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Tuesday, August 5, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle City council members to return donations

Seattle Times staff reporters

Seattle City council members Judy Nicastro, Heidi Wills and Jim Compton say they will return donations made to their campaigns by strip club magnate Frank Colacurcio Jr. and his associates.

"There was nothing illegal about these donations and it's too bad it's come to this," said Linda Mitchell, the Nicastro's campaign spokeswoman.

Compton said today he also has returned the donations and said he had suggested to Nicastro and Councilwoman Heidi Wills that they do likewise

Wills said today that she made the decision a few days ago, based on the "continuing focus on an issue that has overshadowed the real challenges facing the community about reducing traffic, retaining jobs and protecting seniors."

Mitchell said she did not know exactly how much money Nicastro will refund to donors, but estimated it could be at least $7,000 on top of another $7,000 or so refunded because some of the donors didn't disclose their employer as required by law.

Mitchell said there was nothing wrong with Nicastro accepting the donations and the campaign was returning them because of exaggerated press coverage.

"There was no conflict. The money was legal but it has created this distraction that is impacting the council's ability to get really important work done," she said.

The move came a day after a former head of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission called on Nicastro and two other council members to return more than $36,000 in campaign contributions from Colacurcio Jr. and his associates.

Citing past corruption in city politics, a former head of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission called on the three incumbents to return the more than $36,000 in campaign contributions from Colacurcio Jr. and his associates.

Tim Burgess, who served as the commission's chairman from 1989 until 2001, made his plea in a four-page letter to council members Judy Nicastro, Heidi Wills and Jim Compton.

"Such an action would help clear up the ambiguity and doubt that has arisen," Burgess wrote, referring to the council's approval of a controversial rezone that allowed a Colacurcio-owned strip club in Lake City to expand its parking. The three council members voted in favor of the rezone in June, with Wills going out of her way to support the legislation at a committee hearing.

The council members have previously said they weren't influenced by the contributions, and Colacurcio has said he and more than 30 associates made the donations because of their general support for the three incumbents.

Burgess, who worked as a radio reporter and Seattle police officer before being named to the commission, reminded the council members that the Colacurcio family had been linked to a payoff system in the 1960s and 1970s in which Seattle police officers routinely took money to ignore illegal gambling, liquor- and drug-law violations, and illicit sexual activities.

"Your return of the contributions would align you with those of us who stood against the vile system of corruption that once dominated our city and those who stand guard today," Burgess wrote, noting that the elections commission was formed in the 1970s in response to the so-called tolerance policy.

"Let's not forget that history and let's make certain that those who benefited from it before never again gain a foothold of influence in our city government," Burgess added.

He took issue with the defense raised by some council members, who have said they take contributions from any legal source. "This is a very naïve perspective, denies our recent history, and ignores the confluence of events that occurred here," he wrote.

The Ethics and Elections Commission disclosed last week that it has acquired copies of checks from the Nicastro, Wills and Compton campaigns. Commission officials declined to say if they were conducting a formal investigation, describing the requests as an audit.

But a source familiar with the matter said the commission is conducting a full-blown investigation.

In addition, the FBI has begun making inquiries, though it has not opened a full investigation.

In his letter, Burgess told the council members that he was particularly troubled that Wills had attended a meeting of the council's land-use committee, of which she is not a member, to cast a key vote to recommend the rezone to the full council.

Wills has previously said she attended the committee meeting because of her interest in Lake City issues. Since then she has not responded to requests for an interview.

The council had denied the rezone for Rick's strip club in 1989 and 1998. The final vote this year went against the recommendations of the city land-use department and a hearing examiner.

Kelly Meinig, a Lake City neighborhood activist who opposed the Rick's rezone, recently filed a formal complaint with the ethics commission, suggesting that the council's actions may have been tainted because of lobbying by Colacurcio's allies.

The rezone allowed the club to expand its parking at a time it was planning a major expansion, currently under way.

City officials say the rezone and the expansion were not legally connected, and council members were not told of the expansion before they voted to give the club more parking.

Wills got more than $8,000 from Colacurcio and his associates. Nicastro received the bulk of the campaign money - more than $20,000 - and Compton got more than $7,600.

Some of the donations came from contributors outside Seattle, including two people who had difficulty remembering Nicastro's name when contacted by The Seattle Times.

Colacurcio Jr., 41, is the son of 86-year-old Frank Colacurcio Sr., who once headed a sprawling network of strip clubs in 10 states. Colacurcio Sr. has served prison terms four times in the past 35 years, primarily for tax evasion. He was also convicted of racketeering for bringing illegal bingo cards into the state.

During the bingo-card trial in the 1970s, federal prosecutors exposed Colacurcio Sr.'s role in an extensive payoff and extortion system involving Seattle and King County police. A nightclub owner testified he paid Colacurcio Sr. $3,000 a month for police protection.

Colacurcio Jr. has served time in federal prison for evading taxes on income from two strip clubs in Alaska.

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

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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