On April 2, 1980, House of Representatives co-Speaker John Bagnariol (ca. 1932-2009) and Senate Majority Leader Gordon L. Walgren are named in a federal racketeering indictment that charges they conspired with undercover FBI agents posing as organized crime figures to allow gambling in Washington in return for a share of the profits. The two Democratic legislative leaders are among the most powerful politicians in the state and both have been planning to seek higher office in the fall. Instead, Bagnariol and Walgren, along with their friend lobbyist Patrick Gallagher, who is also named in the charges, will be convicted and sentenced to prison. Both legislators will lose their seats in the fall elections. The Gamscam scandal, as it comes to be known, will contribute (along with the Reagan landslide and other factors) to sweeping victories by the Republican party in legislative and statewide races.
John Bagnariol and Gordon Walgren were friends and political allies. Both were first elected to the Washington House of Representatives in 1966, Bagnariol winning an 11th District seat representing Renton, while Walgren won in Kitsap County's 23rd District. Walgren moved on to the 23rd District's State Senate seat two years later, and by 1975 had risen to head the Democratic senators as Senate majority leader. Bagnariol remained in the House and rose to lead his party in that body, becoming Speaker in 1977. After the Republicans forged a tie in the House of Representatives in 1978, Bagnariol served as co-Speaker along with Republican Duane Berentson (1928-2013).
In 1980, Walgren and Bagnariol were planning campaigns for statewide office, with kick-off events scheduled for April. Bagnariol intended to challenge Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), who had feuded with fellow Democrats in the Legislature throughout her term, in the Democratic primary, and many considered him the favorite in the race. Walgren was seeking the State Attorney General post that Republican Slade Gorton (b. 1928) was leaving to challenge United States Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989).
Those plans, and the state's political landscape, were thrown into disarray by the federal charges against Bagnariol, Walgren, and lobbyist Patrick Gallagher announced by United States Attorney John Merkel on April 2, 1980. The indictment resulted from an undercover FBI operation that began when local authorities asked for FBI assistance in investigating gambling and political corruption in Vancouver, Clark County. Agent Harold Heald, who headed the operation, posed as the representative of "So-Cal," a (fictitious) California company seeking to acquire and expand legalized gambling outlets in Washington. A Vancouver cardroom owner introduced Heald to Gallagher, who in turn introduced the undercover agent to Bagnariol and Walgren.
According to the charges unveiled on April 2, between July 1978 and January 1980 the three men had more than 150 conversations, many but not all of them taped, with undercover agents posing as organized crime figures, in which they agreed that the legislators would arrange for passage of legalized gambling legislation, that gambling would be controlled by So-Cal, and that each of the three defendants would receive 6 percent of the gambling profits So-Cal made.
Bagnariol, Walgren, and Gallagher adamantly denied that they had done anything wrong and denounced the investigation. Walgren said "it's obviously one of those F.B.I. sting operations. I'm mad ..." (Whitely). FBI investigations in which undercover operatives offered bribes to government officials were frequently in the news at the time, the most prominent dubbed "Abscam" because agents posed as Arab sheikhs or their representatives. Walgren and Bagnariol also claimed from the start that the charges were politically motivated and noted that the State Patrol, under the control of Governor Ray, had played a role in the investigation.
The Gamscam trial began late in the summer in the courtroom of United States District Judge Walter T. McGovern. The judge dismissed some charges, leaving 14 counts against Gallagher, 13 against Walgren, and 11 against Bagnariol for the jury to decide. Each defendant faced three major charges -- racketeering, conspiracy, and extortion -- and a number of less serious felonies. On October 3, 1980, jurors found Gallagher guilty of all 14 charges, Bagnariol guilty of 9 out of 11, including all three major charges, and Walgren guilty of only three: racketeering, mail fraud, and a Travel Act violation.
The Gamscam trial and guilty verdicts helped make what would have been a bad election year anyway for Washington Democrats even worse. Both Bagnariol and Walgren lost their seats, Bagnariol in the primary and Walgren in the general election (after a state Supreme Court ruling in favor of Kitsap County Republicans kept his name on the ballot following the jury verdict). The scandal combined with the landslide presidential victory of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and the unpopularity of Governor Ray to boost Republicans across the state. The GOP easily won control of the state House of Representatives. Although Democrats retained a one-vote margin in the Senate after the election, Republicans gained control there when Senator Peter von Reichbauer switched his affiliation during the 1981 session.
Somewhat ironically, Governor Ray lost to then state Senator (and now U.S. Representative) Jim McDermott (b. 1936) in the same primary in which Bagnariol was ousted. If Ray had played any role in Bagnariol's indictment, the strategy did not help her: observers noted that with both Bagnariol and McDermott in the race, they might have split the anti-Ray vote, allowing the governor to win the primary. As it turned out, McDermott went on to lose to Republican John D. Spellman (1926-2018).
Judge McGovern sentenced all three defendants to five years in federal prison. After unsuccessfully appealing all the way to the United States Supreme Court, they each served about two years at the Federal Prison Camp in Lompoc, California, before being released on parole. Several years after his release, Walgren filed a new appeal, challenging his mail fraud and racketeering convictions based on a new United States Supreme Court decision that narrowed the definition of mail fraud. Although Judge McGovern rejected the argument, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Walgren's mail fraud conviction and -- because racketeering requires two underlying offenses -- the racketeering conviction as well. It also ordered Judge McGovern to reconsider Walgren's request for a new trial on his remaining conviction, for violating the Travel Act, but later upheld McGovern's decision that Walgren was not entitled to a new trial, leaving the one conviction on his record.