San Diego’s top law enforcement officials, a state appeal court judge, the president of San Diego State University and the city’s Catholic bishop have written the White House in support of a presidential pardon for a wealthy benefactor convicted in 1973 of a felony charge of providing an illegal gratuity to a federal prison official.
The letters, obtained by The Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, reflect an extraordinary demonstration of support from some of San Diego’s most prominent leaders for a pardon in one of the most sensational prosecutions in the city’s history.
Dominic (Bud) Alessio was convicted in 1973 after federal prosecutors showed in a nationally publicized trial that he lavished gifts on a prison administrator at the same time his father and an uncle received visits with women and other preferential treatment while serving prison time for income tax evasion. He eventually served five months of a six-month sentence in federal prison.
In a brief interview with The Times on Wednesday, Alessio said he wants to clear his name and indicated that he sees nothing wrong--or newsworthy--in the pardon application.
“Why would anybody want a pardon?” said Alessio, 46, a businessman and investor in real estate and restaurants. “It’s something everybody is entitled to apply for. What I went through 15 years ago, which I can’t believe is newsworthy today, was a very dark period of my life. It was a very bad thing.”
Some of the federal investigators who worked the tax evasion and prison bribery cases contend that the letter-writing campaign for a White House pardon is another example of the Alessio family spreading its influence.
“That’s his nature to make friends with big people,” said Lenard Wolf, who was the lead FBI agent on the bribery case.
The pardon application contains letters from San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy; then-San Diego police Chief Bill Kolender; Gerald J. Lewis, then a state Court of Appeal justice; Thomas B. Day, president of San Diego State University, and Leo T. Maher, bishop of the San Diego Catholic Diocese.
Also backing Alessio’s pardon application, filed in May, are some of the city’s most influential businessmen, including William S. Cowling II, president of Dixieline Lumber Co.; Donald L. Daley, chairman of the board of the Daley Corp., and C. Terry Brown, president of Atlas Hotels.
The letters suggest that many of the San Diego leaders view the infraction for which Alessio was convicted as minor. Kolender, in three letters in 1983 and 1985, insisted that “Bud was a victim of circumstances and did what any son would do for his father.”
Considered Case Serious
Federal prosecutors with the Organized Crime Strike Force in Southern California considered the case far more serious. They contended that prison officials were bribed with food, lodging and entertainment gifts in return for allowing John and Angelo Alessio to conduct secret rendezvous with women friends. In all, six people were convicted or pleaded guilty in the case.
The case was highlighted in Life and Time magazines, and the San Diego press voted it the second-biggest news event of 1972, behind the city’s unsuccessful attempt to become host of the Republican National Convention.
John Alessio, Bud’s father, was a protege of C. Arnholt Smith, the San Diego financier who later went to jail in the midst of a scandal involving tax evasion and grand theft. As the Smith empire began unraveling in the late 1960s, John Alessio, a millionaire known as “Big John,” and his brother, Angelo, went to prison in what was then one of the largest tax evasion prosecutions in the Western United States.
While incarcerated in Lompoc, the brothers were treated to many favors, including weekend meetings with women in the prison chapel building and at a Lompoc motel, the government said. Several prison officials were provided with a wide range of gifts, including a San Diego Bay sailing junket on Smith’s yacht.
After a lengthy trial held in Los Angeles, Bud Alessio was found innocent of bribing the prison officials. But he was convicted of a felony charge of providing a gratuity and was subsequently fined $10,000. He later served five months of a six-month sentence in federal prison.
Two of the investigators who worked on the cases said the letter-writing campaign for the pardon showed a similar pattern of behavior.
‘Scratch My Back’
Wolf, the lead FBI agent on the bribery case, said: “That’s the way he (Bud Alessio) operates. You know, scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back. Butter up people who can do favors for you when you need them.”
Added A. David Stutz, one of the IRS agents on the tax case: “That’s their style. That’s the Alessio style. That’s the way they do business.”
Bud Alessio’s attorney, Thomas Nugent, strongly denied that the community leaders wrote the letters as a quid pro quo.
“I enlisted their support, and they granted it willingly,” the lawyer said. “In my conversations with them, none of them said there would be any kind of back-scratching. They said certainly they would write the letters. No conditions.”
Alessio, who lives in El Cajon, told The Times he was concerned about new publicity damaging his family’s reputation.
“This thing is 15 years old,” he said. “I don’t like to relive it. I would hope my family wouldn’t have to go through this thing again. I’ve done a lot for this community. I really don’t want to get into this.”
He said in his pardon application that he believes he has paid a “heavy price” for his criminal past.
