AT 93, FORMER DEMOCRATIC GOV. ALBERT D. ROSELLINI is Washington’s elder statesman. The highlight of his long and storied political career was two terms as governor, from 1957 to 1965. During that time, he oversaw significant improvements in the state’s higher-education system, adult and juvenile prisons, mental hospitals, and institutions for the developmentally disabled. In 1988, the state acknowledged how important a role Rosellini played in the development of our highway system by naming the Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington for him.
One of the lowest points in Rosellini’s career came in 1972, when he sought to return to the governor’s office but lost to the Republican incumbent, Dan Evans. According to Rosellini, he was leading in the polls until a few days before the election when a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article linked him to Frank Colacurcio Sr., who had been convicted of racketeering the previous year. “That was a typical political smear,” Rosellini says now. “That cost me my election.” The incident was especially painful because Rosellini felt he had battled prejudice against Italian Americans his entire political career.
Now, the relationship between Rosellini and the Colacurcio family is creating headlines again. This time, the buzz is about the Seattle City Council approval of a controversial rezoning of a parking lot at Rick’s, a Lake City strip club owned by Colacurcio’s son, Frank Colacurcio Jr., and others. Rosellini acknowledges he encouraged the Colacurcios to get involved in the political process, and he and the lawyer for Rick’s lobbied City Council members about the rezone. Meanwhile, Rosellini hosted fund-raisers and solicited campaign donations for members of the City Council. To date, the Colacurcios, their relatives, their business associates, their employees, and their employees’ adult children have given at least $32,000 during this election cycle to council members Jim Compton, Judy Nicastro, and Heidi Wills. Rosellini says nothing illegal or unethical has occurred. “It’s just the political thing,” he says. He deplores the “press frenzy” that has become “irresponsible and exaggerated.” Yet how did the grand old man of Washington politics end up back in the middle of sausage making for a topless nightclub’s property dispute?
POLITICS in Seattle, like everywhere else, is about relationships. In some relationships, one party has so much power that there is no question what the outcome will be. In 1995, when Nordstrom couldn’t decide whether to move into the abandoned Frederick & Nelson building in Seattle’s downtown core, city officials helped put together a few incentives: a low-interest government loan to remodel the building, reopening Pine Street to traffic, and building a parking garage while paying the developers an extra $23 million.
Most who come to City Hall looking for results aren’t quite so influential. They rely on relationships built over time. We accept as a given that connected people get to know public officials. Insiders make donations, host dinner parties, and might go years without making a demand. And when the time comes, it is likely that a well-educated, polite, well-paid staff member or attorney for the insider makes a presentation in council chambers or offices, seeking a little help. The opposition might be a volunteer group of folks who are less at ease and less prepared. It’s easy to see who will win these debates. That’s why the opera house will continue to be bailed out, why Paul Allen’s Vulcan Northwest will continue to receive zoning changes in South Lake Union, and why the University of Washington will keep expanding despite its neighbors’ concerns. Usually, such things happen quietly, over a long period of time. In the case of Rick’s strip club, the aggressive lobbying for the rezoning of eight parking spaces and the coinciding flurry of campaign donations departs from the usually subtle way people in suits do business at City Hall.
It happened in a relatively short period, from last November until June, and it was carried out rather clumsily. A lot of the cash came from people who don’t normally give to campaigns. At least 17 Colacurcio-connected donors gave a total of more than $10,000 to Seattle City Council Land Use Chair Judy Nicastro’s campaignand it was deposited in the campaign’s account less than a week before a crucial vote. The total donations involvedat least $32,000, far outdistancing the contributions of much wealthier interest groups like Boeing and Microsoftwere a huge amount of money for City Council races in which individual donors are limited to $650. The enterprise involved is a neighborhood nuisance. In a recent two-year period, police were called to Rick’s 144 times. The owner of the business is a convicted felon. And now an esteemed political figure has stepped forward, taking responsibility for engineering the entire episode.
ROSELLINI STILL GOES into the office five days a week, usually staying until 5:30 p.m. His SoDo digs are as colorful as his trademark boutonnierea ruby red rose. His white Cadillac, with “GOV ADR” vanity license plates, sits out front. The wall outside his office is adorned with plaques honoring his service and photos with dignitaries, like President Lyndon B. Johnson. These days, Rosellini says, “I do mostly business and political consulting.” He describes himself as “too damn busy. I have more work than I can handle.” He takes an interest in elected officials at all levels of government, including City Hall. He explains, “They would be the type of candidates who may develop into a higher-level politician someday.”
