Wills agrees to pay $1,500 fine in 'Strippergate' ethics violation

The fallout from "Strippergate" continued yesterday as Seattle City Councilwoman Heidi Wills agreed to pay a $1,500 fine for violating the city ethics code by failing to disclose an improper meeting she had with proponents of a zoning change at Rick's strip club.

Wills acknowledged her mistake and apologized to the public yesterday in a written statement and in an interview. "If there's anything I want to stress, it's that I apologize for my actions and I've taken steps to correct them," Wills said.

Wills became the second council member to pay a fine for such an improper meeting. Jim Compton agreed two weeks ago to pay a $3,000 fine because he accepted a lunch from Rick's proponents. The fine also covered an unrelated ethics lapse in which Compton accepted a free trip to Portland aboard a jet owned by Paul Allen.

More ethics violations may be revealed. Public records requested by The Seattle Times and released by the city yesterday showed that two other council members — Richard McIver and Judy Nicastro — had improper meetings with former Gov. Albert Rosellini, an advocate of the Rick's rezone.

Nicastro reported that Rosellini urged her to vote for the rezone, which would expand parking for Rick's in Lake City. McIver reported that Rosellini asked his position and that McIver indicated he supported the rezone. Neither could be reached last night for comment.

"I don't think they're through with their work," said Council President Peter Steinbrueck about the city's ethics commission investigators.

"Watch this space," was all Terry Thomas, executive director of the ethics commission, would say about pending investigations.

Wills said the commission may be investigating $36,000 in contributions that flowed from the owner, family members and associates of Rick's to Nicastro, Compton and Wills. Such an investigation "may involve those who made contributions," Wills said yesterday. All three council members returned the contributions associated with Rick's in recent months.

The newly released records show, for the first time, how extensively Rosellini and Gil Levy, the attorney for Rick's, lobbied the council.

Council members act like judges in such zoning cases and must comply with strict rules about their conduct. If they hear from parties on one side in such a case, they must disclose that contact and give the other side equal time.

In this matter, none of the council members disclosed their improper meetings before voting 5-4 on June 16 to approve the rezone. Compton, McIver, Nicastro, Wills and Jan Drago voted for Rick's. The rezone was opposed by neighbors and the city's land-use department, as well as another key city official, the hearings examiner.

In August, the council rescinded the vote in an effort to restore public trust. But then, earlier this month, the council agreed to take up the zoning vote again, at a future unannounced date, after the corporation that owns Rick's sued the city.

Wills said she would pay the $1,500 fine from her personal account, not her re-election campaign fund. The fine, which is part of a proposed settlement between Thomas and Wills, must still be approved by the full ethics commission at a meeting Wednesday.

Thomas said Wills' improper meeting circumvented carefully constructed city rules.

Wills said she inadvertently violated city rules by meeting with Rosellini and Levy and failing to disclose it in a timely manner.

According to the facts outlined in the ethics settlement, Wills went to the Lake City neighborhood in early April to meet Rosellini, a contributor to her campaign, for lunch.

When she arrived, however, she did not have lunch. Instead, she was taken by Rosellini and Levy to the Rick's site. Rosellini and Levy then talked to her about their efforts to reduce problems, such as noise and littering, that might stem from increasing the number of parking spots at Rick's through a zoning change.

Wills said that is all the duo discussed with her. She said they did not mention contributions to her campaign. Nor did they encourage her to attend an April 15 meeting of the council land-use committee. With her vote that day, Rick's rezoning request went to the full council with a neutral 2-2 committee vote, as opposed to a 2-1 vote against the rezone.

Wills met with Rosellini in April although council members had been notified twice — in October 2002 and in January 2003 — that the Rick's matter was "quasi-judicial" and governed by strict rules of conduct.

She said yesterday she did not remember seeing the January memo and did not remember during her visit to the Rick's site that the issue was quasi-judicial.

In retrospect, she acknowledged that she should not have voted at the April 15 committee meeting as well as at the full council meeting June 16.

"I did not have a full understanding of the rules, and for that I deeply regret my mistakes," she said.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com