‘Great Personal Pride’
“While I recognize that the reputational damage can never be completely overcome,” he wrote, “it would give me great personal pride to have the stigma of a felony conviction removed from my name.
“With this one exception, I have conducted myself as an honest and responsible citizen of this community and my country. I believe it is reasonable to request that I be granted a status consistent with my conduct.”
In some cases, the letters on file with Alessio’s pardon application come from community leaders whose organizations have benefited from the Alessio family largess:
- In two 1985 letters of support written on his sheriff’s stationery and submitted to President Reagan, Duffy said that “justice would be served” if a pardon were granted to Alessio.
“It is my understanding that the favor was extended at the request of his father,” Duffy wrote. Bud Alessio, he wrote, “is a well-respected businessman who is active in civic affairs in our community. It is very important to him to now eliminate any stigma for the sake of his children and for his own peace of mind.”
The sheriff refused to be interviewed by The Times.
The Sheriff’s Department has been supported over the years by several Alessio family members through their participation in the John F. Duffy Foundation and the Honorary Deputy Sheriff’s Assn.
- Kolender, in three letters he sent to the White House in 1983 and 1985 on his city stationery while he was police chief, praised Bud Alessio, saying “he has earned and established an excellent reputation throughout our city.”
“Bud is an active contributor, participates in our community and has many civic interests,” Kolender wrote.
In an interview Wednesday, Kolender, now an assistant general manager for community relations at the Union-Tribune Publishing Co., said he and Alessio “have been friends for years.”
“I think that, under the circumstances he deserves a pardon,” the ex-chief said. “He’s contributed to his community. He’s served his time. He did something for his father, he made a mistake, and he paid for it.
“He deserves a chance for a new start. I think he’s a good guy.”
But Kolender said he was not aware of the preferential treatment Alessio’s father and uncle were given in prison.
Kolender said he did not know of any contributions Alessio had made to the Police Department. However, told that Cowling, of Dixieline Lumber, said that Alessio gave $10,000 in a 1985 fund-raising drive for the purchase of a new Victim Rescue Vehicle, Kolender said, “If Bill said that, he’s right.”
- Lewis was a justice on the state Court of Appeal when he wrote the President on behalf of Alessio in 1985. He had come to know Alessio through members of his former law practice, which represented Alessio.
“Except for the offense for which he now seeks a pardon, there is absolutely nothing derogatory about his conduct which has ever come to my attention in any way,” Lewis wrote in the letter on his personal stationery.
The judge, who has since retired from the bench, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
- Day, president of SDSU, described Alessio in his 1985 letter on university stationery as a “strong supporter” of the university and as a “good citizen and a good friend.”
Day addressed the letter to Alessio and told him in it that “you may use this letter as you wish.”
“I do want to help, and I do--very much--value your support and friendship,” he wrote. “I believe you should be given consideration for full recognition.”
On Wednesday, Day said: “Whatever his difficulties were in the past, it was before my time” as SDSU president.
“And my understanding is that he paid for those difficulties as any citizen would. His behavior and his activities in the community lead me to believe a pardon would be appropriate.”
Day also said that Alessio is one of his closest advisers, a member of the university’s President’s Council and an active contributor to scholarship and athletic programs.
SDSU records show that Alessio is among a group of benefactors who during the 1987-88 school year contributed more than $25,000.
But Day denied that he wrote the letter because of Alessio’s support of the university. “It really has nothing to do with money,” he said. “People could say its a quid pro quo, but I don’t look at it that way.”
- Maher, the Catholic bishop of San Diego, wrote the President in 1985 that Alessio “has been and continues to be a very zealous member of the board of Catholic Social Services,” as well as “a religious man and a splendid family man.”
“He is a very prominent man in the community and a very fine businessman,” the bishop added in an interview. “It would mean a great deal to himself, to his family and to the community for him to be given a pardon.”
The bishop said Alessio has “been helpful in his contacts in raising money, in banquets and other fund-raising activities.”
And he said he would write a letter for anyone in a “similar circumstance.”
“We’d do it for anybody if we can serve in this manner,” he said. “If we feel the man’s worthy of it.”
Others writing in behalf of Alessio were a number of San Diego’s top business leaders.
At Father’s Request
Cowling, of Dixieline Lumber, pointed out in his 1985 letter to the White House that he was Reagan’s co-treasurer in San Diego for the president’s 1980 political campaign.
He wrote that offenses similar to Alessio’s are not considered felonies in many states, and that Alessio only “did what his father requested him to do.”
“And here this poor young guy goes to jail!” Cowling said in an interview. “If I was asked the same thing, and my father was in prison, I don’t know if I wouldn’t do something for prison guards. Blood is pretty thick. And, if my dad is sitting there in a rock, I’d want to make him pretty comfortable.
