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Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pro / Con

Yes: Understanding the art and science of corruption

Special to The Times

On Nov. 7, Seattle residents will vote on Referendum 1: Should the city keep new restrictions on strip clubs or toss them out?

But Referendum 1 is about more than just erotic dancing, and the typical arguments — both pro and con — that issue engenders.

Let's, as they say, "follow the money."

Across the United States, the strip-club industry has generated a pervasive pattern of public corruption. Here's a brief sampling of just a few recent cases riddled with conspiracy and graft.

In 1999, the president of the Jackson, Miss., City Council was convicted of bribery after a strip-club owner made payoffs to him, his son and another council member to secure a favorable property rezone for his club.

In 2002, a strip-club owner in Coates, Minn., a town of fewer than 200 people, attempted to influence the election of City Council members by conspiring to commit forgery and procure unlawful votes. His goal was to elect council members he thought would rescind a city ordinance restricting adult-entertainment clubs. Eventually, 94 others were charged with forgery. They had listed the strip club as their official residence in an attempt to swell voter rolls and throw the election to the club owner's cronies.

In 2003, the same year the Colacurcio family was influencing the Seattle City Council over a property rezone for its strip club, its counterparts in San Diego were bribing City Council members in an effort to get club restrictions rescinded. A council member, the strip-club owner and their financial go-between were sentenced to prison.

In 2005, three Honolulu Liquor Commission inspectors were sentenced to prison for their role in a racketeering scandal involving bribes paid by strip-club and bar owners. The three were convicted of leading a group of inspectors who regularly accepted bribes to overlook criminal behavior.

In early 2006, strip-club employees and police officers in Charlottesville, Va., were charged with federal crimes including bribery, witness tampering and giving false testimony. The charges detail a scheme to tip off club managers about police investigations, identify undercover police officers and "fix" traffic tickets for club employees.

In August 2006, two former Clark County (Las Vegas), Nev., commissioners were convicted of taking bribes from a strip-club owner who wanted regulations changed so his clubs could make more money. Two other former Clark County commissioners pleaded guilty to bribery in the same case and are awaiting sentencing; one of them advanced the corruption scheme by serving as the strip-club owner's bagman, delivering payoffs to elected officials.

And then there's Seattle's own experience. Prior to the early 1970s, police officers and elected officials were systematically bribed and corruptly influenced to ignore illegal gambling, liquor law violations and prostitution in strip clubs and bars.

More recently, in 2003, the Colacurcio family — long-time strip-club owners and operators — needed a property rezone to expand Rick's, their Lake City club. So they launched a scheme to funnel campaign contributions to three members of the City Council, some that were laundered to conceal the true identity of the donor. Their lobbyists held improper secret meetings with council members. Former Washington Gov. Albert Rosellini served as the Colacurcios' delivery man for much of this money.

In the end, up to $62,000 in Colacurcio- and Rosellini-related campaign gifts flowed to then-council members Jim Compton, Judy Nicastro and Heidi Wills.

Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, despite overwhelming opposition from neighbors and clear precedent and legal justification to deny it, the Colacurcios got their rezone. It's a black mark that still stains the legacy of our City Council.

All of these cases have a common thread: complete disregard for the rule of law by the owners and employees of strip clubs. These individuals have perfected the art and science of corruption, scheming to advance their private interests over the public good.

This is the lens that Referendum 1 should be viewed through.

On Nov. 7, Seattleites can vote with conscience — not for some moralistic, free-speech-inhibiting dictate — to send a resounding message that they will not tolerate or enable those who would corruptly influence our public officials.

Timothy Burgess is the former chair of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, a former Seattle police detective, and past chairman of the Queen Anne Community Council. He can be reached at tim.burgess@merkledomain.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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