City Attorney Tom Carr chose Rosellini to swear him into office in 2001. Carr says he lunches with Rosellini once a month. “I get guidance from him,” says Carr. The city attorney praises Rosellini’s sharp mind and political insights.
City Council member Nicastro says Rosellini is an important mentor to her and other city officials. “He’s given me lots of advice,” she says. They have frequent contact to talk about politics, policy, electoral strategy, and their personal lives, she says.
Council member Wills says she met Rosellini five years ago, and he has become “a strong supporter.” Wills adds, “I honor and respect the governor.” She recalls hearing many political war stories from Rosellini, particularly about transportation issues like the construction of the 520 bridge.
Council members Compton, Nick Licata, Richard McIver, and Peter Steinbrueck all say they have had positive encounters with the former governor, ranging from lunch to decades of political contact.
ROSELLINI’S RELATIONSHIP with the Colacurcio family goes back six decades. In the 1930s, Rosellini recalls, he represented Frank Colacurcio Sr.’s parents, who were raising vegetables and selling them at the Pike Place Market. “They were fine citizens,” says Rosellini. In 1943, Frank Sr. was arrested for statutory rape. His parents called Rosellini, asking him to represent their son. “The boy was 17 or 18,” says Rosellini. (Court records show Frank Sr. was 25 and the girl was 16.) “I told him to plead guilty.” Colacurcio Sr. has served four other stints in prison since, on charges ranging from income-tax evasion to racketeering.
Colacurcio’s most infamous trial was in 1971, when local police officials and politicians were linked to a payoff system. During the trial, a witness said Colacurcio was the go-between for payoffs from illegal bingo parlors to corrupt police. Rosellini’s name came up during testimony, but there was no established direct connection between the former governor and the widespread corruption.
The matter might have died there but for Rosellini’s attempt to retake the governor’s mansion the following year. Eight days before the 1972 general election, the P-I ran a front-page story featuring vague allegations from a single, partisan source about links between Rosellini and Colacurcio. Rosellini claims he was not given the opportunity to comment for the story. He told his biographer that the piece was an example of “wop-baiting.” The story’s author, Lou Guzzo, who was the P-I‘s executive editor at the time, stands by the article to this day. This much Guzzo and Rosellini agree on: The story was pivotal to Rosellini’s loss in the governor’s race.
The relationship between Rosellini and the Colacurcios would stay out of the public record until 1991, when the former governor bought the Bigfoot Car Wash on Lake City Way. Next door was Rick’s, a strip club operated by Frank Colacurcio Jr., who, like his father, is a convicted felon. Colacurcio Jr. served six months in prison for income-tax evasion that same year.
Rosellini says he didn’t know that Colacurcio Jr. operated an adult- entertainment business next door, but eventually he had common interests with his neighbor that led him to help Colacurcio Jr. work the political process.
Rick’s had opened on the site three years earlier. Starting in 1989, the club had sought rezoning of a small parcel of land abutting the site for use as parking. (While Rick’s has 46 spaces, plenty of parking to satisfy legal requirements, there are so many customers that all the cars can’t fit into the lot at the busiest times.) Both in 1989 and 1998, the city turned down Rick’s application to rezone the land for parking.
Last January, Seattle’s Department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU) notified Rosellini that he had violated zoning law by allowing patrons from Rick’s to park on his property at the Bigfoot Car Wash. Neighbors alleged that the car wash was used for valet parking at Rick’s. DCLU’s review officer, Robert Laird, wrote that Rosellini’s lawyer had said the former governor intended “to seek a permit to authorize the parking in question.” Rosellini says he does not track the day-to-day affairs at the car wash, leaving that to an on-site manager. Clearly, however, he felt piqued by the city’s action. “I have title to this property,” he says pointedly. “There is a shortage of parking on Lake City Way.” He also felt solidarity with Rick’s owner over the parking issue. “We had the same problem,” he observes.
They also had the same attorney on their parking disputes with the cityGilbert H. Levy.
