On July 27, 1971, a King County grand jury indicts 28 police officers and political leaders for involvement in a police payoff system. The central indictment charges 19 men, including the former King County Sheriff, the former King County prosecuting attorney, and a former city councilman, with "conspiracy against government entities." Eventually, 54 public officials are charged with bribery, graft, perjury, and contempt. The city councilman will be dismissed out of the case and the former sheriff and former prosecutor will be acquitted. Only a few defendants will be convicted and serve jail time.
The collection of bribes by Seattle police officers to ignore illegal activity such as gambling and prostitution had been reported and documented for many decades. The economic booms of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 and World War I saw gambling and prostitution flourish. The eradication of vice was a frequent theme in municipal elections in the first half of the twentieth century. Mayor Bertha Landes tried to clean up corruption in 1926 with limited success. Mayor Arthur Langlie improved things under his administration beginning in 1938. During World War II, the boom times returned and areas of downtown Seattle were declared off limits to servicemen because of open prostitution and gambling.
In 1954, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance providing for the licensing of cardrooms. This allowed operators to establish facilities where patrons could gather to play cards. Gambling was illegal in Washington and a "tolerance policy" (Chambliss) toward cardrooms evolved. "The ordinance in no way implied that gambling was to be permitted or tolerated. The term 'tolerance policy' was presumably created to identify a position adopted by the Council as to the leniency in requiring adherence to the State gambling law" (Seattle Police Department quoted in Chambliss).
With this signal from the city council, officers of the Seattle Police Department vice squad and patrol officers covering lower downtown and the largely African American Central Area began to collect bribes to allow gambling and other activities considered "vices" to continue. Officers openly collected payments of cash from gambling operators. Tavern operators who served after hours or who catered to gay and lesbian customers were also targeted. Money was passed up the chain of command to the assistant police chief. Individual officers reportedly were able to double their salaries with bribes. Operators who refused to pay bribes found their liquor licenses suspended by state liquor inspectors who cooperated with the police.
In 1961, just before the Seattle World's Fair, Mayor Gordon Clinton ordered a crackdown on illegal gambling. In 1964, Mayor J. D. Braman revived the tolerance policy.
In January 1967, The Seattle Times published a series of articles exposing the system. Mayor Braman impaneled a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the Times allegations. That body found insufficient evidence of payoffs to justify the filing of criminal charges. The panel was critical of departmental organization and recommended a management study. The International Association of Chiefs of Police reviewed departmental operations. That report recommended substantial changes to departmental structure. The study singled out the assistant chief of police for particular criticism. The department reorganized and these changes apparently ended the organized grafting by officers.
In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon appointed Bellingham attorney Stan Pitkin as United States Attorney. The federal government lacked authority to directly prosecute local corruption, but could investigate other possible violations. Witnesses were called before a federal grand jury to testify about their knowledge of the payoff system in Seattle. Some witnesses refused to cooperate and were cited for contempt. Others lied. In 1970, the grand jury indicted former Assistant Chief of Police Milford E. "Buzz" Cook for perjury. He had denied under oath any knowledge of the payoff system. The 1970 perjury trial publicly exposed the payoff system and Cook was convicted and sentenced to prison.
The exposure of the payoff system came at a bad time for the Seattle Police Department. The department had been criticized for its use of force in anti-war and civil rights demonstrations, its use of deadly force against minorities, and its lack of fairness generally towards African Americans.
Under a series of interim police chiefs appointed by Mayor Wes Uhlman in 1970, the Seattle Police Department investigated the payoff network. The investigative task force was hampered by a short time frame and by the opposition of the police guild to the use of polygraphs. On September 14, 1970, the task force reported that the payoff system had involved 35 to 40 officers at a time. The system had ended when the Seattle Police Department was reorganized in 1968. Most of the officers involved in payoffs had left the department by retirement, resignation, or dismissal. The Seattle Police Department presented felony cases against four officers who targeted establishments that catered to gays and lesbians. County Prosecuting Attorney Charles O. Carroll filed misdemeanor charges instead and asked that the four officers receive suspended sentences.
That same summer, fellow Republican Christopher Bayley challenged Prosecutor Carroll for reelection. Bayley won the primary election and Carroll left his office after 22 years.
The new prosecutor investigated the payoff network. He impaneled a grand jury which, in July 1971, issued the conspiracy indictment charging 19, including Carroll. Several hundred police officers were named as unindicted co-conspirators. The grand jury also issued other indictments charging police officers and state liquor inspectors with graft and bribery, and charging some witnesses with perjury. The various trials, pleas, and appeals further exposed the payoff system.
On April 30, 1973, more than a year and a half after the indictment, the trial in the conspiracy case opened in front of Judge James W. Mifflin. Pretrial motions and plea agreements had cut the defendant list down to 10. At the conclusion of the prosecution's case in chief, the judge acquitted eight, including Carroll. The case against Carroll hinged on the testimony of one man who admitted that he had lied under oath many times. Other witnesses admitted lying under oath. Judge Mifflin was critical of the indictment and stated that he did not know whether to believe some witnesses.
The judge convicted only two of the original conspiracy defendants, former Assistant Chief Cook and former Captain Lyle LaPointe. The "blown indictment" (Cunningham) did serve to show that law enforcement officers could be held accountable.
On April 15, 1974, the last defendant in this series of indictments, a former police officer, pleaded guilty to accepting free drinks as bribes. He was sentenced to two months in jail.