On Monday, Aug. 11, the Seattle City Council attempted to "bring closure" to the controversy over a zoning change at Rick's by repealing the law that gave the Lake City strip club eight new parking spaces. While the City Council's effort demonstrated some political smarts, it seems unlikely to contain the growing power of Strippergate. The scandal has already affected the re-election campaigns of two City Council members, Judy Nicastro and Heidi Wills, and legal problems will likely dog the council in coming months.
What started as a small neighborhood dispute over parking has turned into a summer potboiler starring the aforementioned City Council members; Frank Colacurcio Jr., a strip-club magnate and ex-con with family ties to Seattle's history of political corruption; former Gov. Albert D. Rosellini, the patriarch of Washington's Democratic Party; elections investigators; and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In recent weeks, what began as a possible campaign finance embarrassment involving three City Council members who had received at least $32,000 in Colacurcio-related donations grew into a larger ethics problem for the whole council as the extent of lobbying efforts on behalf of Rick's was revealed (see "Rosellini the Rainmaker," July 30). Six City Council members have now admitted they broke rules against ex parte communications during the zoning review process.
Last week, Seattle City Council President Peter Steinbrueck, who voted against the rezone in the first place, stepped in to try to clean up the mess his colleagues had created. On Friday, Aug. 8, he proposed that the City Council repeal the Rick's rezoning and go through the entire process againa public hearing, a committee vote, and a full council vote. Over the weekend, someone evidently noticed this approach meant more Strippergate headlines during this fall's election season. On Monday, the council changed course by unanimously repealing the law and declaring the matter dead.
Before the vote, Steinbrueck gave a heartfelt speech about the whole imbroglio. "I believe our precious covenant of trust with the public has been broken. We will take this vote today to rescind the Lake City rezone legislation and wipe the slate clean."
Jim Compton made a brief remark indicating he'd probably still support the matter if it ever came up again, and no one else explained this astonishing turn of events. Afterward, Compton, Nicastro, and Wills refused to comment on the matter.
THEY STILL HAVE a lot of explaining to do.
Wills, for example, has never given a full account of why she suddenly showed up at the Land Use Committee meeting in April and cast a key vote in favor of the rezone, which is unusual in that she's not even a member of the committee. Despite the fact that she says Rosellini is her political mentor, and she admits that they discussed the rezone, she still contends that her appearance was made completely of her own volition. In addition, she has not come clean publicly about any rules violations that she committed during the review process. Finally, she hasn't explained why at least $8,455 from Colacurcio-connected campaign donors did not raise concerns in her mind until after weeks of media scrutiny.
Nicastro, who also claims Rosellini as a mentor, has steadfastly held that she observed all rules surrounding the process. As late as last Friday, she was saying she would not support a repeal of the law. Why the sudden reversal? She had crowed over her fund-raising prowess, never questioning thousands of dollars in contributions given by people she claims to never have met who do not even live in Seattle.
Compton is the only one of the three who is visibly upset by the turn of events. He either avoids the press or is hostile to its members, despite constantly referring to his august career as a journalist on the campaign trail. It seems unfathomable, given his many years as a reporter, that he was ignorant of the unseemly nature of lobbying and donations from a family so tied to the rampant political corruption in Seattle's history. Yet he refuses to offer real information on how he committed such a grievous lapse in judgment.
The three council members' efforts to put the entire matter to restincluding returning the Rick's-related donationsare unlikely to succeed because of ongoing legal issues. The Colacurcios are well known for using the courts to fight their battles for years on end. As recently as 2001, one of their cases was decided by the state Supreme Court. Even one of their most determined opponents, Vic Webbeking, whose home abuts the disputed strip of land, said after celebrating the repeal of the zoning change, "If I was an owner of Rick's, I would feel I'd been royally screwed." While Colacurcio's attorney, Gilbert Levy, had no comment on his client's legal plans, a lawsuit would surprise no one.
The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), which is charged with enforcing the city's elections laws, has gotten copies of the checks from Colacurcio- related donors from the Compton, Nicastro, and Wills campaigns. Last week, SEEC's lead investigator was out of the office with the check copies in his possession when Seattle Weekly arrived to pick up copies, a strong hint that a preliminary investigation has begun. In the past, when investigating campaign irregularities, SEEC has subpoenaed bank accounts and witness testimony. If any campaign laws were broken, headlines will follow. In addition, The Seattle Times reports that the FBI is sniffing around the matter. This year, preliminary inquiries into ties between politicians and strip-club owners in San Diego and Las Vegas have developed into full-blown investigations.
EVEN IF NOTHING develops on the many legal fronts, the political battle is already well under way. While Compton does not face any political threats this year, both Nicastro and Wills are fighting serious, well-funded challengers.
Last week, the 36th District Democrats in northwest Seattle held their annual endorsement meeting. In 1999, the 36th endorsed both Compton and Nicastro. This year, they endorsed neither. Judith Baker Hine, the 36th District chair, says there were several reasons expressed by the membership, and the controversial rezone was one of them. She says, "It is unusual" for the 36th District Democrats not to endorse Democratic incumbents. On the same night, the 46th District Democrats in northeast Seattle actually passed over Compton, Nicastro, and Wills. In addition, they gave nods to two of Nicastro's six opponents, environmentalist Kollin Min and Realtor Darryl Smith, and one of Wills' three opponents, United Way executive David Della.
The last prominent incumbent who failed to receive more than one Democratic district endorsement was Mayor Paul Schell, who was ousted in the primary election of 2001.