The after-work crowd is gathering at Cheetahs All Nude entertainment parlor, undeterred by being at the epicenter of the latest political scandal to grip City Hall.
Three newly elected City Council members have had their offices raided by FBI agents, who carried off files to search for untoward financial links to Cheetahs owners, dancers and associates.
A federal grand jury is calling witnesses to determine whether the owners and operators of the strip club sought to improperly buy influence to get the council to loosen the ordinance that governs Cheetahs and other nude-entertainment establishments.
The local media are full of stories about wiretaps and lawyers, but it is business as usual at the club, squeezed between a car dealership and an acupuncture parlor on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, one of the city’s main commercial strips.
Buxom young women dance naked on a raised stage -- covered only by their 1st Amendment right to express themselves by displaying their bodies. Men go bug-eyed watching them.
But when a dancer suggests that men give her money in appreciation for her dancing, city rules require that she wear at least a G-string and pasties. And she must be careful not to permit any “fondling or caressing” between herself and her admirers.
In November 2000, the San Diego City Council -- at the request of the city attorney, city manager, and police chief -- amended the city’s nude entertainment ordinance to prohibit all physical contact between entertainers and patrons. Vice cops, who work undercover, vowed a new vigor in enforcing the “6-foot rule” -- the distance required between dancer and patron when the performer is entirely nude.
The changes meant a sharp drop in income for the dancers -- who are “independent contractors,” not hourly employees -- and the nude establishments.
The changes were vigorously opposed by the owners of nude establishments in San Diego, including Cheetahs owner Michael Galardi. Galardi and his father, Jack, own a string of nude entertainment spots across the country and operate an X-rated Web site.
Now federal law enforcement agencies are probing to determine whether Michael Galardi or his associates -- including a former Las Vegas police officer who serves as his lobbyist --may have tried to work outside the traditional framework of lobbying and political contributions to get the ordinance softened.
A similar grand jury investigation is underway in Las Vegas, involving politicians and the Galardi family.
The search warrants that allowed the FBI agents to raid the San Diego Cheetahs and the offices of council members Ralph Inzunza, Charles Lewis and Michael Zucchet were issued after agents spent months eavesdropping on City Hall conversations through wiretaps and other electronic devices.
All three council members have denied any wrongdoing and hired lawyers.
Inzunza and Lewis received political contributions from Cheetahs people, and Zucchet, soon after joining the council, requested that the council revisit the nude entertainment issue -- although he insists his aim was to add restrictions, not to overturn those already in place.
As a political scandal, the investigation -- dubbed “G-Strings to G-Men” by one radio talk-show host -- is both somewhat larger and considerably smaller than other San Diego political scandals.
It is larger, political insiders note, because it raises the specter of money for favors. The search warrants say the agents were looking for evidence of possible bribery.
San Diego political scandals have not tended to include bribery. Common political wisdom had held it would be futile to bribe city lawmakers because their powers are so limited by the city Charter.
On the other hand, previous scandals have tended to include politicians of greater tenure and prominence and issues of larger significance: a mayor removed for taking unreported campaign money from two swindlers; a council member touted for statewide office who resigned after pleading guilty to misusing a city credit card; and a three-term councilwoman who resigned before pleading guilty to taking unreported gifts from the owner of the San Diego Padres baseball team.
The relative obscurity of Inzunza, Lewis and Zucchet may also contribute to another curious aspect of the scandal -- the apparent lack of public outrage despite massive media coverage.
Scott Barnett, president of the Lincoln Club, a pro-business political organization, said that although the story is “topic No. 1 in the echo-chamber” of City Hall, it seems to have little resonance elsewhere.
“District elections have made council members anonymous,” he said. “They simply don’t exist outside of their district.” Since the late 1980s, the city has elected council members solely by districts.
Talk-show hosts have tended to emphasize the comedic potential of the story, including one who plays stripper music whenever the topic is discussed.
“I don’t think it has much traction outside of City Hall insiders,” said Steve Erie, professor of political science at UC San Diego. “It’s got a little bit of titillation value because it’s Cheetahs and nude entertainment, but most people’s minds are focused elsewhere.”
One joke making the rounds is that the Cheetahs dancers called the cops by their first names when they arrived for the raid. One City Hall insider jokes that maybe the story would get the public’s attention if it included pictures of the dancers, instead of those of the politicians.
“This all seems too trivial,” said lawyer and civil liberties advocate Eugene Iredale. “The cultural/legal issue that threatens to disrupt city government involves whether a woman wearing a G-string and pasties can rub up against a man.”
The council members whose files were seized have said little. Lewis, hustling to a community meeting, told reporters he would “bend but not break” during the investigation. Inzunza read a statement, first in Spanish, then English, saying he was startled by the raid and remains puzzled about what the feds are looking for. Said Zucchet: “I believe I have done nothing wrong.”
At Cheetahs, mum is the word. Dancers, bouncers and managers will not talk. Ditto the patrons.
“Go away,” a customer said as a reporter tried to ask a question. Like all guests, he had paid a $10 “membership fee” and $8 for two soft drinks. As a place that features nude dancing, Cheetahs cannot obtain a liquor license.
Overhead, the sound system blared the N Sync version of the Christopher Cross song “Sailing.” One dancer, attired in just enough clothing to satisfy Municipal Code 33.3610, sat down beside the untalkative patron.
“Did you like my dancing?” she asked as he tucked a $10 bill into her G-string.