In 2003, three city council members running for re-election got caught up in a zoning war. It involved eight or ten parking spots, a strip club, and $36,000 that looked a lot like bribe money.
Heidi Wills, the Seattle City Council candidate currently running in District 6 against Dan Strauss, was one of the council members who found herself at the center of this major local drama. Amid all the consternation and conflicting accounts, Wills then lost her 2003 re-election campaign.
Hello, and welcome to Strippergate 101, a history lesson.
Now, I know that for many of you long-time Seattleites, you already remember Strippergate. Forgive me while I rehash an issue you probably thought was long-dead. For me, I didn't know this was, as the kids say, a "thing" until this past April when I was researching a story about strip clubs in Seattle.
Seattle, it turns out, has a storied and very puritanical past when it comes to strip clubs, and The Stranger had a wealth of articles on the subject for me to dig into. (Many of them written by Erica C. Barnett.) One issue that was a common thread through all of those articles: Strippergate.
Rick's, Rosellini, Racketeering, and "Carnal Knowledge"
The scandal centered on Rick's strip club, an old Lake City haunt that was famously co-owned by Frank Colacurcio Sr. and his son, Frank Colacurcio, Jr.
The Colacurcio family owned strip clubs all over Washington and nine other states; Frank Sr. had been convicted on charges of racketeering, prostitution, filing false tax returns, and “carnal knowledge” (for having sex with an underage girl); Frank Jr. had been convicted of racketeering conspiracy; and in general the family was pissed whenever the media called them the mob or mob-adjacent.
The Colacurcios wanted to expand Rick's north Seattle parking lot. Business was too good and they couldn't fit all their patrons in their lot. The gas station and the car wash next door, owned by Albert D. Rosellini, the former Washington state governor—and the lawyer who had represented Colacurcio Sr. on a rape charge back in the 40s—had a strip of parking to spare. Could the strip club buy it?
The city had turned down the rezoning application for the parking spots twice before 2003, once in 1989 and once in 1998. But in 2003, when the council voted on the zoning issue again, it passed 5-4, thanks in part to three Seattle city council members: Judy Nicastro, Jim Compton, and Heidi Wills, who collectively had received $36,000 in their campaign coffers from the Colacurcios and people connected to them.
Wills told The Stranger during our endorsement meeting this year that Rosellini was a mentor to her and had asked her to "help solve a small business issue."
He showed her the parking lot.
"He said that the neighbors didn’t want to see additional parking because they didn’t like the strip club that had been there for ages," Wills said, "and that he would erect—sorry for the play on words—a large barrier to prevent noise and other altercations from being visible to the surrounding neighbors, and that they would hire a parking lot attendant. So that would be mitigated and it seemed like a no-brainer to me."
After her conversation with Rossellini, Wills showed up at the Land Use Committee, which she was not a member of, and cast a key vote in favor of the re-zone. According to a Seattle Weekly report from the time, Wills never explained why she showed up at the meeting of a committee she wasn't on.
Wills also did not disclose that she had met with Rossellini before the vote. She also didn't "explain why at least $8,455 from Colacurcio-connected campaign donors did not raise concerns in her mind until after weeks of media scrutiny," the Weekly wrote.
Wills was fined $1,500 for not disclosing her Rossellini meeting on the record.
"This Was Pre-Google"
Sixteen years later, Wills told The Stranger that the Colacurcios had "bundled campaign funds to me, Judy, and Jim." She had hosted a campaign fundraising event after the Land Use Committee vote and "Al Rosellini came and added a stack of checks to what was already a stack of checks."
She continued: "I did not have any red flags because I was pretty young and I did not know the history of the Colacurcio family which evidently was pretty lengthy."
Wills added: "This is pre-Google."
She also didn't know that she had to disclose that she had met with Rosellini before the council vote, or what Rosellini's history was with the Colacurcios.
"Quasi-judicial rules are really important," Wills said. "I did not know what they were. Knowing what I know now, of course, it's better to know the rules of the city council." At the time Strippergate had happened, Wills had been a city council member for five years.
Wills reiterated this.
