Perhaps no one who remains in San Diego politics has experienced the lows of the city’s turmoil during the past decade more than Michael Zucchet. He was a city councilman when the pension crisis blew up in 2004 and then resigned from office after his indictment on federal corruption charges in the quid-pro-quo scandal known as “Strippergate.” After a four-year court battle, Zucchet was cleared of most charges this September. He could still face a retrial on other counts pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision on what’s known as the “honest-services” law that’s used to prosecute political fraud cases.
Last month, the city’s largest labor union, the white collar Municipal Employees Association, hired Zucchet as its general manager, replacing Judie Italiano, who resigned during a union investigation into her use of union credit cards. He spent the last two weeks arguing on behalf of city workers scheduled to be laid off under the budget City Council passed on Wednesday.
We spoke to Zucchet about MEA’s future, his court case and political life in San Diego.
Have you taken an overall strategy review since you’ve been here in terms of what type of financial support for candidates and other issues that the union will have going forward.
Care to elaborate on what we might see differently out of MEA now?
MEA in the last 15 years or so has not participated in candidate or ballot initiative elections. I believe that needs to change. We’re a strong organization from a financial standpoint and I think it’s just a matter of prioritizing where we have been spending some of that money. It seems amazing that we haven’t done that in the past.
Do you folks have the financial resources to be able to make an impact?
We certainly have the financial resources to participate. Simply getting in the game is a very important first step that I think will happen very soon.
When you were first elected to council it appeared that you were more allied with the Donna Frye crowd and when you left it appeared that you were closer to the Dick Murphy crowd. Is that an accurate representation and was there a shift for you?
It’s a long and complicated answer with lots of different dynamics and personalities at play. Before I was elected I had worked with Donna for more than a handful of years. It’s not that there was some split, at least in my mind, from her. What did happen was with Dick Murphy. When I got elected Dick Murphy and I weren’t good buddies. But as we served together I really grew to respect and appreciate him personally. And when it hit the fan for me Dick was one of the people who went over and above to support me personally and professionally and politically. We formed this sort of alliance that was an odd alliance and not well known and pretty effective.
Why do you think that happened?
I found we could be really effective together. I would also acknowledge part of it was personal. The personal respect I had for the way he not only stuck by me, but stuck his own neck out for me on numerous occasions. It made it easy to work with him.
What do you think in San Diego’s political culture has changed from when you were on the council to what you see now?
I’ve become very cynical about many aspects of the public and the media and the political structure in this city. I’ve seen a degradation in the level of debate, of honest factual debate. I think our previous city attorney had a significant impact on that degradation and certain aspects of the media as well have impacted that debate being boiled down to attacks and aspersions and demagoguery over a variety of issues.
That’s a bit of a surprising thing for me to hear. In the sense of talking about honest and open debate, the argument is that from your time in office and before with the city’s pension and other issues there wasn’t any honesty or openness. Am I misreading this?
I think you’re buying the line out there, and I don’t mean that personally, that that’s the way it was. There wasn’t a single San Diego city retirement meeting that wasn’t public, wasn’t Brown Act noticed, transcripts weren’t available, wasn’t put on television. All the council meetings, all these decisions happened in public. But they were being done by politicians at the time who had the support of certain interests in town where nobody seemed to care. When those decisions came home to roost and certain interests in this town thought they could make hay out of them to attack or destroy political opponents they used it for their own worth.
The story is, that was a different time and now everything’s different. It’s actually all about the same. It’s just that some people woke up. It’s a little frustrating because it’s not so much that the politicians have changed, or that the structures have changed or that people are now more or less genuine in what they do or open in what they do, it’s that media interests, business interests and political interests care more because they find gold in some of these issues.
Could you be more specific?
Let’s talk about when Susan Golding was mayor. In order to save city services and help the budget when it came to negotiations with labor unions rather than giving pay raises she would give benefit increases. The Union-Tribune and Republican interests in this town would hail her as brilliant and, “Thanks for saving services and helping our budgets.” Now, 10 years later, it was a horrible underfunding quid-pro-quo scheme to defraud the public.
Did you know anything about the honest-services law before it got you?
No. I knew almost nothing about the justice system. It was all a learning experience. (Laughs).
What in your mind is the biggest issue with it?
Obviously, a lot has been written about the statute. It’s a statute of two or three sentences, which as (U.S. Supreme Court) Justice (Antonin) Scalia says is tantamount to making a law that says bad things are illegal. It’s so vague as to be interpreted by literally everybody who reads it slightly differently. I’m not a constitutional law scholar, but it’s a basic principle that statutes should be understandable and clear, not vague and able to be manipulated by whatever prosecutor or jury wants it to be. That’s the fundamental flaw.
How have you been able to pay your legal bills through all these years?
I’ve been able to raise a significant amount of money through legal defense funds. That’s been a significant portion of it. I’ve paid a significant portion of it. (My wife) and I took out a second mortgage on our house. I continue to make monthly payments on it and will continue to probably for my life. (Laughs). And after all that there’s still a significant debt owed to my lawyer so his support and his firm’s support has been invaluable in that regard. It’s simply beyond the means of any reasonable person to afford a defense in a case like this.
Is there anything else that you want to add or emphasize at all?
Despite my sometimes curmudgeon, cynical view of politics in San Diego, I honestly have hope for the future. I hope and suspect we are at something of a bottom not only economically, but in terms of our public debate, but in terms of our city and our city employees. I do have significant hope that the future is brighter, which is part of the reason I took this job. The prosecutor certainly stripped me of a lot of my idealism and drive, but I’ve got a lot left, too.
— Interview conducted and edited by LIAM DILLON