PLACERVILLE – Gino DiMatteo, the operator of a South Lake Tahoe medical marijuana dispensary, found himself in a jam last summer.
His landlord, threatened by U.S. prosecutors with prison and seizure of the building for leasing to a marijuana operation, was evicting him. So DiMatteo urgently approached the South Lake Tahoe City Council, pleading for permission to move his pot store.
Now, he is charged with bribing a City Council member. And, in a saga that grows more bizarre, his attorney said DiMatteo recently wore a wire in a sting operation against the council member by the El Dorado County District Attorney's Office.
On Friday, in an orange jail smock and handcuffs, DiMatteo appeared in a court bail hearing. So far, he is the only person charged in a probe of council member Angela Swanson, who introduced motions in June and July on behalf of DiMatteo's bid for a new location for his former City of Angels Dispensary.
Swanson released a statement Tuesday, saying the El Dorado County District Attorney's Office had informed her she is "involved in their investigation" into an allegation of "attempted bribery of a public official."
The case has riled political leaders in South Lake Tahoe, where the City Council in July reversed itself and voted against DiMatteo's dispensary move, effectively putting him out of business and prompting him to file a $1 million claim against the city, a precursor to a lawsuit.
The reversal came after the council received a memo from a local narcotics task force that portrayed the city and its then-three dispensaries as a national center for drug trafficking, claiming authorities had seized over 600 pounds of marijuana from people claiming to supply DiMatteo's dispensary.
In the halls of the courthouse Friday, DiMatteo's attorney Ted Long asserted the case is one of excessive prosecution and investigation of a man who donated $1,128 to a local schools foundation, for which Swanson was a board member, after he closed his dispensary and bought a Lake Tahoe fitness club and massage therapy center.
"In 50 years of practicing law, this is most outrageous abuse I've ever seen," Long said.
Swanson, who has not been charged, said in her earlier statement that "the revelation that I may be caught up somehow in the investigation of Mr. DiMatteo came as a shock and an affront to me."
She said she is cooperating with authorities, asserting: "I am proud of the reputation for honesty and integrity that I have established I have not done anything to intentionally betray that trust."
The district attorney's criminal bribery complaint said DiMatteo, also know as Sergio Franco Ottomanelli, "did unlawfully give and offer a bribe to a member of the South Lake Tahoe City Council" between June 5, when Swanson introduced a motion supporting his dispensary move, and June 13.
Deputy District Attorney James Clinchard declined to characterize the nature or circumstances of the alleged bribe or to say if anything of value changed hands. "I will say this. It's a very fluid investigation," he said.
South Lake Tahoe Mayor Claire Fortier, who also had supported the dispensary move, said she was stunned by the allegations of bribery targeting her council colleague.
"I really don't have a sense of guilt or innocence here," Fortier said. "That being said I was completely shocked – and unnerved."
Council member Bruce Grego said the investigation stirs troubling memories of an earlier scandal, when the city's mayor, Terry Trupp, was convicted of conspiracy and money-laundering in connection with cocaine smuggling in 1989. Grego, who replaced Trupp on the council, said he would be surprised if Swanson was involved in any misconduct. "I hope she is exonerated," he said.
In court papers Friday, Clinchard said authorities seized 15 pounds of marijuana from DiMatteo's South Lake Tahoe home – along with six bank accounts of unspecified amounts – after neighbors saw "multiple men loading large duffel bags" into several sport-utility vehicles at the house.
"This case is a still active and expanding investigation due to the complexity and size of the criminal enterprise," Clinchard wrote in requesting bail be set at $500,000. Visiting Superior Court Judge Robert Baysinger set bail at $50,000, though he delayed DiMatteo's release until at least Monday.
Besides bribery, DiMatteo is charged with other felonies that include possession of marijuana for sale, possession of a controlled substance and illegal possession of ammunition – the latter due to a 1999 conviction for handgun possession in New Jersey.
After his landlord was threatened with federal prosecution, DiMatteo informed the city he was buying a building a couple of doors down, facing bustling Lake Tahoe Boulevard. Over objections of city staff, Swanson introduced a June 5 motion – approved 4-1 by the council – to permit DiMatteo to move.
On July 2, a day before the City Council was to vote on a formal ordinance to allow the move, council members received a memo sent to South Lake Tahoe Police Chief Brian Uhler from Task Force Commander Jeff Catchings of the South Lake/El Dorado Narcotics Enforcement team.
Catchings alleged authorities had seized hundreds of pounds of marijuana from people claiming to supply DiMatteo's dispensary and said the city was a center for national pot trafficking.
At the July 3 meeting, Swanson said she was alarmed by the memo. She turned to DiMatteo and said, "Gino, please be very clear, I'm not here to defend you or protect (you) But I want to be very focused on what we're doing."
DiMatteo, who has not been charged with drug trafficking or indicted in other marijuana seizures, said he had a transparent business with video surveillance for police to view at any time.
"It's really easy for someone to commit a crime and say, 'Oh no, I was going to the collective (dispensary),'" he said to the council, adding: "I don't get it. I haven't been arrested for anything. No one in my collective has been arrested for anything."
Swanson went ahead and introduced the motion to let him move.
This time, it was voted down, 3-2, with Swanson and Fortier voting in favor, and Grego and council members Tom Davis and Hal Cole voting against the move. DiMatteo soon closed the dispensary and filed his million-dollar claim against the city.