By Raymond R. Beltrán
Seven o’clock Wednesday morning, Robert Varela delved back into the regular grind of buttoning up his brown uniform, jumping into those box-shaped trucks, and shipping packages for the United Parcel Service. To anyone else, it’s just another day, but to him it’s barely the second day after his two-month long civic duty as juror eleven in one of San Diego’s most prominent grand jury indictments in the city’s history, indictments that ultimately led to the conviction of former San Diego City Councilmen Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet for wire fraud conspiracy, corruption, and extortion.
“I’m just glad the whole thing’s over. I’m ready to move on with my life,” said 32-year-old Varela. “It’s such an enormous responsibility, you know.”
‘Disheartened’ and ‘saddened’ are the words he uses to express his feelings toward the guilty verdict, but that’s because he admits that even though he was on the jury, he is still a San Diegan and this is his city too.
To consolidate the jury’s findings that led to the guilty verdict, they found that the councilmen were accepting campaign moneys equaling $23,150 in contributions and $18,000 in cash from a Las Vegas lobbyist named Lance Malone, who represented a Las Vegas strip club owner by the name of Michael Galardi. The quid pro quo? That the councilmen would push to put strip club restrictions, specifically the No Touch Law binding club goers’ from touching dancers, on the city council docket and ultimately try to get it repealed in the meetings.
So, who did what and what was provided the jury that the city councilmen were found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Varela sat down with La Prensa San Diego and touched on a few significant topics that he felt led the jury to what he stated was a ‘right and just decision.’
La Prensa: Talk a little bit about the task of the jury and the level of security or insecurity there was in coming out with a guilty verdict.
Varela: It did take some convincing. We had to come up with one explicit quid pro quo, which in Latin means “something for something,” and there was a lot of debate in the jury room about where the exchange was at, but through the tapes, we heard multiple instances of scheming and plotting and the advancement of a plan to repeal the no touch law, and it was obvious that these efforts were in exchange for [Michael] Galardi’s money, in reimbursed campaign contributions. They saw a cash cow in Galardi and [Lance] Malone.
LP: What about this plan? What was it and how was it carried out?
Varela: They had built, in cover, this plan where Malone and Galardi would give up a few things that didn’t really matter to the club, sham issues like increasing the distances between adult venues and increased parking. These items would pave the way for their real issue to get on the agenda. Once they were before council, the plan was to slap them on the wrist, the adult industry, and then change the no touch law back to lewd and lascivious. So, if and when the media got a hold of this, [Councilman Ralph] Inzunza would just say, “look, I’m making it harder for these clubs by increasing these distance requirements,” knowing all along the real issue was repealing the no touch law. Some of the jury members actually believed that the councilmen were just pulling one over on Malone because they, the councilmen, knew it wouldn’t succeed either. Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t, but the issue is that the money was always there, readily available for them, and they kept acting out the plan as was scripted.
LP: What did you, the jury, have to rely on when it came to cold, hard evidence of corruption and wire fraud?
Varela: Since the investigation was driven by body wires and phone taps, we relied on the tapes. Once [they]’re charged with conspiracy, the wire fraud charges fell into place. The calls were made to carry out the plan, and this was clearly an agreement, clear to anyone that sat in that courtroom for 70 plus days and listened to every last tape. That’s why Lance Malone was here in San Diego; to get the no touch laws repealed … fewer tips to dancers means less money for Michael Galardi.
Malone would go to fundraisers with Galardi’s money in the form of reimbursed checks. He would get dancers and employees of Cheeta’s [Kearny Mesa] to write out checks to the councilmen’s campaigns and then he would reimburse them with cash. When [Michael] Zucchet’s campaign learned this money had strip club ties, they sent it back and Zucchet told Malone, “It’s not that I can’t accept this money, it’s that I can’t accept this money right now.” When he requested the money later, he asked that it not have ties to the club, so, Malone cleaned up the money by finding people that could not be traced back to the adult entertainment industry. But, these people were being reimbursed by Galardi anyway and the councilmen knew that. They knew it was in exchange for repealing the no touch laws.
