OLYMPIA – Over his decades in public life, former Gov. Albert Rosellini helped bring Washington into the modern era, burnishing his reputation as one of the state’s most effective leaders by reforming state prisons, modernizing mental health institutions and helping create the 520 floating bridge that links Seattle to its job-rich eastern suburbs.
But FBI officials who scrutinized Rosellini’s activities in the 1960s saw something else. They questioned his political associations and probed a series of allegations that Rosellini, who died in 2011 at the age of 101, was corrupt.
Rosellini was never charged with any crimes and was never the subject of an FBI criminal investigation, according to hundreds of pages of documents recently disclosed to the Associated Press under public records law. However, FBI officials did little to hide their disdain for the Democrat, with the Seattle special agent in charge writing to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that Rosellini was “a thorough scoundrel.”
Some of the scrutiny was rooted in the agency’s controversial practices of the past, including its focus on political associations under Hoover. In the 1940s, FBI officials collected information about how Rosellini was suspected of associating with communist publications, and described how he’d made a donation to a group that organized youths for the Communist Party.
Later research came after Rosellini’s eight-year tenure in office ended in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson was considering the governor for an undisclosed federal appointment, according to the records. The White House asked FBI officials to conduct a special inquiry in order to assess any problematic aspects of Rosellini’s background.
In June 1965, the FBI produced a 100-page internal report on Rosellini. It documented a variety of allegations, including that people seeking liquor licenses, small loan licenses or bank charters had been required to pay a contribution to Rosellini’s political campaign or hire his former law firm as their attorneys.
The president of one bank said he was asked to make a $25,000 payment to get a bank charter, according to the documents. The FBI said it had information suggesting one bank was punished and lost business with the state for failing to make a campaign contribution. Don Abel, appointed by Rosellini to serve as chairman of the Liquor Control Board, called his former boss a “crook.”
“Rosellini is one of the most controversial figures we have ever investigated as a special inquiry for the White House,” FBI officials wrote in one memo. “He was variously described as a shrewd politician with no code of ethics.”
Rosellini’s chief Republican political rival, former Gov. Dan Evans, said in an interview with the AP that he didn’t agree with the portrayal of Rosellini as unethical.
“The trouble with the FBI files is that if you accept all the accusations at face value, you can make quite a case,” Evans said. “A lot of the stuff is just that: accusations.”
The documents also described an alleged affair between Rosellini and his secretary. The archbishop of Seattle told FBI officials that relatives and close advisers to the governor had asked him to confront Rosellini about the relationship, with one person expressing concern that lawmakers were using the issue as leverage to influence the governor.
There is no indication within the documents that the FBI ever pursued a more substantial investigation of any of the accusations detailed in the files. Rosellini wasn’t chosen for a federal appointment.
Rosellini, best known for wearing a rosebud on his lapel, was first elected to the state Senate in 1938 and to the governor’s office in 1956. After losing the governorship to Evans in 1964, Rosellini campaigned again for the office in 1972, winning the Democratic primary but losing to Evans in the general election.
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