— After a year of legal sparring, sex-club operator Thad Poppell's defamation suit against city Councilman Juan Vargas (D-8) is closer to trial. On January 6, a three-judge panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal dismissed Vargas's appeal of an earlier ruling in favor of Poppell in which superior court Judge Anthony C. Joseph said Poppell's case had merit. Vargas had argued that Poppell's suit was frivolous and unconstitutional because Poppell was a public figure and thus subject to fewer legal protections from defamation. Vargas also claimed that, as a public official, he was shielded from such suits when they concerned matters of public concern. Poppell sued Vargas after Vargas said in July of 1996 that Poppell was "a man who infests our community with nothing more than shaded prostitution and drugs." Vargas was voicing outrage over a $200,000 judgment awarded to Poppell in federal court after he sued city officials, including police officers, for illegally harassing him and patrons of his sex club at 3488 E Street. The club was forced out of business in 1991. "We're pleased that the case will be heard on the merits," said Poppell's attorney, Mike Marrinan. "We persuaded one justice. You need two," said Dan Lawton, Vargas's co-counsel (with Assistant City Attorney Frank Devaney) and a longtime friend. Lawton was referring to the two-to-one vote by which the panel denied the appeal. The appeals court left open the opportunity to re-argue the question of Poppell's public stature, Devaney noted. He said he would present added evidence to Judge Joseph that Poppell is indeed a public figure in a pre-trial hearing on March 13. The jury trial is set to start April 10.

Left vs. Right

Democratic San Diego City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe, who wants to run against Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray, is soliciting financial support from members of arts groups receiving money from city hall. In a letter touting a fundraising party last week, the Kehoe campaign told would-be supporters that the councilwoman is champion of the National Endowment for the Arts and would as a congresswoman "strongly denounce efforts to censor free speech" -- an apparent reference to the campaign of Republican Senator Jesse Helms and others to punish the NEA for funding such controversial efforts as Robert Mapplethorpe exhibits. In its "open letter to the arts community," the Kehoe campaign also says she can be counted on to "strongly support continued and increased funding for the NEA." The letter was signed by Steve Wall, a past president of the San Diego Opera, and Qualcomm honcho Irwin Jacobs, among others ... Vermont liberal Bernie Sanders, the only independent member of Congress, is set to appear at Carpenters' Hall in San Diego on Valentine's Day at 7:30 p.m., sponsored by the Progressive Caucus and San Diego Review.

If in doubt, punt

Getting voters to approve a new football stadium for Denver may not be so easy, despite the Broncos' Super Bowl victory. "It's valuable, but it's not the determining factor," pollster Floyd Ciruli told the Rocky Mountain News after surveying Denver voters this week. "There are other issues that will be important to people when they go to vote on it. How often do voters write a blank check? Seldom." In the wake of the Super Bowl, the football team is pushing for a hurry-up special election in May on a new sales tax to fund the $300 million stadium, but critics argue that a November ballot is soon enough ... It's official. There are now more Immigration and Naturalization Service agents than FBI agents on the federal payroll. Since 1983, the number of armed federal agents with arrest power rose 6 percent to 74,500. Including Border Patrol, the ins employs about 13,000 agents. The FBI has only 10,389.

Trading places

The Qualcomm spy incident may be over, but tensions between U.S. and Russia may lead to a hit against yet another locally based company. The Clinton administration is considering slapping trade sanctions on Rao Gazprom, a big Russian oil conglomerate that's been developing a big gas field in Iran. Problem is, the giant Caterpillar Co. is afraid the Russians would retaliate by buying their equipment elsewhere. Caterpillar makes turbines for the oil and gas industry at its Solar Turbines unit in San Diego and might have to lay off thousands of workers.

Contributor: Matt Potter

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