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Chips off the old block Colin Rice, Democratic assemblyman Juan Vargas's chief of staff, has of late found himself defending his boss in the ongoing dustup with Congressman Bob Filner over the paying of live-in relatives with campaign funds. But in October he took time to write a plea to federal Judge Jeffrey T. Miller on behalf of ex-San Diego city councilman Ralph Inzunza. Arguing for leniency for Inzunza, who ultimately got 21 months for his role in the Cheetahs strip-club scandal, Rice said he had known Inzunza, a member of Vargas's inner political circle, for 13 years. Ironically, much of the letter described what Rice maintained was the difference between personal and campaign money. "Ralph has had a huge impact on my life," wrote Rice, whose wife, Jamie Fox Rice, was Inzunza's chief of staff. "He taught me about political campaigns and how to help people with government service. For seven years, as his intern and then employee in the 1990s, I witnessed first hand him manage a city council office and political campaign offices. During this time, there wasn't a single moment in which I saw him act criminally or unethically."

Rice added: "There are many who shake their head in bewilderment when thinking about the energy spent prosecuting Ralph and the punishment he faces relative to the amount of money involved (not to mention the fact that the money went into a campaign account, rather than a personal account). When the prosecutorial blue suits and overblown media coverage are stripped away, what remains is a man who associated with the wrong guys. Ralph never needed the campaign contributions and was never personally enriched."

The fight with Filner started earlier this month, when Vargas forces planted news that since 1995, Filner had paid his wife Jane $505,000 in consulting fees from his campaign fund. It then came to light that Vargas had paid his brother-in-law, Richard D'Ascoli, about $10,500 over the years to work in Vargas's assembly and congressional campaigns. Vargas, who first denied that D'Ascoli, a real estate lobbyist, had ever lived with him, later said he'd forgotten that his brother-in-law had stayed in his house during Vargas's 1996 bid against Filner. Inzunza's city hall calendar, obtained under the state Public Records Act, shows that Inzunza and D'Ascoli had lunch together at Golden Hill's Big Kitchen on April 4, 2003.

Vargas's own letter on behalf of Inzunza steered clear of questioning the jury's verdict and played up what Vargas said had been Inzunza's role as a grassroots outsider. "We took our campaign directly to the people, bypassing the traditional city power brokers, and were successful in deflating campaigns that were much better financed."

Another plea for mercy came from ex-congressman Jim Bates, a four-term Democrat whom Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham narrowly defeated in 1990 after the House slapped Bates with a reprimand for talking dirty to two women staffers. "For almost twenty years, I was directly involved in this 'blood sport' called politics," wrote Bates. "I have raised millions of dollars and found it to be a corrupt system, but one that all politicians must be involved in, unless of course they are independently wealthy." He added, "I have known Ralph Inzunza since he was 17 years old, a shy High School student working with Senior Citizens. Soon after our first meeting, he became an intern in my Congressional office in San Diego. A few years later, he obtained an LBJ fellowship and was working with me in Congress in Washington, D.C."

Bates offered his own disjointed take on the government's case against Inzunza and codefendant Michael Zucchet: "These two freshmen Council Members were victimized by a chance 'wire tap' connection to a legitimate Las Vegas case, but wrongful, unethical and in some instances illegal behavior, by a strip club owner, his manager, his security chief and a policeman. This led to faulty perceptions by a well meaning jury. The 'no touch' issue was pretty sensational, the money insignificant, the methods abhorrent and the outcome devastating." Bates's daughter Jennifer, staffer for then-city councilman George Stevens and his successor, the late Charles Lewis, was caught on an FBI wiretap talking to Cheetahs lobbyist Lance Malone, also convicted in the scandal, about his fund-raising proficiency: "Charles was stoked. You're like [expletive] phenomenal, dude. That's an art."

Last suppers It's been a quiet time for former Dick Murphy aide John Kern, as he waits to see if any of the shoes dropping in the city's festering pension-fund scandal will fall his way. He departed city hall back in March, leaving behind his final Statement of Economic Interests. It reveals that his last months were filled with free dinners, courtesy of some well-heeled powers that be, including Ben Haddad, the ex-chamber of commerce honcho now working for defense contractor Science Applications International Corporation, who picked up a $75 dinner tab in February; SeaWorld, which in January furnished four tickets and lunch ($218.79); Chargers stadium booster and Donovan's steak house proprietor Dan Shea, who paid for a March dinner ($203); lawyer and lobbyist David Watson of Hecht, Solberg, Robinson, Goldberg and Bagley, who furnished a January dinner ($120); and Fat City Steakhouse owner Tom Fat, who in April gave Kern a dinner gift certificate ($100). The most unusual freebie on Kern's list: a Dell computer worth $1438.86, which he reported on April 30. According to the filing, $915 came from "donations under $10," with the balance paid for by Black Mountain Ranch developer Fred Maas and political consultant Jennifer Tierney, Kern's close friend and sometime business partner and political consultant to convicted ex-city councilman Michael Zucchet.

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