The New Michael Zucchet

I host a morning drive-time news radio show and that means I interview news-makers. And that’s what brought me back in contact with Michael Zucchet.

Zucchet used to be on the San Diego City Council. But he resigned in disgrace before his first term ended, when he was charged and convicted by a jury of accepting bribes from a strip-club owner. He appealed the case and the appellate judge threw out his conviction, claiming the jury blew it and there was no credible evidence of a quid pro quo.

Michael Zucchet when he served on the city council.

The money the prosecutors characterized as bribes are normally called “campaign contributions.”

I encountered Zucchet again this month, for the first time in years, when I interviewed him about a proposal to reform the city employees’ pension plan. Zucchet, you see, has bounced back by landing a job as the general manager of a municipal union. Pretty good for a guy who almost went to prison.

I first saw Mike Zucchet nearly ten years ago, soon before he was elected to the council. He was in his early 30s but looked younger, thanks to his boyish, clean-cut face and blond hair. When I hosted a debate between him and his council opponent it looked like he was having a great time. The excitement of politics and the public eye lit him up and made him look like someone to whom nothing bad could occur.

This month he looked different. Though still physically fit, nine years had added weight to his frame. I watched him walk toward our building, as I waited in the lobby, and I wasn’t sure who it was. His posture and gate were different and his eyes were cast down. In the interview, the spark was missing. He acted like a union administrator who was doing his job.

We all get different when we get older. But I wondered if years of fighting criminal charges changed him fundamentally. The new Zucchet seemed more wary and less likely to have faith that things would work themselves out. That’s strange, in a way, since things actually did work out in his favor.

As a legal matter, you could argue that he was guilty as charged. But I wonder about charging politicians with bribery for accepting campaign contributions. Campaign contributions are a form of bribery, but they are a legal form of bribery. I never quite understood the difference between what Zucchet was accused of doing and what every other politician does. Apparently, the judge who threw out his convictions didn’t get it either.

Yesterday, I called him to ask a followup question to our earlier conversation, and he returned my call in the early afternoon when I was at home and about to take a nap. (You do this when you have to get up at 4:30 a.m.) I fumbled for a pad and pen to take some notes and asked my question.

Before I let him go I also asked him — just curious, mind you — if the U.S Attorney ever decided whether to order a new trial for him. Though a judge threw out Zucchet’s convictions, he let two charges stand, in case the government wanted to order a new trial on them. Zucchet answered me, saying no. In November, the government closed his case for good.

We should all be so fortunate.

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