If nothing else, the Kearny Mesa strip joint called Cheetahs has had a colorful family history. For 12 years, according to police records, it was owned by Jack and Michael Galardi. Jack was a hardened bar owner out of Las Vegas by way of Trinidad, Colorado, and Long Beach, California, who had built a coast-to-coast strip-club empire. Michael was Galardi's angel-faced adopted son who had grown up a child of privilege in a wealthy Vegas suburb.
On October 21, 2002, Michael filed an application with the city to take over Cheetahs from his father. In those heady days, the club's parking lot was crammed with flashy muscle cars and expensive SUVs, and the nude girls inside were famous for their up-close-and-personal lap dances.
Competitors began complaining that Michael had an in with the cops and an unhealthy influence over the city council and other city officials, who seemingly looked the other way as his girls flaunted their violations of the city's so-called six-foot rule, requiring nude dancers to maintain that distance from their customers.
Then came the May 14, 2003, raid on city hall, during which the FBI swept down on the well-appointed city hall suites of councilmen Michael Zucchet, Ralph Inzunza, and Charles Lewis, hauling off computers, hundreds of files, memos, and other evidence. It turned out the council offices, along with the watering holes frequented by the councilmen, had been bugged for years.
On August 28, 2003, a federal grand jury indicted the three councilmen for wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud; Zucchet and Inzunza were also indicted for extortion. Michael Galardi, his lobbyist Lance Malone, and club employee John D'Intino were indicted for wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, extortion, and interstate travel in aid of racketeering. On September 8, 2003, Michael Galardi pled guilty to one count of wire fraud and agreed to testify against the other five defendants.
The next month Galardi entered a guilty plea in Las Vegas federal court in a similar case against him there for bribing county commissioners. With Michael destined to serve time in federal prison, it was widely expected that he would be forced to give up Cheetahs and the Galardi family would be banished from San Diego once and for all. But it hasn't worked out that way.
These days Cheetahs is still packing them in. But police insist everything on the inside is on the up-and-up and the girls are staying a safe distance from the clients. The club is now run by a Nevada corporation by the name of Red Eyed Jack's Sports Bar, Inc. Its president, Suzanne Coe, says she owns all but 5 percent of the company. The rest? She says it belongs to Jack Galardi, though she is currently negotiating to acquire his remaining interest.
Coe says she has never owned a strip club before, but she is not entirely new to the business. Coe, a lawyer from South Carolina who represented a young woman in her suit to obtain admission to the male-only Citadel military college in 1995, has been Jack Galardi's attorney in a string of legal and zoning battles against cities that have tried to shut him down. This summer she filed suit in federal court to stop Clark County officials from taking away the liquor license for Jack Galardi's Las Vegas Leopard Lounge. That case is pending.
The situation in San Diego is different. Unlike topless clubs, which can serve drinks, Cheetahs dancers appear in the altogether, and the club is barred by state liquor laws from selling booze. Under the city's adult-entertainment law, all-nude establishments including Cheetahs must apply for a license once a year. The police vice squad is supposed to check out owners, making sure they don't have a criminal background.
On November 20, 2003, just weeks after Michael Galardi entered his guilty pleas, San Diego police revoked Galardi's adult-entertainment license, citing admissions Galardi had made in his plea agreements. Galardi's attorney, Roger Jon Diamond, appealed the revocation. As the appeal made its way through the courts, Michael Galardi continued to own Cheetahs.
Under a procedure spelled out by city law, a hearing on the merits of Galardi's appeal was held before administrative law judge Stephen Hjelt on February 15, 2005.
During the hearing, recently retired vice lieutenant Robert Hurt was called to the stand and testified that he had pulled the permit because of Galardi's admission of guilt. Diamond got Hurt to admit that the license had been revoked in large part due to Galardi's Las Vegas confession, which Hurt deemed more serious than those Galardi had made in the San Diego case, but that didn't seem to make much of an impression on the judge.
Hjelt handed down his ruling on April 14, 2005. "The Police Chief acted on the basis of sufficient credible evidence in denying the permit renewal application," wrote Hjelt. He cited Galardi's plea agreement with federal prosecutors, in which the strip-club owner admitted to illegally funneling campaign contributions and other gratuities to city council members in San Diego and county supervisors in Las Vegas.
"Galardi and his middlemen paid money, property, and services to certain public officials, the sum of which over time amounted to a value between $200,000 and $400,000, which payments were not otherwise due and owing to the public officials.
"The record is clear that Mr. Galardi has signed two plea agreements (one in San Diego and one in Las Vegas) and awaits sentencing in both cases," said Hjelt. "Nude entertainment clubs are regulated to address a variety of problems which are associated with the business, not just sexual misconduct."
Hjelt noted that by Galardi's own admission, the strip-club magnate "had bribed an undercover officer to obtain advance warnings of vice raids." In addition, Galardi "conspired to illegally advance the repeal of one of the regulations pertaining to nude entertainment, the no-touch rule.
"He conspired with his manager at Cheetahs to corrupt City officials and deceive the public for the benefit of Cheetahs. One is hard-pressed to find a more compelling showing of manifesting an inability to perform the duties of a permittee.