"Strippergate" charges filed today
King County prosecutors today charged strip-club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr., his son, Frank Colacurcio Jr., and two longtime associates with conspiring to funnel illegal contributions.
Seattle times staff reporters
King County prosecutors today charged strip-club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr., his son, Frank Colacurcio Jr., and two longtime associates with conspiring to funnel illegal contributions to three Seattle City Council incumbents during the 2003 election.
The contributions came shortly before the council approved a controversial rezone that allowed Colacurcio Jr.'s Lake City strip club, Rick's, to expand its parking lot.
"Political money laundering is a crime and it will not be tolerated," King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said at a news conference this morning.
The charges were brought under a broad statute relating to the filing of false public documents, prompting Maleng to call for tougher laws that would specifically make it a crime to funnel campaign contributions.
Prosecutors alleged that the Colacurcios gave thousands of dollars in cash to friends and associates to contribute to the council members, in an effort to conceal the true source of the funds and skirt the city's $650-per-donor limit on campaign contributions.
Also charged were Gil Conte, 71, a former lounge singer and close friend of the Colacurcios; and Marsha Furfaro, 65, an office manager for Talents West, the family's Lake City hiring agency for strippers.
The nine-count charging document included eight felony charges and one gross misdemeanor, capping a 10-month criminal investigation into the so-called "Strippergate" scandal that roiled City Hall in 2003.
The elder Colacurcio, 88, and his son, 43, have long denied any wrongdoing in connection with the contributions.
Lawyers John Wolfe, who represents Frank Colacurcio Jr., and Irwin Schwartz, who represents Frank Sr., issued a written statement through The Associated Press saying:
"Our clients have advised us they intend to plead not guilty and have instructed us to vigorously defend them. We anticipate the filing of extensive pretrial motions challenging the charges and, if necessary, a lengthy trial where we will challenge the evidence offered by the state in order to enforce and protect our clients right to be presumed innocent and to receive a fair trial.''
Schwartz, attorney for Frank Colacurcio Sr., reached by phone, told The Times:
"I am shocked and disappointed at the leaks that came from the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office," referring to a news story in today's Times that charges were planned.
Furfaro's attorney, Allen Ressler, said his client will plead not guilty. He said Furfaro is distraught because the charges involve her two grown daughters, who have said they were reimbursed by their mother for contributing to Nicastro.
The donations went to incumbents Judy Nicastro, Heidi Wills and Jim Compton, who joined the 5-4 majority approving the rezone.
They returned the contributions when questions were raised about their propriety. All three paid fines to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission for violating city ethics rules.
Nicastro and Wills lost their re-election bids, while Compton was re-elected.
Maleng said his office uncovered no evidence that the three or their campaign staffs were aware of the conspiracy to funnel contributions.
Colacurcio Jr. and longtime friends and associates of the family contributed at least $39,000 to the council members.
The charges shed more light on the scope of donations, showing how cash was secretly passed to donors in early 2003. In one instance, prosecutors alleged that a Tacoma businessman, Stan Naccarato, was handed up to $700 in cash at a boxing match at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma.
Naccarato, who later gave $650 to the Nicastro campaign, has told investigators he couldn't remember who gave him the cash. But he said he was socializing with Frank Colacurcio Sr. at the event.
Former Washington Gov. Albert Rosellini also was with Colacurcio Sr. at the boxing match, according to the charging documents.
Naccarato, a legendary sports figure in Tacoma and former general manager of the city's minor-league baseball team, declined comment today.
Rosellini, 95, lobbied the City Council on behalf of the Colacurcios, his longtime friends, and delivered a stack of Colacurcio-related donations to Nicastro shortly before the vote on the Rick's rezone.
Maleng said prosecutors found no evidence that Rosellini was aware of the alleged conspiracy.
Rosellini has denied reimbursing anyone for political donations. The Democrat, who was governor from 1957 to 1965, owns a gas station and car wash next to Rick's.
In another instance, a retired attorney in Yakima, Walter Dauber, admitted he was given cash by Colacurcio Sr., his former client, prosecutors alleged. Dauber wrote a check to Nicastro's campaign and arranged donations from two former law partners, the charging papers say.
Dauber refused comment today.
Prosecutors alleged that Colacurcio Jr. gave cash to his then-wife, Teena, to pass to her sister, Jennifer Opheim-Palmeteer, and her sister's boss, Jeff Carney a Kirkland motorcycle-shop owner. Each, in turn, wrote checks to the Wills campaign.
Carney has admitted he was reimbursed by Colacurcio's former wife, prosecutors said. Carney was arrested in 2003 on charges that he was part of a large group of Hells Angels involved in fatal brawl with members of the rival Mongol motorcycle gang in a casino in Laughlin, Nev., in April 2002.
Carney declined comment today.
Those contributions and others raised questions in 2003, because many came from people outside Seattle who had not previously contributed to Seattle City Council races. Some could not explain why they suddenly became interested in Seattle politics, but denied having been reimbursed.
Conte, prosecutors alleged, gave cash to a bookkeeper at Talents West who donated to council races.
Furfaro was charged with giving money to her daughters to make donations. The city ethics commission had previously obtained evidence that Furfaro gave $2,300 to them and their husbands so they could contribute to the Nicastro campaign.
Commission officials referred their evidence to prosecutors last fall, saying they were unable to develop further evidence of a wider scheme because people wouldn't cooperate or feared criminal prosecution.
All four defendants were charged with "conspiracy to offer a false instrument for filing," a gross misdemeanor. Eight felony counts of filing a false instruments were also filed, alleging individual violations by the defendants.
The charges allege that by reimbursing other donors, the four caused false campaign-disclosure paperwork to be filed with the city and state.
Under state law, each faces up to one year in prison and at least a $15,000 fine, although Maleng said his office might seek an exceptional sentence to boost the penalties.
He cited the penalties as an example of the need for tougher laws.
Because the false-instrument law does not specifically refer to campaign contributions, defense attorneys are likely to argue that it cannot be applied in this case.
Maleng's office obtained bank records of at least eight donors showing they wrote checks to council campaigns within days of depositing cash in the same amount into their bank accounts.
Additional evidence was obtained by calling witnesses before a secret-inquiry-court judge in King County Superior Court. Some donors were given immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony, he said.
Prosecutors did not charge any of the people who received money to pass on to council candidates, though they could be called as witnesses at trial.
The Colacurcio name has been associated with the lucrative world of strip clubs for nearly four decades. At one time, the family dominated the strip-club market in the Seattle area while financing clubs in several other states.
Colacurcio Sr. has served time in federal prison four times in the past 40 years, mainly for evading taxes on cash skimmed from his clubs. During a 1971 trial, federal prosecutors linked him to payoffs made to Seattle and King County police in exchange for overlooking illegal gambling.
In March, Colacurcio Sr. was sentenced to 90 days of home detention and barred for two years from entering Rick's for groping a waitress at the club. He is appealing the conviction.
His son, Colacurcio Jr., now runs a smaller number of clubs, including Rick's. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to a single tax-fraud charge and served six months in prison.
The Colacurcios' efforts to win friends on the City Council came as they were seeking a rezone that would allow them to add at least seven parking spots to Rick's. Though it was a seemingly minor request, it had been rejected twice since 1988 because the parcel of land in question was zoned residential.
In 2003, the rezone application was opposed by the city planning department and a hearing examiner; their denials were overturned by the council vote.
The charges filed today represent the most significant local campaign-finance prosecution since Seattle businessman Thomas Stewart pleaded guilty in 1998 to a federal charge of making illegal campaign donations to Republican candidates and causes.
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