Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

KPBS Commentaries

Duke Cunningham

An old inquiry rises again with the disgrace of Congressman Randy Cunningham. Why does San Diego continue to have so many bigtime crooks?

It's become a game to see how many you can name. So let's play...

My choice for the smoothie of the lot was Bill Bonelli, almost 50 years ago, who got himself elected as chairman of the state board of equalization. So then he controlled liquor licenses for all California bars, hotels and stores. We reporters guessed he was selling them, but the law didn't catch him until he got sloppy with success.

He signed a license to a phony address. If it had existed, it would have launched the classiest night club among the marble tombs of the Cypress View Cemetery. Bonelli took flight to Mexico City and never returned.

The 1960s were vintage years. Frank Curran was mayor, and City Councilmen got caught taking cash from the Yellow Cab Company. They paid fines, but went on being the City Council, an old theme that continues to repeat itself.

That pleasant little San Diego was dominated by two powerful men, John Alessio and C. Arnholt Smith.

Alessio owned Caliente, and brought the track back to life with night racing, greyhound races, so-called movie startlets and off-track bookmakers. His cash flow worked its way north so Alessio could buy his trophy: the Hotel del Coronado.

But the feds were trailing him. Some guys never learn. Alessio served hard time in Lompoc.

His friend Arnie Smith was one of the Rotary Club's earliest "Mister San Diego's." Arnie bought and sold businesses as though they were being tossed on and off a merry-go-round. He got caught too. But the judge was considerate of his years. He served three months, tending a rose garden on the county farm.

Then came J. David Dominelli, who offered 40 percent returns on your money and became San Diego's No. 1 celebrity. His early clients seemed to get rich and they talked a lot about it. Naive investors begged their way into his con game and lost it all.

But Dominelli did time, and so did his girlfriend, a former mayor of Del Mar, but they live on in a book by Don Bauder.

As for the prominence of today's crop of crooks, there's a simple answer. Carol Lam, the United States attorney, took quite seriously a mandate from Washington, a decade ago, to all federal attorneys: make it your priority to prosecute white collar crime in your district. In San Diego, that led off with City Hall. One reason we think there are more crooks than ever is that Ms. Lam, a Stanford grad, a flutist, and a quiet-spoken mother, has simply proved very adept at her day job.