nude performers, Shawna Siegfried, notes she was "treated rudely" and stonewalled in Shoreline. But in kinder, gentler Seattle, she says, you are able to "walk in . . . and walk out" with a license in five minutes—and not be insulted, either.
Still, while Colacurcio's dancers might be getting a warmer reception from Seattle license issuers, the cops think Rick's, the soon-to-expand Lake City club, is a nuisance. Ed McKenna of the City Attorney's office says the criminal division has, on occasion, charged dancers from the club for violations, including prostitution—lap dancing of the literal kind. Across the city limits at Sugar's, Colacurcio's club in Shoreline, the current license battle there began after police witnessed sexual contact by dancers with patrons. On one visit, an undercover King County Sheriff's officer was propositioned for sex and had his "genitals fondled" in the line of duty. All were crimes of prostitution, Shoreline says, that "were permitted to occur" by management. On the Web site seattletopless.com, which features the four Colacurcio clubs, visitors seeking info on Rick's are offered hardcore porn, animated screwing, and, next to a woman's photo, the chance to "cum take a ride on this slippery slut." Roundaboutly, money earned from these clubs is winding up in Seattle campaign coffers.
Coinciding with this election season's unprecedented City Hall donations was the recently concluded land-use battle over the parking lot at Rick's—a wedge of property that had been zoned for residential use. The Colacurcio group—company officials, associates, and family members of a nude and topless empire dating to the 1950s—anted up $32,000 in the midst of the rezoning fight. Wills, Compton, and Nicastro voted in favor of the rezone, which the council passed 5-4 over the vocal objections of neighbors. (When the rezone was earlier considered by the council, in 1998, it was unanimously turned down.) All three council members have denied the campaign contributions influenced their votes, and Nicastro notes that "Rick's is a legal business. They have a right to be part of the political process." Wills, who also cast an earlier committee vote in favor of Rick's, has said she doesn't even know Colacurcio. Colacurcio is a wealthy man convicted by the feds in 1991 for skimming club profits, along with his father, Frank Sr., who did five prison tours and once was invited to testify at a U.S. Senate Rackets Committee hearing. (He didn't show.)
NEITHER FRANK JR. nor Frank Sr., who has been off fishing in Alaska, could be reached for comment. But their old friend, semiretired crooner Gil Conte, 70, who still works at the family's Talents West hiring agency at Colacurcio headquarters in Lake City, says the campaign money wasn't given for favors. "A parking lot? C'mon," says Conte, who gave $650 each to Wills and Compton while he and two sons and daughters-in-law gave $3,200 to Nicastro. "This wasn't about a parking lot. This was about good people running for office."
Forbes, Seattle's 1970s porn-movie king, has given $3,250 this election and gave $9,600 from 1999 to 2001. He keeps a low profile today but has long held interests in the Déjà Vu nude-dance chain ("1000's of beautiful women, 3 ugly ones"). His holdings include clubs in Colorado, California, and several around the metro Puget Sound region, from Tacoma to Everett, as well as the recently renovated dance/video club at First Avenue and Pike Street. His lusty history includes waging and often winning First Amendment cases against local communities trying to shut down his movie and "live girls" operations. As recently as last year, he won a federal court ruling against the city of Lakewood, home of a Déjà Vu, declaring its laws—as applied to sexually oriented businesses—are unconstitutional. Forbes didn't respond to a request for comment, nor did his attorney.
IN AN EARLIER TIME, when the unpopular Forbes was turning family theaters into X-rated movie houses and Frank Jr.'s notorious dad held Seattle's topless nightclub franchise, such public donations might have made City Hall pols a little skittish. That doesn't seem to be the case today, and attorney Levy says that's how it should be. It irritates him that the strip industry he has represented for two decades should be singled out by the media for making legal donations. "You," he told a reporter, "are trying to embarrass the candidates because they got contributions from people who are associated with strip clubs." Levy and others say it's an industry with little to hide.