Fallen Lawmakers' Go-To Guy

When San Diego politicians seek redemption, they call on Msgr. Joseph Carroll.
By Tony Perry
Times Staff Writer

August 1, 2005

SAN DIEGO — When Rep. Randy Cunningham, under federal investigation over a dubious real estate deal with a defense contractor, promised to make amends by donating to a homeless shelter run by Catholic Msgr. Joseph Carroll, he was following local tradition.

Father Joe, as he is known locally, is the religious leader of choice for San Diego politicians in trouble.

He has offered work, emotional support, an alternative to jail and renewed respectability to an ousted mayor, a fallen City Council member, a port commissioner convicted of a crime, an ex-governor of Illinois and a former federal official convicted of lying to Congress.

And he is prepared to help former Deputy Mayor Michael Zucchet and former Councilman Ralph Inzunza if they ask him. Both resigned July 21 after being convicted of taking illegal campaign contributions from a strip-club owner.

The fact that neither Zucchet nor Inzunza has been a strong supporter of his downtown programs for the homeless is unimportant. If they call, Carroll said, he will do his best to keep them out of prison.

He believes in redemption, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He has no religious litmus test for providing help to those who have tumbled from public esteem.

And as someone who grew up in modest circumstances in the Bronx, he believes in loyalty.

"I'm supposed to reach out to the sinners," Carroll said with a laugh. "They're not disgraced; they're just like the rest of us — they've made mistakes."

For Cunningham to reach out to Carroll in a time of political and legal peril is a natural. He's been a supporter of Carroll's St. Vincent de Paul Society programs since the mid-1980s, when he used his fame as a former Top Gun pilot to headline a fundraiser.

In Congress, Carroll said, the San Diego Republican has helped nonprofits on various issues, such as setting the amount of deductions that contributors can take. One of St. Vincent's main fundraising efforts involves an appeal for people to donate used cars to the society.

"He's been a big fighter for nonprofits," Carroll said. "He's going to be missed."

Feeling besieged by investigators and the media, Cunningham announced July 14 that he would not seek a ninth term.

A federal grand jury is investigating the sale of his home to a defense contractor for what critics say was an inflated price as a quid pro quo for helping the company land lucrative contracts.

When announcing his retirement, Cunningham said he would sell his new home in exclusive Rancho Santa Fe and split a portion of the proceeds with three local charities: St. Vincent's, Sister Claire's Home for Abused and Battered Women, and a school for at-risk children founded by Bishop George McKinney, a Pentecostalist.

That Carroll would be part of Cunningham's attempt at contrition was not surprising, given San Diego's political history.

When then-Mayor Roger Hedgecock was convicted in 1985 of perjury and conspiracy, Carroll asked the judge to sentence him to community service at St. Vincent's rather than jail.

The judge declined, but Hedgecock appealed and never spent a day in jail. The priest and Hedgecock, now a radio talk-show host, remain close friends.

Rita Lavelle, a top official with the Environmental Protection Agency in the Reagan administration, worked as a fundraiser for St. Vincent's as part of her parole after being released from federal prison in 1985. She served four months for lying to Congress.

Dan Walker, the ex-governor of Illinois who was convicted of bank fraud and conspiracy and served 18 months in prison, was an administrative assistant to Carroll after his release in 1990. The former multimillionaire was paid $250 a week. (Like Lavelle, Walker has San Diego roots.)

Valerie Stallings resigned from the City Council in 2001 and pleaded guilty to taking unreported gifts from San Diego Padres owner — and Father Joe supporter — John Moores. When others shunned her, Carroll offered her a job. She's now his governmental liaison, and her criminal record has been erased.

"He's loyal, almost to a fault," Stallings said. "When the bad times come, he won't abandon you."

His concern for the fallen extends beyond politicians. Carroll says jail is a waste of taxpayers' money for most nonviolent criminals. He's written "community-service packages" for numerous defendants as an alternative to incarceration.

"They're not all headliners," he said.

Carroll, 64, has run the St. Vincent de Paul Village for the Homeless since 1982. Under his guidance, the program has expanded to include meals, shelter, child care, medical care and occupational training for the homeless and desperate.

He suffered a small stroke a year ago and is battling the effects of diabetes.

Carroll has found that backing controversial politicians is not without risk.

When he offered a job to Stallings, one of her political opponents protested. And when he offered support for Port Commissioner David Malcolm after he was convicted of a conflict of interest in 2003, some contributors said they might withdraw support from Carroll's programs for the homeless and poor.

As for Cunningham, Carroll said he knew nothing of his offer about the house proceeds until a reporter called him after the congressman's announcement. Still, he has no problem associating himself with Cunningham's effort to salvage his reputation.

"When Duke was on top of the world, I used him and he helped me," he said. "How do I walk away now? How could I do that and live with myself?"