Candidate Pleaded Guilty to Federal Felony Charge : 2nd Conviction of La Pietra Found

Times Staff Writer

West Hollywood City Council candidate Gene La Pietra, who recently acknowledged a 1971 state misdemeanor obscenity conviction, also pleaded guilty in 1974 to a federal felony charge of distributing a pornographic film through the mail, according to U.S. District Court files obtained by The Times.

The documents, which include indictment papers, affidavits and judicial orders, reveal that La Pietra entered a guilty plea on July 23, 1974, to one federal count of sending obscene materials through the mail. In return, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Kelleher granted a request by government prosecutors to dismiss eight similar obscenity counts against La Pietra. Kelleher then suspended La Pietra's sentence and placed him on probation for five years. The judge terminated La Pietra's probation after three years, in August, 1977.

When The Times asked La Pietra to respond to its findings, he called a press conference Tuesday. He acknowledged the 1974 conviction, but at first said he had pleaded no contest to the federal charge. (In a no-contest plea in a criminal matter, a defendant does not contest the charges, but does not admit guilt).

"It was no contest, no sentence and no fine," La Pietra said.

'I Didn't Remember'

But in a federal judgment signed by Kelleher in July, 1974, the judge noted that La Pietra had pleaded guilty to the first count of a nine-count indictment. After his news conference Tuesday, La Pietra reviewed files on the 1974 case and said he had not initially recalled his guilty plea because of the passage of time. "I didn't remember all this stuff," he said.

La Pietra's attorney, David M. Brown, added during the news conference that "it makes no difference whether he pleaded guilty or no contest. It warranted not one day of jail sentence or fine."

La Pietra, a millionaire Hollywood discotheque owner, is one of three candidates running for a City Council seat vacated last May by former Councilwoman Valerie Terrigno, who resigned after she was convicted on federal embezzlement charges.

La Pietra's major campaign foe is Abbe Land, a tenant activist who last week produced documents revealing La Pietra's 1971 obscenity conviction for selling a pornographic film to an undercover Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy and his history as an owner of two adult bookstores and a movie arcade. The third candidate in the race is businessman Stephen Michael.

According to an affidavit filed in La Pietra's federal obscenity case by U.S. Postal Inspector Kenneth A. Elsesser, the investigation of La Pietra commenced after an order form from Sunrise Imports, a mail order firm specializing in adult films, arrived at a test address maintained in Los Angeles by postal inspectors. The order form contained titles and descriptions of adult films that could be obtained from the Norwalk-based firm.

After sending away for one of the films, Elsesser said, postal authorities received an 8mm film depicting men and women performing a variety of sex acts. "The movie runs approximately 12 minutes and contains no story lines other than the explicit sexual scenes," Elsesser wrote.

Postal inspectors eventually learned that the films were being sent from a Norwalk address maintained by La Pietra. The council candidate has recently acknowledged that from 1971 to 1974, he owned adult book stores and a film arcade in the cities of Norwalk and Bell gardens.

After postal inspectors reviewed mail records and pursued their investigation, ordering several more films from Sunrise Imports, a federal grand jury indicted La Pietra on March 18, 1974.

In an interview after his Tuesday news conference, La Pietra said he was not the sole owner of the mail order firm. During the conference, the candidate insisted that adult materials are not frowned upon by most West Hollywood residents. And he stressed that his only mistake in handling his obscenity convictions was "assuming that my past was irrelevant to my City Council hopes."

At the conference, several prominent gay and lesbian political leaders who support La Pietra said they perceive efforts by Land to publicize his obscenity convictions as an attack on West Hollywood's large gay community.

"One of the things I'm deeply concerned about is that pornography can be used as a method of attack on the gay and lesbian community," said Susan McGreivy, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney and lesbian activist.

'Dishonesty' the Issue

But Land and her supporters denied that they were trying to make pornography an issue or attack homosexuals. "It's not about pornography," Land said. "It's about the fact he has lied to us about his past. That's the central issue here, dishonesty."

While many of La Pietra's supporters within and outside the gay community appear to be holding firm in their support, some have expressed bitterness at his failure to make his convictions public early on.

Anthony Melia, the president of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said he and other community leaders had asked La Pietra before he filed for the council race if he had "any skeletons rattling in his closet."

"Each time I asked if there was something in his background that might prove to be embarrassing, he said nothing," Melia said. "I'm angry that this wasn't revealed before."

Still, Melia said he was "holding fast" in his backing of La Pietra. Melia held out hope that La Pietra's convictions would not significantly harm his campaign chances. "I think there are a lot of people out there who say, 'Who cares?' " Melia said.

Several other gay leaders, however, expressed indignation that even as late as last week, after the first revelations were made public, La Pietra told them that he had no other convictions in his past.

'When Does This End?'

"When I talked to him, I was assured that the misdemeanor conviction was it," one political activist said. "Now, suddenly, we're told there's another conviction. When does this end?"

On Monday night, the Stonewall Democratic Club, one of West Hollywood's major gay and lesbian political organizations, declined to make an immediate endorsement in the race. The Stonewall decision came a week after the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles, the most influential gay-oriented political club in the city, also voted to withhold any endorsements for several more weeks.

In both cases, members said they were leaning in favor of La Pietra, but worried about the impact of the revelations about his convictions.

Parke Skelton, Land's campaign manager, said the decision by the two organizations to withhold their endorsements showed "a softening of support" for La Pietra. "Gene's own people are not ready to back him," Skelton said. "Both of these groups were ready to back him 100% and then they back off. I think it shows that people feel they've been lied to and betrayed."

La Pietra countered that the political clubs "simply wanted to wait until they got a better picture of what my candidacy was all about."

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