“I wouldn’t do anything to break the law,” Cowling said. “But I don’t know that Bud Alessio when he did it knew it was against the law.”
Daley, chairman of the board of the Daley Corp., wrote Reagan in 1985 that “Dominic Alessio is eminently deserving of a presidential pardon.” And Brown, chairman of Atlas Hotels, wrote the President last May that “Bud exemplifies all of the character of what I would deem a great citizen.”
Daley was out of town and could not be reached for comment this week. Brown did not return a phone call.
Followed Bishop’s Lead
Another letter came from James J. DeLapa, a former San Diego businessman and a friend of the Alessio family. DeLapa said in an interview that he was proud to join other community leaders such as Bishop Maher in backing a presidential pardon for Alessio.
“I thought, what the hell, the bishop’s on his side, so why shouldn’t I write a letter,” DeLapa said. “And I’m going to say four Hail Marys tonight in the hopes he gets the pardon.”
The pardon application, filed May 13, is one of about 700 requests under review by the federal pardon attorney. The process which takes about three years to complete.
As a result of the application, Alessio is undergoing a routine FBI background check. When that is done, the pardon attorney will draft a recommendation for the attorney general’s signature. The file is then forwarded to the White House counsel, who reviews the case and sends it to the Oval Office.
Officials in the pardon attorney’s office declined to discuss the merits of the application. However, one supervisor, who asked not to be identified, said it is not all that unusual for some applicants to seek support from friends in law enforcement.
“People do try and seek out law enforcement types,” he said. “They believe that will lend their applications some credibility. They often try to get their police chief or minister to support them. It’s amazing who they’ll seek out.”
Held in High Regard
At the time of the crimes that sent members of the Alessio family to prison, the family was held in high regard in San Diego’s social community.
John Alessio amassed a fortune by the late 1960s, in holdings such as the Hotel del Coronado, the Agua Caliente race track in Tijuana, and the swank Kona Kai Club and Mr. A’s Restaurant in San Diego.
His mentor, C. Arnholt Smith, was indicted and convicted of tax evasion and grand theft. In 1970, John Alessio, his three brothers, Angelo, Russell and Anthony Alessio, and his son, Bud, were indicted for income tax evasion.
The case was heard a year later. On the seventh day of the trial, John and Angelo Alessio suddenly pleaded guilty in return for the dismissal of charges against the other three defendants, including Bud Alessio.
John and Angelo Alessio were given three-year sentences and sent to Lompoc.
In 1972, Bud Alessio was indicted again, this time on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government, to wit, that he “influenced, corrupted and deceived” federal prison officials into granting special prison favors for his father and uncle.
Bud Alessio pleaded not guilty, denying the allegations that he plied prison officials with entertainment and other valuable gifts in return for the special treatment given his relatives.
Specifically, the government contended that John and Angelo Alessio were allowed private sessions with female companions both inside the prison chapel building and on excursions away from the facility, including at a Lompoc motel. In return, the government alleged, prison officials were given gifts, entertainment, food, lodging, fishing trips and special deals on a horse trailer and truck.
When Bud Alessio was arrested, he confidently told reporters that the charges were “total harassment.” Then he tossed a lighted cigarette at a television cameraman, glared and walked into the lobby of FBI headquarters.
During the 1973 trial in Los Angeles, a petite, dark-haired singer-actress named Maria della Malva testified that she met John Alessio on four occasions in motels while he was serving the term for income tax evasion. Although most of the visits lasted five hours, one went as long as 12 hours.
John Alessio testified that he was taken out of prison on several occasions but that he only met with his wife, Edna.
Bud Alessio testified that he provided complimentary lodging at the Kona Kai Club for the prison administrator and his family and that he also arranged for two free dinners, a boat trip and for perfume and baskets of fruit to be placed in the administrator’s rooms.
‘Standard Business Procedure’
Although he denied providing the gratuities in order to influence the prison administrator’s treatment of his father, he said it was his “standard business procedure” to provide such complimentary favors to public officials.
“And you see nothing wrong with it?” the prosecutor asked.
“That’s correct,” Alessio answered.
He was convicted May 30, 1973, of giving a gratuity to a federal prison official.
Two months later, then 31 years old, Bud Alessio was sentenced to six months in jail and fined $10,000. He unsuccessfully appealed his conviction, and eventually served five months in prison.
The prison administrator, Anthony Santiago, pleaded guilty to accepting a gratuity, and a prison caseworker, Roy W. Goddard, was found guilty of the same charge. A third guard, Daniel C. Morgan, was fined $250.
John and Angelo Alessio pleaded guilty to providing gratuities and were fined $5,000 and $2,500, respectively.