Like cheap perfume, Strippergate, the 2003 City Hall political money scandal, lingers in 2005. Some endure the scent. Others, like Mayor Greg Nickels and City Council member Richard Conlin, are turning up their noses. In this election year, the mayor is giving back $900 in contributions to a Seattle strip club operator, and Conlin has opted to return money to anyone directly connected to the nude-dancing industry—especially donations linked to father-son dance impresarios Frank Colacurcio Sr. and Frank Colacurcio Jr., who face felony political-money-laundering charges that grew out of the 2003 City Council embarrassment. Conlin so far has refunded $1,200 this campaign cycle, including a donation made three years ago. Another council member, Nick Licata, gave back one donation from Strippergate figures but kept another. Meanwhile, council member Richard McIver and council hopeful Casey Corr are keeping campaign dollars from a friend of the Colacurcios and a lawyer representing one of them, respectively.
Nickels' campaign director, Viet Shelton, when asked Thursday, Aug. 18, by Seattle Weekly if the mayor was keeping $900 given by longtime Seattle nude-dance club operator Roger Forbes, suddenly decided to give it back. "We overlooked it," says Shelton, "and we're returning it because of the perception." Forbes was Seattle's 1970s porn-movie-theater king who became a West Coast nude-dance club magnate through the Déjà Vu chain. The low-profile Forbes, who couldn't be reached for comment, operates a club at First Avenue and Pike Street in Seattle and one in the Lake City neighborhood. He's a rival of the Colacurcios. Forbes gave the 2005 Nickels campaign the maximum amount allowed, $650—$543 in 2002 and $107 in 2003. Forbes also donated $250 last December to a mayor's office fund, which will also be returned, says Shelton.
Not that the mayor needs the money. Nickels began raising money for re-election the day after he was first elected in 2001, and he is strolling toward a second term with a war chest nearing $500,000. Conlin, who, unlike the mayor, faces serious challengers in Seattle Port Commissioner Paige Miller and activist Darlene Madenwald and has $162,000 in the bank, thinks refunding is the safest path to follow. "Given the history of this industry," says Conlin, "and knowing that legislation relating to this subject and their clients would be coming up this year, I decided to avoid any appearance of improper influence." The council has before it a final vote on a law to keep strippers four feet from customers, which would essentially ban lap dances in newly stripper-sensitive Seattle.
Forbes' money arrived, says Conlin, about the time that fellow council member Licata received $600 from Seattle attorney Gil Levy. Those two checks set off political alarms in the council offices. Levy, who didn't respond to inquiries for comment, is one of Frank Colacurcio Sr.'s lawyers and lobbied the council in 2003 for passage of a parking lot rezone in Lake City at Rick's, one of the Colacurcios' clubs. That rezone was at the heart of the Strippergate scandal. "Nick returned [Levy's money] without depositing it, I believe," says Conlin, which city records confirm. Suddenly aware of the implications of keeping nudie money, says Conlin, "My campaign had deposited [Forbes' donation], so we wrote a refund check. We then decided to check our records" and, discovering a Levy contribution dating back to 2002, no less—"chose to send that back as well."
Licata, on the other hand, has so far hung on to $100 given earlier this month by political rainmaker and former Gov. Al Rosellini. Licata, who is opposed by newcomer Paul Bascomb, says that Levy has business before the council, but "Rosellini, as far as I know, does not. That's my rationale." King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng says Rosellini, who is not charged with a crime, was present when some of the suspected $38,000 in Strippergate money was allegedly doled out to three-dozen Colacurcio friends and family members two years ago. The money, contends Maleng, was supplied by the Colacurcios and laundered through the accounts of others in hopes of currying council favor for the rezone. City Hall records also show that Rosellini, who also lobbied for the rezone, allegedly handed over some of the Colacurcio-linked checks to council members for their campaigns. Two of the members, Heidi Wills and Judy Nicastro, were defeated in 2003, while Jim Compton was re-elected. None was ever charged with a crime, though all three settled ethics charges.
Council member McIver, who also settled an ethics charge for improperly having lunch with Rosellini during the period the rezone was before the council, has since received $500 for his re-election campaign from Rosellini. But the council member, being challenged principally by King County Council member Dwight Pelz, is not sending it back. "Gov. Rosellini is an old friend," says McIver. "I welcome and value his support."
Similarly, former journalist and mayoral aide Casey Corr, running against incumbent Jan Drago, is hanging onto $500 he got from attorney John Wolfe, the lawyer for Frank Colacurcio Jr. Corr says Wolfe is a longtime family friend. He got to know Wolfe when they were co-coaching their daughters' elementary school basketball team. Wolfe confirms the association, adding: "Frankly, I think it would be a terrible injustice to suggest that Casey is linked to Colacurcio simply because I now represent Frank Jr. If that were the case, then any candidate to whom I make a campaign contribution could be linked to any of my clients. I think we both agree that would not be accurate or fair."