Mike Zucchet stepped into the posh Grant Grill in Downtown San Diego on April 16, 2003, and was shown to a booth. There, he sat down for a breakfast meeting with a man he’d soon wish he’d never met.
Zucchet, a fresh-faced 33-year-old, was a newly elected member of the San Diego City Council, and his breakfast date was a lobbyist, Lance Malone, who’d been a significant bundler of contributions to Zucchet’s 2002 campaign. They’d met several times before—a few during the campaign and once afterward—and Malone had been hounding Zucchet to meet with him again, but Zucchet had been slow to return the lobbyist’s calls. Malone had helped get Zucchet elected, but he wanted more than the politician thought he could deliver. Finally, Malone wore Zucchet down.
At Grant Grill, Malone was desperate.
“What I need to do, Mike, to save my hide,” Malone said, according to a transcript of the meeting, “is just to get the item on there.”
“There” was the City Council agenda, and “the item” was the city’s regulation of strip clubs. Malone, who’d previously been both a cop and a county commissioner in Las Vegas, worked for Michael Galardi, owner of Cheetah’s in Kearny Mesa and three other strip clubs in Las Vegas. In 2000, the San Diego City Council passed a law establishing a 6-foot buffer between strippers and patrons, designed to stop lap dances and, therefore, discourage prostitution. It was bad for Galardi’s business, and Malone’s job was to get the City Council to consider returning to the previous standard—no “lewd or lascivious” conduct.
Zucchet didn’t care if strippers gave their customers lap dances, but he knew that as long as the police liked the law that prohibits strippers from touching customers, there’s no way it would be repealed; a vice lieutenant with the San Diego Police Department had told him personally that the department stood by the law.
But Malone was persistent. He laid out for Zucchet a plan: At the April 30 meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, a citizen from Zucchet’s district would stand up during public-comment time and say he wanted the city to require more distance between strip clubs. City law bans strip joints from being within 1,000 feet of homes, parks, schools, churches, social-service providers and other strip joints. Zucchet would ask for the matter to be docketed for a future committee meeting. Once the committee began considering it, a vice detective—despite what Zucchet was told—would say the police would rather not waste time dealing with the no-touch rules. The endgame: The City Council cracks down on strip clubs by increasing the required distance between them, but it also slips in a provision that scraps the no-touch rule.
To say Zucchet was skeptical would be an understatement. He told Malone that if the police went “neutral” on no-touch, Malone and Galardi would easily get five council votes, but he didn’t think the police would go for it.
That didn’t much matter to Malone, who said all he needed to do to satisfy Galardi was get it on the council’s agenda.
Zucchet didn’t love the idea of subterfuge at the committee hearing; he suggested instead trying to convince the committee chair, Brian Maienschein, to docket the matter on the up-and-up.
In any case, Zucchet told Malone, “I’ll do the lifting at the committee level”—words he’d soon wish he’d never said.
Two weeks later, on April 30, a man identifying himself as Tom Waddell, saying he lived on “Toronto Street” in “Mr. Zucket’s district”—there is no Toronto Street in District 2—stood up at the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee hearing at City Hall, and asked the committee to tighten the screws on strip clubs. Zucchet turned to Maienschein and Elmer Heap, a deputy city attorney, and asked for a report back on distance requirements between establishments. Zucchet didn’t know it at the time, but Waddell was an employee of Cheetah’s in Las Vegas.
On May 14, FBI agents stormed the 10th floor of City Hall, raiding the offices of Zucchet and two other members of the City Council, Ralph Inzunza and Charles Lewis. Federal authorities had been investigating alleged corruption in Las Vegas involving Galardi and Malone and followed Malone to San Diego when Galardi dispatched him to do something about the no-touch law. That’s how Malone unwittingly drew the three council members into the probe. The FBI had an informant in Galardi’s San Diego operation. Agents listened in to Malone’s telephone conversations with the council members. They ginned up phony contributions to Zucchet’s campaign. They bugged the booth at Grant Grill. Fishing for crooks in Las Vegas, suddenly they believed they’d hooked three dirty politicians in San Diego.
