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Legal experts: Case against councilmen hinges on intent

The high-profile corruption trial involving two San Diego City Councilmen is more than a month-and-a-half old, and the outcome is still in doubt, according to legal experts.

As the defense begins presenting its case in what has become known as "Strippergate," it is unclear which side should really be getting excited.

"It's a tough case to handicap," said Shaun Martin, a University of San Diego School of Law professor who's been following the proceedings. "It's always difficult to look into someone's heart and guess what their intent was, and that's basically what the prosecution is asking the jury to do."

Councilmen Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet are accused of participating in a scheme to repeal the city's no-touch provision in strip clubs.

As part of a 39-count indictment, the two face allegations of accepting money from strip club officials while agreeing "to be corruptly influenced in the performance of their official duties to advance the repeal of the no-touch provision."

The prosecution finished presenting its case last Friday, but so far, there have been no shocking revelations.

"People expected the prosecution to come out and try to deliver a knockout blow, and they definitely have not done that," said Martin, who teaches civil procedure and professional ethics at USD. "It appears they're not trying to do that. It appears they're holding a fair amount in reserve ... most likely for rebuttal.

"The prosecution is playing it like an NBA game -- the only thing that matters is the fourth quarter. It's a tactical decision on their part to wait until the fourth quarter."

The prosecution's case was enough, however, for U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller to deny a defense motion for acquittal of Inzunza and Zucchet. The defense argued that the government hadn't presented the evidence for a reasonable jury to convict.

The same motion was made for a third defendant in the case, David Cowan, but Miller decided to take it under advisement. Cowan, an aide to late Councilman Charles Lewis, is accused of making false and misleading statements to authorities.

A Cowan dismissal could bode well for the others.

"That is the interesting issue," said San Diego attorney Colin Murray, a former deputy district attorney for the county. "If one of the defendants suddenly disappears, the jury will wonder why he isn't there. And if the case against him is weak, it makes a broader comment about the allegations against the other defendants."

Much of the prosecution's initial case revolved around taped conversations involving the councilmen and strip club officials, and the cooperation of former defendants Cheetah's owner Michael Galardi and the club's manager John D'Intino.

The debate surrounds money Inzunza and Zucchet received from Galardi, D'Intino and lobbyist Lance Malone, who's also been named in the conspiracy.

The council members claim they only accepted legal campaign contributions, while the prosecution insists they took it in exchange for trying to change the no-touch provision.

Candidates are allowed to receive money, but they can't promise official action in exchange for the contributions.

"This strikes me as politics as usual," said Gary Gibson, an adjunct professor at California Western School of Law and a deputy public defender. "It's why I have a hard time seeing what they did is wrong as long as it's not explicit quid pro quo.

"It's not illegal to contribute and expect them to act on your behalf. (Lobbying politicians) happens in every city, in every state in the U.S. every day."

According to trial observers, there hasn't been any hard evidence showing that the council members promised future action on the no-touch provision in exchange for money.

"The tough part of what they have to show is essentially a corrupt intent on the minds of the defendants," USD's Martin said. "At the same time it's tough for the defense because there's a lot of things that smell very fishy about the way things happened here."

"What (the prosecution) want the jury to do is read between the lines," said Pamela Wilson, a partner with Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace. "Where is the direct evidence?"

As the defense continues to present its case, the debate now focuses on whether Inzunza or Zucchet will take the stand.

"If I was a betting man, I'd say it's more likely than not that one of them will testify," Gibson said. "It may answer a lot of unanswered questions for the jury."

He noted the inherent risks in such an action, including the chance any testimony could inadvertently help the prosecution.

Notably absent from the stand during the government's case was D'Intino, although one observer wondered what he would add since he was heard on the recorded tapes.

If D'Intino is put on the stand, "then it's open season in front of a seasoned defense attorney, who has yet another opportunity to advance their theory on the case that the government pushed the whole scheme on Lance Malone and the (other) defendants," said Murray, a partner with Baker & McKenzie.

He believes the case could end up with varying verdicts.

"One defendant could be convicted and another acquitted," Murray said.

Added Martin, "I think the defense is very hopeful and very happy there haven't been any major bombshells that they weren't ready for."

Related Articles:

Prosecution rests in corruption trial of two San Diego councilmen (Jun. 23, 2005)

Defense questions strip club owner in trial of San Diego councilmen (Jun. 15, 2005)

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