City council candidate (District 6) and former city councilmember takes responsibility for her past mistakes
By George Howland Jr.
Heidi Wills rang my doorbell.
Earlier this summer, I put up a Facebook post about Wills and Strippergate–a City Hall scandal involving illegal lobbying and political money laundering by Frank Colacurcio, a vicious gangster. Wills, who served one four-year term, 2000-03, as an at-large city councilmember, is currently running for city council in District 6 (Ballard, Fremont, Greenwood). On Nov. 5, in the general election, she will face off against Dan Strauss, a former aide to City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. Strauss won the primary election 34 percent to Wills’ 21 percent.
In 2003, Strippergate was partially responsible for Wills losing her city council seat to David Della. In this summer’s Facebook post, I wrote, “I have never heard Wills adequately explain her behavior and demonstrate that her judgment has improved. To me, this is a necessary step before serving on the council for a second time. “
That same night, Wills was in my Phinney Ridge neighborhood ringing doorbells (at publication time, she says she had personally contacted 6,500 households). Wills’ social media person telephoned her to raise the alarm about my post. Wills decided to come over to my house–she had the address as part of publicly available voter lists–and answer my questions. Over a cup of tea, in my fortunately clean kitchen, we talked about her political past and how it relates to the present campaign.
The Past: Frank Colacurcio and Gov. Al Rosellini
Colacurcio, the kingpin of Strippergate, was a serial sex offender with multiple convictions, a pimp on a mass scale, a convicted racketeer and a violent, nasty gangster. He conspired with multiple people to shovel $36,000 in illegal campaign contributions to three city councilmembers: Wills, Judy Nicastro and Jim Compton. Later, Colacurcio was convicted of this felony.
At the same time, former Governor Al Rosellini served as the conduit between City Hall and Colacurcio. Rosellini, a Democrat, was a renowned figure in Washington politics. 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.
During Strippergate, Rosellini was simultaneously delivering the illegal contributions and conducting an illegal lobbying campaign on behalf of the Colarcurcios—with who he had been associated with for many decades. In 1943, Rosellini was Colarcurcio’s attorney for the predator’s first offense—the rape of a teenage girl.
Wills says, “Rosellini was a mentor. He helped me get elected in 1999. I looked up to him.”
After Wills was sworn into office in January, Rosellini called her and asked if she could help him with “a small business issue.”
She met Rosellini in the parking lot of Rick’s, a Lake City strip club controlled by Colacurcio. The former governor owned the Bigfoot Car Wash that was right next door.
Colacurcio wanted to expand evening parking at Rick’s by using 8 spaces at the car wash. Colacurcio wanted to expand evening parking at Rick’s by having land that abutted the property rezoned to allow parking. [I apologize for the error.]Wills didn’t see a problem with the proposal.
Unwittingly, Wills had already committed her first ethical violation.
When considering land-use changes of this type, the city council becomes a “quasi-judicial” body. In other words, councilmembers become like judges.
Under these quasi-judicial rules, it is a violation of the city’s ethics code for councilmembers to communicate privately about the matter-at-hand. If you consider how a judge must act, the reason for the rule is clear. No judge should be having private conversations about a case before him or her. In legal parlance, that’s called “ex-parte communication” and can lead to the judge losing his or her office and being disbarred as a lawyer.
Rosellini lobbied four councilmembers–Wills, Nicastro, Compton and Richard McIver. In the fall of 2003, all these councilmembers agreed to pay fines to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission for their violations.
Wills says she didn’t know about the council’s quasi-judicial rules. Even so, she continues, “I take responsibility for my failure.”
Political money laundering
In March 2003, Wills held a fundraiser for her re-election. Rosellini handed her an envelope with checks for thousands of dollars of campaign contributions. Some of the donations were from outside Seattle and many from people that Wills didn’t know.
What we know now is that Colacurcio sent $36,000 to friends and associates around the country and had them write checks to support Wills’, Nicastro’s and Compton’s re-elections. In 2008, Colacurcio pled guilty to this felonious money laundering and paid $75,000 in fines to local governments.
Back in 2003, Wills says she had no knowledge of this scheme. She continues, “I didn’t think about who the checks were from. Again, I take responsibility for that. I knew nothing about the Colacurcio family or that Rosellini had a relationship with them. Remember, this is pre-Google. I should have done better. I should have asked more questions. I totally trusted Rosellini. “
In June 2003, Wills, along with Nicastro, Compton, McIver and Jan Drago, all voted in favor of the Colarcurcio’s parking-lot expansion.
“There was no quid pro quo,” says Wills. “I should have returned the money right away. Public trust is so hard to gain and so easy to lose. If I could do it all over again, I would do it differently.”
In the summer of 2003, The Seattle Times and Seattle Weekly (reporter Rick Anderson and I) reported extensively on the scandal exposing the connections between Colacurcio, Rosellini, the lobbying and the illegal campaign contributions.
By August 2003, the city council, including Wills, reversed itself and rescinded permission for Rick’s, the strip club, to expand its parking.
Wills says she returned all the illegal campaign contributions. “Once it came to my attention,” recalls Wills, “I returned the contributions. The councilmembers who received the funds were investigated to see if we had any knowledge [of the money laundering]. [King County Prosecuting Attorney] Norm Maleng concluded that Judy Nicastro and I were naive. There were no charges against us.”
Wills makes her pitch to current day voters. “We are the summation of our experiences. Because I had such a huge fall, I know how important it is to protect public trust. I’m sorry. I apologize for my mistakes,” she says. “I believe in second chances and I hope the people will too.”
6 thoughts on “Heidi Wills and Strippergate”
Thanks George. Strippergate aside, I don’t think I could vote for someone who is so aligned with Moms for Seattle, and who opposed the much needed safe injection sites. Hardly progressive stances.
Thanks for reading and writing Jim!
Thanks for clearing the air on this George. Heidi would be a great addition to the 2020 Council. This was an unfortunate episode… I don’t think there is a lasting problem that will have a negative affect on Heidi’s work now.
Thanks for reading and writing Sheila.
A very fair and balanced report. She said the same when she asked for my support. She is the kind of person whom you really want to like. There is an authenticity about her now, and a likelihood that she will be the ethics person on the next Council. Good to see you blogging!!!
Thank you Cathy. I hope you and yours are well. Best–George