Two years later, in July 2005, a jury convicted Zucchet and Inzunza on dozens of corruption counts—Lewis died in the run-up to trial—but in November, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey Miller threw out seven of nine counts against Zucchet and ordered a new trial on the remaining two. The government appealed Miller’s ruling on the seven counts and lost in 2008. Last year, U.S. attorney Laura Duffy decided against retrying Zucchet on the final two counts. For him, the seven-year ordeal was over.
Zucchet once had thoughts of moving from City Council to the San Diego Mayor’s office, then parlaying that into a stint as governor of California, and then using the governor’s seat as a springboard to the White House—president of the United States.
Ron Saathoff, president of Local 145, the city firefighters union, says Zucchet would have been a “strong candidate” to succeed Mayor Dick Murphy in 2008. “San Diego very definitely lost something valuable” when Zucchet’s career ended, Saathoff says. “He would have had virtually no limits in terms of his political career.”
Yet Zucchet’s dreams were wiped away six short months after he was elected. He beat the rap, but his once-promising political career was gone.
“I really loved that job. I loved that job,” he tells CityBeat in one of a series of interviews. “Sorry to sound like a campaign brochure, but I loved trying to do good in the city I grew up in and thought I could effect positive change, engaging on issues that I really cared about.
“The thing I took hardest of all of this—threatening my freedom, ruining me financially, going after my family, you name it—the thing that was hardest for me to take is that I feel like that career was stolen from me.”
Zucchet’s 2002 election victory over current District 2 City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer gave San Diego’s progressives new hope. Zucchet, a liberal Democrat, grabbed the seat of termed-out Republican Byron Wear, giving Democrats a solid 6-3 majority on the council.
“It was an exciting time to be a progressive Democrat in San Diego,” says Democratic political consultant Chris Crotty. “There was a progressive hand moving every major issue in the city. That would not have been the case without Mike.”
Zucchet was valuable when personality and leadership clashes occurred among the six Democrats, often playing the role of “peacemaker,” Crotty says. “Zucchet was the go-to guy for putting together a five-vote majority on just about every issue that arose at the city and was helping to lead it in a much more progressive direction.”
He also gradually gained the respect of conservative Mayor Dick Murphy, who selected Zucchet to be deputy mayor in 2004.
Zucchet had been an economics major and competitive golfer at UC Santa Barbara when an eccentric professor turned him on to environmentalism. From there, he went on to a master’s program at Duke University that focused on natural-resource economics. Then it was off to Washington, D.C., and a job as an economist with the U.S. Department of Energy, a gig he described as “the worst stereotype of government. It was a conservative’s poster-child wet-dream example [of] just a horrendous waste of money. It really was depressing.”
Disillusioned, Zucchet returned to his hometown of San Diego in 1996 and, through a chain of connections, got a job in the office of District 6 City Councilmember Valerie Stallings. At the time, he says, he knew nothing about the City Council—not even how many districts there were. But he took to it immediately.
“I loved land-use, loved stop signs, potholes, everything in between,” he says. “Totally caught the fever, totally understood how impactful local government could be on people’s lives and how distant and obtuse federal government was.”
He says he excelled at it, too, quickly jumping from low-level council representative to high-level policy advisor.
Lying in bed one night in October 1997 after watching a City Council meeting—and eyeing Councilmember Wear in particular—he was stewing over being denied a raise of his $26,000 salary when the thought of challenging Wear in the next election hit him.
“It was almost one of those totally surreal nights where I was in bed, but awake, like, till 3 a.m. My mind was going crazy.”
Zucchet quit his job the next month and launched his campaign. In the June 1998 primary, he came in second place out of four, drawing 27.2 percent of the vote; Wear got 55.5 percent and won the race outright.
The previous December, Zucchet went to the firefighters union for an endorsement. Saathoff, the union president, remembers telling the young aspiring pol that he had no chance of winning and that he should come see him about a job when he lost.
