A surprise move to keep the long-dangling Strippergate file open has left City Hall caught in its own zipper. The Aug. 4 ethics commission rejection of a settlement with Frank Colacurcio Jr. means the nude-dance impresario won't face city charges or fines in connection with the scandal and is likely to walk away from the friendly settlement deal, as well, according to sources on both sides of the case. Despite more than a year of probing, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) has been unable to track any suspected illegal donations back to Colacurcio in the alleged scheme to bundle contributions to three City Council members and grease a favorable rezoning vote for Colacurcio's nudie club in the Lake City neighborhood. There's no chance a continued city investigation will prove otherwise, says one City Hall official, who asked not be named, noting, "No one will talk about Frankie. Cash leaves no trail. We have nowhere left to go."
Fully aware of this, Colacurcio is unlikely to agree to a settlement higher than the $7,500 proposal the seven-member SEEC board unanimously turned down, officials say. The commissioners, feeling the penalty was too light, ordered the SEEC staff to continue to negotiate and investigate. To save face now, the board must stick to its demand for a bigger settlement. Insiders see this as an irresolvable standoff. The new SEEC executive director, Wayne Barnett, a former Boston attorney appointed in May, seems to be shrugging off the board's rejection of his first big case and says he'll continue to work on it. But, he said in an interview, "Frank is admitting to nothing, period," and talks are now stalled. Colacurcio attorney John Wolfe agrees. "It is fair to say there are no more meetings planned," he says.
Colacurcio thus could come out the big winner in a scandal he is suspected of causing. The council ended up approving the disputed rezone he sought for more parking at his club, Rick's, on Lake City Way Northeast. He also has expanded the club. And he got back the 2003 campaign money he and his wife contributed—$5,200 returned by the three council members after legal questions arose.
The rejected agreement would have found that Colacurcio made only inadvertent cash contributions that exceeded the legal limit, a punishment that one commissioner says amounted to "a slap on the wrist." Even at that, one official familiar with the case says, Colacurcio agreed to pay a fee "only to make us go away."
Barnett and his predecessor, Terry Thomas, along with SEEC investigator Harley Anders, an experienced former FBI agent, put together the compromise settlement as the best attainable outcome for a long, mostly unproductive probe of Colacurcio and 37 of his family members, friends, and business associates. They gave $38,625 to council member Jim Compton and now-ex-members Judy Nicastro and Heidi Wills last election season. The investigation focused a great deal on Colacurcio, wife Teena, and eight other donors. Those 10 accounted for $20,550 of the $38,625. Colacurcio, 42, son of convicted Seattle racketeer Frank Colacurcio and who himself did time in prison for a federal tax rap, called himself an "investor" and said he was merely investing in good candidates. He operates the family's four nude clubs in Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties.
The three SEEC officials and attorney Wolfe were all disappointed after the commission rejected their plan, though others saw it as a bold move. "The ethics commission was right," the Seattle Times editorialized. "In Seattle, we can do better than a 'slap on the wrist' for this kind of campaign chicanery," the paper said, urging King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng to investigate separately. Opined the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "No deal is better than a bad one." But no deal apparently is the deal, leaving City Hall with just one viable Strippergate case. Marsha Furfaro, a Colacurcio business office manager, had made a settlement offer of $5,000 that was also turned down by the commission. (She faced up to a $25,000 fine, and Colacurcio faced a maximum $10,000 penalty.) Furfaro denies wrongdoing, but her two daughters are on record claiming they and their husbands were given funds by Furfaro to contribute to the council campaigns. Supplying money to others to donate is illegal.
Any criminal charges are a long shot at best, city officials agree. Prosecutor Maleng would face the same evidentiary challenges and wall of silence that city probers discovered. Maleng has the threat of jail to induce testimony, but, says attorney Wolfe, any assumption of a criminal conspiracy is flat wrong. "This campaign was really no different than any other campaign in which supporters seek to encourage their friends to make contributions to candidates that they support," he says.
That's Colacurcio's story, and he's wisely sticking to it. Meanwhile, there also are no SEEC cases to be made, officials say, against two other prominent figures in the case, Colacurcio's Seattle attorney, Gil Levy, and family confidant and political rainmaker Al Rosellini, the former governor who is also an attorney. They have said their lobbying on behalf of Colacurcio's dance club and their political donations to the council were perfectly legal, and an insider says the city can't show otherwise. Many details of their relationship with Colacurcio also are protected by attorney-client privilege.
No evidence was found that any council member was corrupted by the donations, says a city official, supporting claims by Wills and Nicastro, at least, that they weren't fully aware of Colacurcio's background. "Ironically, they may have lost the election because of this," the official says, "but I think all they were guilty of was gross naïveté."