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Originally published December 7, 2009 at 10:50 AM | Page modified December 7, 2009 at 10:26 PM

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Obituary

John Bagnariol, former state House speaker and Gamscam figure, dies

Former state House Speaker John Bagnariol, whose career was cut short by a gambling scandal, has died.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Former House Speaker John Bagnariol, whose career was cut short by a gambling scandal, has died.

Mr. Bagnariol, 77, died Sunday of pneumonia at Valley Medical Center. He had been ill for several years, suffering a series of strokes.

In 1980, Bagnariol was convicted on federal racketeering charges in what became known as the "Gamscam" case after telling undercover agents he would work to loosen state gambling laws for a share of the profits. He served two years in federal prison.

Until the day of his death, Bagnariol vowed to prove his innocence. "John was innocent," said his wife, Barbara Bagnariol. "One thing John wanted to do was prove his innocence, but he wasn't able to do it before his death. John was a wonderful man with a big heart."

An insurance salesman, Mr. Bagnariol was elected to the House in 1967 and was later named Speaker.

Because of a tie in the Washington legislature, with 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats, Bagnariol, a Democrat, was elected co-Speaker of the House in 1979, along with Republican Duane Berentson. They agreed to preside on alternating days.

The House journal at the time recorded Bagnariol's acceptance of the unusual arrangement, according to Historylink.

"I would like to point out just a few similarities — we purposely wore suits that were very close to being the same; we both wear the same kind of glasses. Duane and I are both salesmen; we both drive reddish-brown Lincolns — his is a little faster than mine."

The day before Mr. Bagnariol was indicted in the gambling scandal, he had planned to announce his candidacy for governor, challenging Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, said his daughter, Gina Bagnariol-Benavides. She was going to travel to Eastern Washington with him for the announcement. He was considered by many the favorite in the race.

"Gamscam was hard, the whole process was hard on the family and himself," said Bagnariol-Benavides. "It took a political career than had been amazing and diminished it to nothing."

She said family was important to her father, and key to it were Sunday dinners at home with his large family. "My fondest memories are driving around in a convertible, dropping off pamphlets for my dad. He always believed he could make a difference. He loved politics. He loved being a politician.

Bagnariol-Benavides believes her father's arrest in Gamscam led to legalized gambling in the state. "When you play the lottery or pull the lever at the Muckleshoot casino send a little thanks up to him," she said.

After Mr. Bagnariol was released from prison he opened a restaurant in Renton, Bagnariol's Vineyard Inn, which he operated for 10 years. He continued to sell insurance until his retirement.

Bagnariol also is responsible for a ban on pay toilets in 1977, after he made a hasty stop at Snoqualmie Pass summit and found a service station with a single pay toilet. He was not amused and introduced a bill banning pay toilets. It took two sessions to pass.

The federal "Gamscam" sting produced racketeering convictions against Mr. Bagnariol, Senate Majority Leader Gordon Walgren and lobbyist Pat Gallagher.

Vito Chiechi, who was the Republican co-chief clerk under the shared speakers, said it's unfortunate that Gamscam has marked Mr. Bagnariol's life. "No one talks about the good things Baggy did, putting together the 49-49 thing. Nobody said it could work, but Baggy said it can and he was a strong negotiator. He did a great job."

He said though they were on the opposite side of the political spectrum, Berentson and Mr. Bagnariol were good friends. "They could yell and scream with each other and in the next minute be in the Speaker's office with a drink," said Chiechi. "On the floor you thought they would kill each other, but these two guys would sit and have their bloody mary's while trying to make a decision. His ability to negotiate was his crowning attribute."

The Democratic clerk, Dean Foster, said Mr. Bagnariol was considered a conservative pro-business democrat who was skilled in hiring good staff. "He had real skills with people and real skills with budget numbers," said Foster. "The real skill he had was bringing people together. His inclination was to find a common ground."

Foster said Mr. Bagnariol had no idea he was under investigation until he was indicted. "I know how shocked he was," he said

In addition to his wife, from Renton, and daughter from Auburn, Mr. Bagnariol is survived by sons Michael from California, David from Puyallup and Sean Veley from Olympia and daughters Jody Mather, from Aloha, Ore., Sharon Bagnariol, from Renton, Theresa Fawcett from Kent, Lori Hatch, from Clarkston and Angela Anderson, from Puyallup. He is also survived by stepsons Rob Harris and Damon Harris from Renton.

Services will be Monday, Dec. 14, at 11 a.m. at St. Anthony's Church, 314 South 4th Street in Renton.

The family has not decided on any memorials in his name.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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