“I said, ‘Well, Ron, fuck you very much. I’m gonna run, I’m gonna win and I’ll see you in June,’” recalls Zucchet, who has a knack for embellishing a story with a dose of profanity. “He said, ‘No problem, Mike. I appreciate that. Let me tell you what I’m going to do for you: I’m going to hold the job open, and in June, when you lose, you’re going to come work for me still.’”
After the election, Saathoff kept his word and brought Zucchet on to be a lobbyist, contract negotiator and political operator. It was a sturdy platform from which to launch a second run for office. Wear was termed out in 2002, so the seat was wide open. Councilmembers Maienschein, Inzunza, Toni Atkins, Donna Frye, Scott Peters and Jim Madaffer endorsed him. But no one helped more than Inzunza, who did everything from visiting households with Spanish speakers to hosting high-powered fund-raisers.
“I saw Ralph as someone who was extremely competent—and an extremely competent campaigner and someone who wanted to carry that competence into building power through relationships and helping people and getting Democrats elected,” Zucchet says. “Accumulating power connotes such interesting images. That was in his interest to do that, and, therefore, it was in his constituents’ interest to do that, because the more powerful Ralph was, the more their community gets.”
In the March 2002 primary, Zucchet and Kevin Faulconer finished one-two, respectively, out of seven candidates. In the November runoff, Zucchet bested Faulconer, 55.6 percent to 44.3 percent, to win the seat.
“Then you take office and the fire hose is inserted in your mouth,” Zucchet says, “and whatever plans you had you still try to do, but the hardest part is dealing with everything that comes at you.”
Immediately for Zucchet, it was controversies over the Chargers and booze on the beach, plus nonstop development issues Downtown, which was in the midst of a condo-building boom. A confessed “closet lawyer,” he was fascinated by the closed-door legal machinations surrounding the Chargers’ triggering of an escape clause in the team’s stadium agreement with the city and would later be appointed the council’s point person for negotiations on a new deal.
Zucchet was loving being in the middle of the action. But his life changed on May 14, 2003.
Just before lunchtime, he was going over Community Development Block Grant requests with Michael Coleman, his chief of staff, and policy advisor Don Mullen. The door swung open, and several men in dark suits entered and started searching the office, “telling us to hold our position,” Zucchet says.
“It crossed my mind that it was a practical joke of some sort. Ironically, Ralph Inzunza was deputy mayor at the time, and deputy mayors have a reputation, if not obligation, to play jokes and to mess around.”
Zucchet later learned that one of the agents had written in his report that Zucchet and his staff were “smirking,” suggesting that they thought the raid was humorous.
“Certainly, we didn’t think it was funny, but it was so odd and so bizarre, and we were getting no information other than this very stereotypical—like almost as if it was a parody: ‘Hold your position, hold your position.’ So, I probably did smirk, because we had no idea what was going on.”
One of the agents handed Zucchet a document and pointed to a section listing numerous alleged crimes and the name “Lance Malone.”
“And so my first reaction,” he says, “is, ‘Oh, these clowns.’”
Federal agents were there in July 2001 when Zucchet met Malone for the first time, during a campaign fund-raiser at the Panda Inn at Horton Plaza. Inzunza had asked Zucchet if he’d accept campaign money from strip-club interests—he knew an industry lobbyist who wanted to help. Zucchet said no, because there were a couple of strip joints in Point Loma, in the district he was hoping to represent, that were unpopular with neighborhood activists. Also, Madaffer and Atkins had taken heat over adult-industry contributions during their recent campaigns. He didn’t want “adult club” listed on public disclosures. If this guy could collect donations from, say, lawyers and accountants, Zucchet told Inzunza, that would be fine, but not from strippers or bouncers. Inzunza said he’d communicate that to Malone and set up the meeting.
Zucchet and campaign aide Colin Rice met Malone and Mike McDonald, then a Las Vegas City Council member, at the bar. Malone said Inzunza thought highly of Zucchet and pushed an envelope across the table. Zucchet says he cautioned Malone that, as an elected official, he’d probably try to get those two clubs in Point Loma shut down—Les Girls and The Body Shop—and if Malone had a problem with that, he should take the envelope back.