LP: So, after all the discussion about this plan, how was it actually carried out within city council?
Varela: Well, Zucchet was there to get the no touch law on the city council’s agenda, specifically, to get it discussed at city council meetings, even though he knew, after talking to a Lt. Kananski, police supported the no touch law. He told Malone that he would do the ‘lifting’ on the committee level, and that would get the ball rolling. That was his job, and this is the part that put the nail in the coffin for Zucchet. They knew that Galardi’s money was there for the taking … and this is where you find the quid pro quo.
Lance Malone planned to bring a man to PSNS [Public Safety and Neighborhood Services] meetings claiming to be a San Diego resident raising the issue of no touch. He called Charles Lewis and told him to look out for his boy. So during the actual meeting, which we saw on videotapes, the guy from Las Vegas, his name is Tom Waddel, speaks and Zucchet waives his hand to get the attention of the chairman [Brian Maienschein] and basically says, “Is this good enough for a referral to the City Attorney’s office?” And that’s how it was to go to the city council docket.
LP: How did the jury decipher the language between politics and corruption?
Varela: From what we gathered, they’re very careful of what they said. They’re not going to speak in laymen terms. When they speak, they’re not going to mention the word “bribes.” There was a time when Inzunza called Malone and said, “I’m going to need another two to three thousand dollars. It’s our final push for Zucchet to win this election.” Basically, it was like “if you want to have more success in getting the no touch law repealed, get my boys in office.” Lewis and Zucchet weren’t elected yet, but getting funding for their campaign, that was Ralph’s plan. There was a never ending supply of money readily available, and Malone would let them know it was there no matter how much or when they needed it.
LP: And where, in the trial, did you feel the defense made the weakest argument?
Varela: The defendants’ [weakest] argument was that this was politics as usual. Everyday, a lobbyist speaks with politicians, and everyday a lobbyist expects to have access to their politicians, money or not. That’s true and I support that concept, but this was Lance Malone buying one-fourth of the city council. For one, Malone wasn’t even a registered lobbyist in the city of San Diego, and that’s where the lack of transparency issue comes in … where the citizens’ right to know comes in. None of that was public record.
Second, Malone was a lobbyist for strip clubs like Cheeta’s, and Ralph Inzunza doesn’t even have strip clubs in his district. The no-touch laws weren’t an issue in his office back then, but on those tapes, it shows he’s investing a lot of time into these issues. That was a big part for me from the evidence, because as jurors, we bring a wealth of knowledge and experiences into the court room, but more importantly we come with common sense.
LP: Inzunza’s attorney, Michael Pancer, implied in a SDUT article that the jury’s judgment may have been clouded by San Diego government’s current state of affairs, the financial situation, and the mayor’s resignation. How would you respond that?
Varela: As one of the jurors, that never came up on anyone’s mind, the state of the city or the financial situation. Our minds were focused on the evidence and the task given to us. When I was selected onto the jury, I had no idea of what this case was about, no specifics. All I knew is that when they got indicted, they asked for a bench trial, but the judge threw it down. It had no bearing on the decision.
LP: As a native San Diegan, how did you approach this case, and what is your final perception of the issue in its entirety?
Varela: I accepted it with a “bring your lunch box mentality.” I was going to work as usual, only the job was different. And after the closing arguments, we all went into the jury room and let the evidence guide us, and finally came to the final verdicts ... We’re comfortable that we made the right and just decision. There were no second thoughts in that room. And in the end, I did try to separate myself from everything while they read the verdict … and from the jury too.
I could not help but to feel for all the defendants and their families; plus, I was disheartened and saddened because this is my city too. They might not be bad people, but I think they did make poor decisions regarding their political status to benefit themselves. So, it might send a message to politicians that our government is not for sale, and to work for the good of all constituents, not for one private interest.