Criminal charges reinstated in city "Strippergate" case
The Washington state Supreme Court reinstated criminal charges Thursday against Seattle strip-club operator Frank Colacurcio Jr. and three others accused...
Seattle Times staff reporters
The Washington state Supreme Court reinstated criminal charges Thursday against Seattle strip-club operator Frank Colacurcio Jr. and three others accused of funneling illegal campaign contributions to Seattle City Council members in 2003.
The decision, which could set a precedent for future cases of election misconduct, reversed a ruling by King County Superior Court Judge Michael Fox that said the state's campaign-finance law permitted only civil penalties.
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court said prosecutors can pursue the criminal case against Colacurcio Jr.; his father, Frank Colacurcio Sr.; and longtime associates Gil Conte and Marsha Furfaro.
Prosecutors say the four participated in a scheme to bypass campaign-contribution limits and funnel thousands of dollars to former City Council members Judy Nicastro, Heidi Wills and Jim Compton at a time that Colacurcio Jr. was seeking council approval for expanded parking at his Lake City strip club.
Investigators found evidence that some donors were reimbursed by Colacurcio Sr. and others. The resulting scandal was dubbed "Strippergate."
King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng charged the four defendants with causing false documents to be filed with government agencies — in this case campaign-finance reports, which concealed the true origin of political donations.
Thursday's majority opinion, written by Justice Barbara Madsen, said the state's Public Disclosure Act, which governs campaign-finance reporting, does not preclude prosecutors from filing criminal charges under other statutes.
Justices Richard Sanders, Charles Johnson and Tom Chambers dissented.
In a statement, Maleng vowed to swiftly pursue a trial in what he called "a serious case of political money laundering."
John Wolfe, a lawyer for Colacurcio Jr., said he planned to file a motion within 30 days asking the court to reconsider.
"We believe that we're correct and we're going to look at every angle," Wolfe said.
The ruling could have implications for future campaign-finance cases by leaving open the threat of criminal prosecution and jail time in addition to the usual civil fines imposed under the Public Disclosure Act. It was the first time prosecutors have used the false-document law in such a case.
"Sometimes the threat of a fine is simply not enough to deter this kind of conduct," said Dan Satterberg, Maleng's chief of staff.
But Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, predicted such criminal cases will be rare. "Most of the matters we deal with here are not going to rise to the level that they attract prosecutors," he said.
The ethics commission, which polices Seattle elections, began investigating the Strippergate scandal in 2003 after it was revealed that the Colacurcios and dozens of associates had contributed at least $39,000 to the re-election campaigns of the three council members. The council members sided with Colacurcio Jr. in a 5-4 vote to expand the parking lot at Rick's strip club — against the advice of the city planning department and reversing two previous council votes.
The controversy contributed to the ouster of Wills and Nicastro in the 2003 elections. Compton was re-elected but resigned in 2005 to pursue other interests.
None of the council members was criminally charged. All three agreed to pay ethics fines related to the case and returned the bulk of the Colacurcio-related contributions.
The Colacurcio name has long attracted notoriety in Seattle.
Colacurcio Sr., 89, built a strip-club empire that once spanned at least 10 states. He has served time in federal prison four times in the past 40 years for racketeering and evading taxes on cash skimmed from the clubs. His son,
Colacurcio Jr., 45, now runs a smaller number of clubs in the Puget Sound area, including Rick's. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to a single tax-fraud charge and was sentenced to 179 days in prison.
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