“He said, ‘No, no, no! That’s hilarious! I don’t represent the strip-club industry; I represent one strip club, and it’s in Kearny Mesa, so you can close down all the strip clubs you want in your district. That’s fucking great!’” Zucchet recalls. “We sort of laughed about that, and I said, ‘OK, I just want to make that clear.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, Mike, our interests are simply to support good people like you,’ and he gave me some load of shit about how great I was and how I’m going to win and that’s all his interest was.”
Malone said nothing about the no-touch law at that meeting, Zucchet says. (Although agents were watching, the meeting wasn’t bugged.)
Zucchet opened the envelope that night and found $6,750 in checks. The first time Zucchet’s voice appeared on a surveillance recording was in his call to Malone, whose phone was tapped, saying he’d have to return the checks because they were traceable to adult entertainment. Zucchet was sheepish as he explained his reasons to Malone, adding, “And we can keep in touch, and you know that you’ve always got excellent access with me, and down the line if we can help each other out, you know, with some—.” Before he could finish his sentence, Malone cut in, promising to contribute later if the race felt “tight.”
Inzunza arranged for Malone to contribute again at a fund-raiser at Busalacchi’s restaurant in February 2002. This time, the checks, $2,000 worth, appeared free of ties to adult entertainment.
Prosecutors made much of a third encounter between Zucchet and Malone, at an Oct. 30 fund-raiser, where Malone gave Zucchet an additional bundle of checks worth $3,000, again at Inzunza’s request. According to a transcript, Malone commented to Zucchet about how “we’re catching on” about avoiding contributions traceable to the adult industry and Zucchet replied, “You’re doing great.”
When Inzunza came calling, Galardi gave Malone money to reimburse contributors to Zucchet’s campaign, which is illegal. But instead of going out himself and finding contributors not associated with the adult industry, Malone gave the money to a man named Tony Montagna.
Montagna, whom Zucchet describes as “this 300-pound body-builder-freak-looking guy,” was an FBI informant who’d infiltrated Galardi’s operation at Cheetah’s and became head of security. He’s the one who brought the three council members to the FBI’s attention.
Montagna ran a gym in Rancho Bernardo. According to FBI agent Leonard Davey’s testimony during the trial, Malone wanted Montagna to get people he knew at the gym to contribute to Zucchet’s campaign and then reimburse them with Galardi’s money. He didn’t do that. Instead, Montagna then handed Galardi’s cash over to the FBI to be stashed in an evidence locker, and FBI agents got their own associates to contribute to Zucchet’s campaign and paid them back with public money.
Zucchet argued in court that it’s far from guaranteed that Malone, who lived in Las Vegas, could have ever found 20 San Diegans to contribute $250 each, the legal maximum at the time, and so, Zucchet’s campaign may never have gotten that $5,000 if the FBI hadn’t made it happen.
Zucchet and Inzunza met Malone at Grant Grill on Feb. 10, 2003, three months after Zucchet was elected. The table was bugged. Malone and Inzunza had been talking for nearly a year about how to repeal no-touch, but this was the first time Zucchet was brought in on it. During the conversation, Zucchet remained laser-focused on shutting down Les Girls and The Body Shop while Inzunza tried to find a way for both men to get what they wanted. Zucchet sounded willing to help Malone if it took care of his problem but said that repealing the no-touch rule wouldn’t go anywhere if the police didn’t agree to it.
The police won’t be a problem, Malone assured him. Russ Bristol, a detective in the vice unit of the San Diego Police Department, had told Malone that the department would get out of the way of any change to the no-touch rule. As it happened, Galardi had been paying Bristol—a total of $43,600 from August 2000 to March 2003—to tell the manager at Cheetah’s, John D’Intino, when the cops would be showing up at the club. But like Montagna, Bristol was also working for the FBI.
Malone insisted Zucchet talk to Bristol about no-touch, but Zucchet balked, meeting instead with Lt. Bob Kanaski, head of the vice unit. Malone was recorded in a phone call telling Inzunza that Zucchet was meeting with “the wrong guy” and that he had begged Zucchet not to mention Bristol’s name to Kanaski because it could get Bristol in hot water.
