"Charges dropped in strip club scandal"

RICHARD HANSEN, one of the defense lawyers who obtained the dismissal of all charges.
GIL CONTE, defendant

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

4 may still face fines over campaign cash

By P-I Reporter Tracy Johnson with assistance from Kathy Mulady

Four people accused of funneling their donations to three Seattle City Council candidates through others -- a scandal wryly known as "Strippergate" -- could still face hefty fines for ethics violations but not a criminal trial now that charges against them are dropped.

Yet King County prosecutors plan to appeal the Superior Court judge's decision Thursday to dismiss the case against strip-club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr., club owner Frank Colacurcio Jr. and associates Gil Conte and Marsha Furfaro.

Judge Michael Fox said only civil penalties such as fines, not criminal charges, apply to breaking campaign-finance laws, as the four are accused of doing.

"I believe the judge made the right decision, with the law as specific as it is on this issue," said attorney Rob Leinbach, who represents Colacurcio Jr. with attorney John Wolfe.

If prosecutors want to file charges in such cases, they should "go to the Legislature and have them change the law, as opposed to trying to make new law themselves," Leinbach said.

Lake City resident Kelly Meinig, the first to publicly question the campaign contributions, said she wasn't surprised.

She contends the Lake City strip club at the center of the controversy -- Rick's -- always seems to evade the rules.

Meinig now hopes prosecutors win in the state Court of Appeals.

"The law was broken, and people should be held accountable," she said.

Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for Prosecutor Norm Maleng, said prosecutors "did reach out beyond the specific election laws" and knew that might be an issue when they filed charges last July, though they still believe they were on solid legal ground.

If the appeals court doesn't revive the case -- believed to be the first of its kind in the state -- prosecutors plan to bring the issue to lawmakers next year.

"It seems there ought to be a criminal sanction for intentional money laundering in political campaigns," Satterberg said.

During Thursday's court hearing, Fox said prosecutors couldn't file charges under the more general law they used because the allegations are specifically addressed in the campaign-finance laws of the Public Disclosure Act.

That law sets out the potential for civil penalties but not criminal charges.

Deputy Prosecutor John Carver had argued that the law didn't prevent charges from being filed under a different law regarding filing false documents.

The political scandal helped unseat City Councilwomen Heidi Wills and Judy Nicastro in the 2003 election. Councilman Jim Compton, whose campaign also received some of the money, won re-election but has since resigned to pursue research and teaching opportunities overseas.

The three officials returned a total of $39,000 in contributions - the bulk of which had gone to Nicastro - after the sources of the money were exposed.

Despite Thursday's potential end to the criminal case, the city's Ethics and Elections Commission will resume investigating the Colacurcios, Furfaro and Conte - most likely when the appeal has wrapped up, said Executive Director Wayne Barnett.

Barnett said the four, who did not attend the court hearing, have been generally unwilling to answer questions about the matter, which could ultimately lead to a $5,000 fine for each improper campaign contribution.

The commission turned down a proposed settlement in 2004 that would have fined Colacurcio Jr. $7,500 and Furfaro $5,000, calling that a slap on the wrist. Barnett declined to say whether others are being investigated as well.

Prosecutors have said there's no evidence the council members were aware of the "political money laundering."

The scandal allegedly stemmed from the Colacurcios' effort to get the council to let them expand the parking lot at Rick's, a request that had been denied several times.

The four were accused of exceeding the legal limit for campaign contributions - $650 per person or $1,300 per couple - by getting friends, relatives, employees and associates to donate, then secretly paying them back.

The council eventually voted 5-4 to approve the rezone despite opposition from city planners and a hearing examiner.

Colacurcio Jr., 45, is an owner of Rick's. His 88-year-old father, who has a criminal record dating back more than 60 years, has long been involved in the strip-club business but now suffers major health problems.

Conte, 72, is a former lounge singer and longtime associate of the men, and Furfaro, 66, is an office manager at Talents West, which hires exotic dancers and is headquarters for the Colacurcios' business enterprises.

Furfaro's attorney, Bob Mahler, said she had no idea that giving $2,300 to her daughters to donate to Nicastro's campaign would be a crime.

"She has been under an enormous amount of stress, and she's enormously relieved that the charges have been dismissed," he said.

In a separate investigation, Compton, Wills and Nicastro all paid fines for having contact with people who were pushing for the rezone at Rick's while the matter was pending.

One was former Gov. Albert Rosellini, who said Thursday that he had norhing to say about the dismissed charges because the matter didn't concern him.

Until the ruling, Conte, Furfaro and the Colacurcios each faced charges of consiring to file false campaign financial reports, a gross misdemeanor, and causing the council members' campaigns to do so, which is a felony.

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