LEVY HAS BEEN a respected Seattle attorney for decades. He began work in Seattle’s legal community as a public defender and has been active in the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. Now in private practice, most of his work, he says, is in criminal defense, including death-penalty cases. About half of his clients are indigent, he says. He has four death-penalty cases pending. He says about a third of his work is on First Amendment casesall of it in the adult-entertainment field. While Levy and Rosellini are attorney and client, they also apparently are friends, according to public officials.
City Attorney Carr and City Council members Compton, Wills, McIver, and Licata all say that Rosellini introduced them to Levy as a friend of the former governor’s. (Council members Nicastro, Steinbrueck, and Jan Drago also have met Levy but not in connection with Rosellini.) Rosellini also introduced Wills to Colacurcio Jr. She was under the impression that Rosellini brought Colacurcio Jr. to a Wills fund-raising event, where the former governor served as one of the hosts. Rosellini recalls making the introduction but says, “I was surprised to see [Colacurcio Jr.] there.”
More recently, Rosellini explains, he began to help Levy use the political process to achieve goals for Colacurcio Jr. “Recently, Gil Levy, attorney for Rick’s, came to me to ask my advice” on the club’s parking-lot problems, Rosellini wrote in a recent letter to Seattle Weekly. “I told them they needed to do what any other business or citizen should do: become politically active. Present your case. Use the political process.” The letter continues, “As part of this effort, I volunteered to host a couple of fund-raising events, as I have for many candidates for 60 years of my political involvement. I organized the events, and I solicited the donations. None of the City Council members were involved in any of the ‘asks.'”
Yet in an interview earlier with Seattle Weekly, Rosellini denied asking people to contribute to campaigns. “I urge people to support a candidate. I give them some political advice but tell them it’s up to them. I never solicit any contributions for anyone.”
Rosellini evidently had extraordinary success with his fund-raising efforts, because people associated with Colacurcio Jr. through business, marriage, or birth contributed at least $32,000 to Compton, Nicastro, and Wills, most of it in four clusters: at fund-raisers for Nicastro last November, Wills in March, and Compton in May. And on June 11, Nicastro deposited at least $10,000 from the 17 donors connected to Colacurcio Jr., though she didn’t have a fund-raising event that day.
Levy asserts that his involvement in the political process is distinct from that of his clients’ interests. “My participation in the political process was not done and never would be done to secure a particular benefit” for a particular client, he says. Levy, who has attended fund-raisers and contributed to political candidates for years, says, “The primary reason was that I believed in the candidates or the positions they had taken.”
This year, Seattle City Council members Compton, McIver, Nicastro, and Wills all report being personally lobbied on the parking-lot issue either by Levy or Rosellini. They all ended up supporting the matteralthough all say personal relationships had nothing to do with it. They insist that they looked into the issue carefully and voted in favor of the rezoning because the measures agreed to by Rick’sthe lot will only be used by employees, there will be an attendant on the site, and the club will build a wall for soundproofingshould prevent the site from being used for sex acts, fighting, or partying, as it has in the past. Levy made a formal presentation to the City Council on behalf of Rick’s at a hearing that became part of the public record available to council members and their staff.
On June 16, five membersCompton, McIver, Nicastro, Wills, and Drago voted in favor of the rezoning. Steinbrueck, Licata, Margaret Pageler, and Richard Conlin voted against.
THE SEATTLE SUN, a community newspaper, first reported the convergence of campaign donations and support among City Council members for the rezoning. The story sparked extensive media coverage. Rosellini and Levy do not see what all the fuss is about. “My clients happen to be in the adult- entertainment business,” says Levy. “You and the other newspaper imply there is something wrong about that. This whole business of singling out my clients is an attempt to embarrass the candidates and punish my clients for attempting to become politically active.”
Levy adds that Seattle Weekly‘s reporting on the story is hypocritical. “The Weekly is subsidized by massage-parlor ads. Nobody suggests the Weekly is a bad newspaper because it runs sex ads or that it is the spokesperson for the escort business.”
Rosellini observes in his letter, “In politics, as in life, you support the people who take the time to learn about and listen to your concerns. That is what happened here, and that is all that happened here.
“I think Jim Compton, Heidi Wills, Judy Nicastro, and their fellow City Council members are people of high integrity, and they work hard to do the right thing for the people and businesses of Seattle. To insinuate otherwise is doing them and our city a disservice.”
One has to wonder, though, if Rosellini has, by providing good service to Colacurcio Jr., failed to look after the interests of the politicians that he is supposedly grooming for higher office.