The FBI wired Kanaski for the meeting. According to a transcript, Zucchet immediately started asking about ways to crack down on the two strip clubs in his district, and it was Kanaski who first mentioned the no-touch law. He told Zucchet that the police liked it for two reasons: It was an easier violation to prove than the old rule—no lewd and lascivious conduct—and it decreased prostitution. Zucchet told Kanaski he got it “loud and clear” and that a guy he knew in the industry (Malone) “was obviously misinformed.” Despite Malone’s warnings, Zucchet asked Kanaski about a vice cop named “Russ.”
The FBI, through Montagna, got the message to Malone that Kanaski had to tell Zucchet what he told him and that the police department wouldn’t publicly object to a repeal of no-touch.
After Zucchet asked the City attorney’s office at the public-safety committee hearing for a report on increasing the required distance between strip clubs, Deputy City attorneys Heap and Jim Chapin met with Zucchet and told him that the city had already been sued over existing regulations and advised against further action. With that, Zucchet says, he considered the case closed. His office was raided less than two weeks later.
The night of the raid, Zucchet got a call from Sean Hecker, a close friend from high school who was a federal defender in New York and had gotten wind of the news. “He says, ‘Mike, I’ve done the work for you of identifying the three best federal criminal-defense attorneys in San Diego. You need to meet with them immediately. Stop talking to the media. This is really serious.” Zucchet downplayed it, and Hecker responded, “I will never speak to you again unless you go talk to a lawyer right now.”
That got Zucchet’s attention, but the full force of what he was facing didn’t sink in until he met his eventual defense attorney, Jerry Coughlan, who upbraided Zucchet for being dumb enough to talk to the FBI for three hours the day of the raid without a lawyer present.
“‘If you’ve really done nothing wrong—and I’m assuming you’ve done nothing wrong,’” Zucchet says were Coughlan’s words that day, “‘let me tell you how screwed you are.’ And he proceeded to lay out—with shocking accuracy, in hindsight—exactly what was about to happen and how radical it was going to be and how my life as I knew it was over. … I believed every word he said.
“He asked for a $20,000 retainer, and I couldn’t figure out a way to get it to him quickly enough.”
Zucchet believes that the feds systematically messed with him by communicating mistruths through the press and other avenues. The worst example, he says, was a call Coughlan got from a former colleague, who claimed to know that the feds had a recording of Zucchet revealing that he’d cheated on his wife, Teresa. Coughlan summoned Zucchet to his office that day to talk about it—it happened to be June 4, 2003, the day Teresa was in the hospital to give birth to the couple’s first child, Molly. He says the feds knew about the birth because it was announced the day before at City Council as the reason Zucchet was absent. Zucchet went to Coughlan and told him the claim of infidelity wasn’t true. He then had to tell Teresa about it when he returned to the hospital—because she asked.
“There are people who plead guilty to avoid the embarrassment of whatever they’ve done in their personal lives,” Zucchet says. “So, this is just a routine strategy of the government, but they did it to me on the day my kid was born.”
The U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego declined to comment for this story, citing a pending appeal in Inzunza’s case. John Rice, the lone member of the team of prosecutors arguing the case who’s left the government payroll, also declined to comment. A spokesperson for the San Diego FBI field office didn’t return CityBeat’s call.
Zucchet, Inzunza, Lewis, Galardi, Malone, D’Intino and David Cowan (an aide to Lewis) were all indicted in August 2003. Galardi and D’Intino pleaded guilty right away and cooperated in the case against the others.
Zucchet and Inzunza remained in office through the trial in mid-2005. Theirs wasn’t the only scandal plaguing City Hall. The city learned in early 2004 that it was in trouble with federal and state authorities over securities and pension matters. Later that year came the election controversy in which Councilmember Frye’s write-in candidacy for mayor drew the most votes but was denied due to ballot technicalities.