"I had been a council member for many years and I should have known better," Wills said. "But there’s so many rules that council members need to know." She said that's why she's concerned about the next city council—it will likely be made up of many first-time council members. The city needs an experienced council member, Wills said. "And they say there’s no greater teacher than experience."
The King County prosecutor at the time determined that Wills was naive and there was no wrong-doing on her part.
The View from Frank Jr.
I talked with Frank Colacurcio Jr. to see what he recalled from the 16-year-old event. He's been banned from working in the adult entertainment industry for life and said he is currently a "consultant" for a strip club called Kittens Cabaret in Georgetown.
He started our conversation talking about how he didn't even remember Heidi Wills and has only been paying attention to Council Member Kshama Sawant's race. He thinks someone should put Fremont's Lenin statue on Sawant's lawn.
But, back to Strippergate. Colacurcio Jr. was fed up with the zoning laws and the city council not listening to his business's pleas.
"At some point, the issue was brought up that no one’s going to look at [the lot]," Colacurcio Jr. said, declining to say who told him this. "No one’s going to pay attention to it and go down and see it for themselves unless you become politically involved."
He received this advice from Rick's attorney Gilbert H. Levy, who was friends with and received guidance from Rossellini, according to the Seattle Weekly. This political involvement meant persuading his friends and associates to donate the maximum limit to city council candidates.
"Any politician, I don’t care how large or how small, takes more of an interest in people who are donating than people who are not," Colacurcio Jr. said. "The donations were a way to get their attention. There was no guarantee that they would vote for or against it."
That mentality seemed to be at play in a much larger issue: A strip club moratorium that had been in place since 1988. Each year, the council reviewed the moratorium. Each year, they voted to extend it. It was finally ended in 2007, but during that 18-year period no new strip clubs could be operated in Seattle.
While the council members who got embroiled in Strippergate were absolved of any criminal liability, the Colacurcio donations, while the biggest, were not the first they'd received from strip club owners. Each year, existing club owners like Deja Vu's Roger Forbes donated to the council around the time when the moratorium was being voted on. The moratorium gave Seattle's existing strip clubs "a lock on the market" and "a competitive lock on the dancers," according to Stranger reporting from the time.
Wills had received money from Forbes as well as Levy, the Colacurcios' lawyer, since 2001 according to a Stranger report by Barnett and former news editor Josh Feit:
Like clockwork, in April or May, folks in Seattle's strip club industry—like Rick's owner Frank Colacurcio Jr., Colacurcio Jr.'s attorney Gilbert Levy, and longtime porn industry player Roger Forbes (identified in city Ethics & Elections records as president of Dejà Vu's bookkeeper, Consolidated Bookkeeping, until November 2002)—make donations. For example, Levy contributed $600 to Heidi Wills on April 27, 2001; the moratorium was renewed on April 30, 2001. Levy contributed $600 to Jim Compton on April 18, 2002; the moratorium was passed on April 22, 2002. Forbes contributed $600 to Wills in the spring of 2001. Ann Forbes, also of Consolidated, maxed out to Wills in the spring of 2001. In fact, Consolidated has donated nearly $9,000 in the last four years—well over $1,000 coming around moratorium time.
Wills even told The Stranger, almost laughing, that, "The Dejà Vu guy [Forbes] maxes out to every council member every year, right around the moratorium."
The North Seattle Star, Media Hypocrisy, and Life Experience
The Strippergate scandal was first broken by the North Seattle Star, now-defunct Lake City paper. Media attention became rampant. However, as Barnett and Feit wrote, Strippergate could not be talked about without talking about the moratorium, which many outlets were ignoring:
In the wake of Strippergate—and in the context of a questionable moratorium—it's clear the public and press have a hypocritical view of strip clubs. While the public was outraged because the apparent cozy relationship between Rick's and city hall led to eight new parking spaces, they've ignored the same cozy relationship year after year when it has led to a de facto ban on new clubs.
While the scandal was resolved, the appropriate council members fined, the dirty campaign funds returned, the re-zoning law repealed, and, eventually, the moratorium lifted, has enough time passed for Heidi Wills to be trusted again as a Seattle council member?
She thinks so.
"That was 16 years ago," Wills said. "I’ve had a lot of life experience since then. I would ask better questions next time."