In this city that likes to think of itself as a kind of pristine Des Moines-by-the-sea, a scandal called "strippergate" is reviving unwelcome memories of San Diego's unsavory past.
Three City Council members stand accused of accepting bribes from a strip-club owner in return for efforts to loosen exotic-dancing restrictions passed in 2000.
To many San Diego residents, such allegations feel out of place. Yet historians say the history of the country's seventh-largest city is littered with scoundrels and swindlers. One mayor got elected after her husband went to federal prison for laundering drug money. Bribery allegations prompted Republican Party officials to move their national convention to another city in 1972.
Now this sun-bathed city - known for sandy beaches and Shamu the performing killer whale - is tarred by association with Las Vegas in its latest alleged scandal. Strip-club owner Michael Galardi is admitting conspiring in both cities to influence politicians, with the amounts of the alleged payoffs totaling up to $400,000.
Yet San Diego still calls itself "America's Finest City," the nickname it gave itself to boost its image after the convention disaster.
"There's been this disconnect between the reality we would like to have and the one many people perceive," says Abe Shragge, a historian at the University of California at San Diego. "We're not a squeaky clean sort of a place after all."
Certainly not for the time being.
Since last spring, the local evening news has been filled with perp walks and sordid stories centered around three up-and-coming City Council members.
Federal prosecutors allege that councilmen Ralph Inzunza, Charles Lewis, and Michael Zucchet took bribes of tens of thousands of dollars to relax the city's "no-touch" regulations regarding strippers. The rules, which remain in effect, ban the risque performances known as lap dances, giving a boost to free-wheeling strip clubs in other cities.
The council members, who say they're innocent, were each released on $25,000 bail in August and continue to serve on the City Council even as a steady stream of strippers and political aides testify before a federal grand jury.
San Diego isn't only city in the West in the middle of a strip-club scandal. In Seattle, three council members are under fire for taking money from a strip club looking to expand its parking lot. In the Las Vegas case, four current and former politicians face what one newspaper calls a "G-sting." The indictments accuse the members of taking cars, cash and lap dances from Mr. Galardi. The politicians there, as in San Diego, are fighting the allegations.
But San Diego is unique, says local historian Mike Davis, co-author of a new muckraking book, "Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists Never See." From its early years as a rough-and-tumble seaport to scandals in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the city has been "the most corrupt city on the West Coast by any measure of white-collar crime, municipal corruption, or indictment of public officials," he says.
The most notorious scandal came after Republicans chose San Diego to host the 1972 Republican National Convention. San Diego had been a strong supporter of Richard Nixon's various candidacies, but his backers panicked after lobbyist Dita Beard bragged about how a convention pledge of $400,000 by International Telephone & Telegraph greased the wheels of a federal antitrust review. Fearful of mass protests and dismayed by talk of bribery, Republicans fled to Miami, and didn't return for a convention until 24 years later.
Mr. Davis's book profiles the 1967 City Council, indicted nearly en masse on charges of taking bribes from a cab company, among other local scandals.
"There is something about the relationship of wealth and power, and the absence of strong countervailing forces, that makes San Diego city government prone to corruption and particularly to bribery," Davis says. Los Angeles, by contrast, went through a strong anticorruption effort in the late 1930s, he says.
Given their tangled history, San Diegans could be forgiven for shaking their heads knowingly during the latest imbroglio. But the responses here aren't so simple. While sophisticates from New York and Boston settled in San Francisco, San Diego drew Midwesterners and Southerners looking for what Mr. Shragge calls a "special perfect place" unblemished by urban strife.
"Not that the South didn't have its own corruption," says Neil Morgan, a columnist at the San Diego Union-Tribune, who moved here from North Carolina. "It just never smiled at it, and always pretended to be shocked." Such views today are "a remnant of the way our forefathers were brought up."
Even in San Diego, continually remade by generations of newcomers, the attitudes of the past are never far from the present.