FBI's Operation G-Sting dents San Diego's golden image

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The Independent US

A lot of places could vie for the title of most dysfunctional city in the United States, but the sun-kissed Californian port of San Diego certainly makes a compelling case.

A lot of places could vie for the title of most dysfunctional city in the United States, but the sun-kissed Californian port of San Diego certainly makes a compelling case.

The mayor has just resigned in disgrace, six months after an election many San Diegans feel he didn't really win. The deputy mayor has just gone on trial, along with another city council member, on charges of accepting bribes from a Las Vegas strip club owner. The city pension fund is $1.5bn in the toilet and only 67 per cent funded. The city's maintenance crews can't afford to fix potholes any more. Standard and Poor's has suspended the city's credit rating, citing its inability to produce auditable accounts.

There is talk of closing down every last city service except for basic police and fire protection. On top of that, the FBI and other federal investigators continue to sniff around City Hall for evidence of further corruption.

All of this is distinctly jarring in a city which, on the surface, enjoys easy affluence, a paradisiacal climate, a diverse economy, burgeoning suburbs and a generally contented population known for its quiet conservatism. Yet appearances can be deceptive. Over the past 25 years, San Diego has seen one mayor indicted and convicted of accepting money laundered from a pyramid investment scheme, and another whose husband was caught consorting with drug dealers in an FBI sting.

The latest outgoing mayor, a former judge called Dick Murphy, was guilty of more mundane offences - notably, allowing the pension deficit, which he inherited, to run out of control. With receivers, investigators and accountants all circling his office, he resigned at the end of last month, shortly after Time magazine named San Diego as the third worst run city in the US. Experts say it could take years for San Diego to recover its financial health - if it is not forced into bankruptcy first.

Six months ago Mr Murphy faced a vigorous election challenge from an environmentalist councillor called Donna Frye, who failed in her bid to unseat him only because 5,500 incompletely filled ballots were disallowed by a judge, even though they were clearly cast for her. Ms Frye will now run for mayor again in July.

More colourful are the doings of the deputy mayor, Michael Zucchet, who was named, together with two San Diego city councillors, in an FBI investigation into the world of Las Vegas strip clubs. The FBI probe - nicknamed Operation G-Sting - has already led to the conviction of Michael Galardi of the Cheetah's strip club empire and one of his associates.

Mr Zucchet and his two fellow politicians, one of whom has since died, were accused of accepting money in exchange for an assurance to go easy on San Diego's rules on lap-dancing. The trial began last week. "The combined witness lists look like a roll call at a political convention," the city newspaper, Union Tribune, commented. Indeed, it will be hard to escape the impression that the city itself is on trial.

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