The city’s finance scandal proved to be too much for then-Mayor Dick Murphy, who announced in spring 2005 that he would resign effective July 15. After he won the disputed election, Murphy had named Zucchet deputy mayor, and under city law, the deputy mayor takes over if the mayor resigns.
Zucchet learned during his tribulation that people can sometimes surprise you. For him, Murphy was perhaps the most surprising. Murphy, who endorsed Wear in 2002, offered Zucchet his public support after the raid and contributed to his legal-defense fund.
“You expect people to run from you like cockroaches, and just the opposite’s happening, and it’s happening with people like Dick Murphy, a Republican mayor [whose] political interests are [to] throw me under he bus, and here he’s doing just the opposite,” Zucchet says.
After the raid, “Dick Murphy and I became really good allies in terms of getting things done, and if Dick Murphy and I were on the same side of something, it was probably going to get done. And if we weren’t, we tried to stay out of each other’s way, basically.”
Zucchet became mayor on a Friday. A jury convicted him the following Monday, July 18, following an 11-week trial, forcing a tearful resignation.
Some people say he was mayor for one day, Zucchet muses. “It was really three days. One business day. But it was a full 68 hours. So, people are really shorting me.”
The day Zucchet resigned, businessman and philanthropist Sol Price called and asked him what he needed. Zucchet said he needed a job and help with legal bills. The two men met that afternoon, and Price laid out for Zucchet how he was going to fund a new position at the nonprofit organization of Zucchet’s choosing. Price and Zucchet experienced the same scenario at the first three nonprofits they approached: a thrilled executive director but one or more spooked board members who didn’t want a high-profile, scandalous figure in their midst.
Price, who died in 2009 at age 93, ended up providing most of the funding for a position for Zucchet under Michael Shames at the Utility Consumers Action Network. There’s a special place in Zucchet’s heart for men like Price and Shames, who took a risk for a man in need.
“I did stick my neck out for him,” Shames says in an e-mail. “Mike was essentially persona non grata in San Diego after the drubbing he took in the media. He couldn’t find a nonprofit that was willing to hire him because of the public vilification to which he had been subjected.”
Shames says he called reporters who’d covered the trial, as well as some defense attorneys, and everyone he talked to told him Zucchet had gotten a raw deal. “Based on my findings that a well-meaning young man had been wrongfully pilloried and now was unable to find a job to support his young family,” Shames says, “I felt that someone had to stand up and stay ‘That’s just not right.’”
On the side, Zucchet had also started consulting for developer Peter Janopaul, who was trying to get permits for a controversial high-rise condo building adjacent to the El Cortez. Zucchet preferred that over the UCAN job but would never have left without Shames’ blessing, which was given.
Zucchet became vice president for real estate for Janopaul’s J. Peter Block Companies, a job he held until early 2009, when he went to work for the Municipal Employees Association, the union for the city of San Diego’s white-collar workers, initially as a consultant and then—and now—as general manager.
Zucchet stands up from his seat at table on Tuesday evening, Feb. 8, 2011, at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, where a standing-room-only crowd has come to see him square off with Councilmember Carl DeMaio, former City attorney Mike Aguirre and economist Alan Gin in a forum on the city’s budget deficit.
“I’m a recovering politician,” he says, drawing laughter from the crowd. “That’s a hard thing to admit in front of a crowd this big. I’ve been politically sober for five years, six months and 19 days.”
That’s about how long it took for Zucchet to finally be free and clear of the charges that destroyed his career in what, by comparison, felt like the blink of an eye.
Four months after he resigned in disgrace from the City Council, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey Miller overturned the jury’s verdict on seven of the nine counts on which Zucchet was convicted and ordered a new trial on the remaining two.
Given the evidence presented, Miller ruled, the jury had insufficient basis for a guilty verdict. In his analysis, Miller noted that any time Malone talked to Galardi about who was firmly on board, Zucchet was left out, and that Malone repeatedly said he involved Zucchet only because Inzunza asked him to give Zucchet campaign money. Through the end of March 2003, there was no evidence of a quid pro quo, Miller noted.
