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Thursday, January 24, 2008 - Page updated at 12:34 PM

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Ethics panel OKs deal in vote scandal

Seattle Times staff reporters

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission approved a $55,000 settlement Wednesday with strip-club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr. and son Frank Colacurcio Jr. over the so-called "Strippergate" campaign-finance scandal.

That clears the way for an expected plea bargain today in the related criminal case. The deal is expected to spare the Colacurcios from jail time in exchange for pleading guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges and paying an additional $10,000 fine each.

In their settlement with the city ethics board, the Colacurcios admitted they illegally flouted campaign-contribution limits by reimbursing at least 15 donors for contributions made to the re-election campaigns of Seattle City Council members in 2003.

"We really take seriously the idea that elections should be clean," said Michele Radosevich, chairwoman of the ethics panel. "These were people who quite willingly and knowingly violated the rules, so it's good to see a price being paid."

The commission unanimously approved the settlement.

The Colacurcios did not appear at Wednesday's meeting but were represented by attorneys. John Wolfe, the attorney for Frank Colacurcio Jr., said he did not want to comment until the criminal case is wrapped up.

The Colacurcios' $55,000 fine is the second highest ever imposed by the ethics commission, which enforces Seattle's campaign-finance laws. In 1996, businessman Thomas Stewart and an associate paid a $62,000 fine for secretly funneling campaign contributions in support of a city ballot measure to elect the City Council by geographic districts.

The elder Colacurcio, 90, and his son, 46, are expected to appear in King County Superior Court today to plead guilty to their roles in funneling campaign contributions through friends, relatives and business partners, according to the settlement.

Their longtime associate, Gil Conte, 74, plans to plead guilty today to a misdemeanor conspiracy charge and pay a $1,000 fine, said his attorney, Richard Hansen. The charge would be removed from his record after six months, Hansen said.

In 2004, the city's ethics board rejected a settlement that would have imposed a $12,500 fine on the younger Colacurcio and Marsha Furfaro, a longtime office manager for Talents West, the Colacurcios' stripper-hiring agency.

Furfaro, 68, who was accused of funneling donations through her two daughters, was not part of the settlement.

Prosecutors are expected to drop criminal charges against her as part of the overall settlement of the case.

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Michael Finkle, an assistant city attorney, said the city decided to let Furfaro off without a penalty to pursue "bigger fish."

Finkle told the ethics commission that no charges were filed against individual donors through whom the Colacurios passed money because some cooperated with the investigation and were granted immunity by an inquiry court judge.

Criminal charges against the Colacurcios, Furfaro and Conte were filed in 2005 by then-King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng, who accused the four of "political money laundering."

The four were charged under a broad law making it a crime to cause the filing of false documents with a government agency.

The law doesn't specifically mention campaign contributions, but prosecutors alleged the defendants caused phony campaign-finance reports to be filed with the state and city. Each defendant faced up to a year in jail.

In 2006, a judge tossed the criminal charges on a technicality. The state Supreme Court reinstated the charges last year.

The "Strippergate" controversy erupted after at least $39,000 in Colacurcio-connected contributions flowed to the campaigns of three City Council members as the council was reviewing a Colacurcio request to expand the parking lot at Rick's, their Lake City strip club. The council granted the request on a 5-4 vote, reversing two previous denials.

The council members whose campaigns received the money, Judy Nicastro, Heidi Wills and Jim Compton, sided with the club. Only contributions to Nicastro and Wills were mentioned in the settlement agreement Wednesday.

Prosecutors found no evidence the council members were aware of the scheme, and none was charged. But the political fallout contributed to the defeat of Wills and Nicastro in the 2003 election. Compton was re-elected but has since left the council.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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