Miller said that “the record amply shows that Zucchet engaged in deceitful conduct with respect to the [Public Safety Committee] charade” in April 2003, but the government’s quid pro quo case related to the committee meeting relied on Galardi’s surprise testimony that he gave Malone $10,000 in cash to give to the three council members, something Galardi said he didn’t remember it until the trial was well underway. There was no evidence that such a bribe was ever received, and Galardi’s “recovered memory” was “not credible,” Miller concluded.
It took a year for then-U.S. attorney Carol Lam to decide, in November 2006, to appeal Miller’s ruling, and another year-and-a-half went by before a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments. The appellate court upheld Miller’s ruling in September 2009 but delayed the effect of the decision until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case involving the type of corruption Zucchet had been accused of. That happened last summer. Finally, last October, U.S. attorney Laura Duffy decided not to retry Zucchet on the remaining two counts. By then, though, the announcement was anticlimactic—the big day for Zucchet was when the Ninth Circuit panel ruled in his favor.
Zucchet says his defense bill surpassed $1 million, and he’s planning to move forward with “certain legal actions in the very near future” to recoup his costs. But, aside from the financial toll, the case had a profound impact on his personal life.
It might sound “trite,” he says, but his family came through the ordeal stronger.
“But how was it at the time? Yeah, it sucked. And it was horrendous on Teresa and certainly hard on me. But the other thing about the time is you’re just in such fight mode. Everything is at stake—your family, your house, your freedom, your job, your integrity and your reputation. Everything. And so, you fight like hell.”
At night, after long days at City Hall, he’d research his case and share with Teresa interesting tidbits from the recorded conversations, which included instances of “ridiculous locker-room talk” about strippers and bachelor parties. He’d say to her, “Hey, let me tell you what you’re going to see on the front of the newspaper in about a year-and-a-half when this becomes public.”
Zucchet says his wife seldom expressed frustration with what was happening to their life—99 percent of the time, she was fully in his corner. “She’s a pretty tough cookie, obviously,” he says.
They’d always wanted more than one child. With Molly on the way when the case began, the original plan was to have a second baby in 2005. However, they waited till after trial. After the guilty verdict, they decided to go through with kid No. 2; Teresa became pregnant with Carter in summer 2005, while they were awaiting sentencing. Their families asked them if they were crazy.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” Zucchet says he told them. “But we’re moving forward. Maybe we have our heads in the sand, but we’re moving forward.”
Zucchet’s back in the thick of city politics, now on the other side of the negotiating table, haggling with the mayor and City Council over employee benefits amid a $50-million-plus budget gap. He insists his MEA job is fulfilling and says he wouldn’t take a City Council seat if it were handed to him.
“I truly have moved on from wanting to be an elected official,” he says. “I used to say that and not really mean it, but now I say it and really mean it.
“I could choose to be ruined by it or deal with the new reality. And it took a couple years for sure, but I firmly got into the camp of dealing with the new reality.”
He’s lost his much of the reverence he once felt for the United States of America. “It really stripped me of my patriotism” he says. “When Teresa and I would go to a baseball game, and they wouldn’t just sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’ but they’d sing ‘God Bless America,’ it would really affect us, and not in a positive way.
“It was really hard to keep it to ourselves—the problem we had with our country, let alone federal prosecutors.”
In 2005, several jurors told the Union-Tribune they were shocked and dismayed at Judge Miller’s ruling. They thought Zucchet broke the law. Zucchet says he took contributions from people who had business before the city and then met with them after he was elected—“which was exactly what every other elected official was doing then, is doing now and will be doing as long as we have privately financed campaigns in San Diego and across the country,” he says.
Did he do anything wrong?
Zucchet pauses, choosing his words carefully.
“Do I think I did anything criminal? No,” he says. “Do I think I did anything that merited criminal prosecution, or even a criminal investigation? No. Did I do anything that I’m ashamed of morally or… ethically? No. Do I wish the whole thing hadn’t happened? I suppose.” He laughs.
“Do I wish I’d never met those people? Yeah.”