Blown Coverage

Neither daily paper gave Charles O. Carroll his due as an unduly powerful prosecutor.

MONDAY, JUNE 23, former King County prosecutor Charles O. Carroll died at age 96. If you read his front-page obituary in The Seattle Times on June 25, you would have been treated to a lengthy recounting of Carroll's legendary University of Washington football career as an All-American running back in the 1920s.

But you would have to be a reader who truly bleeds purple and gold to have waded all the way to the 25th paragraph on page A10 to learn that Carroll's career was not only touched by the football angels, but "touched by controversy, when he was indicted in connection with a Seattle police scandal." The Times devoted five sentences to this bump in the road. And they're not entirely accurate sentences, either. They recount that Carroll's indictment cost him re-election in 1970, but in fact Carroll was indicted by a grand jury after he was defeated for re-election. He lost a close contest in the Republican primary to a young, unknown upstart named Christopher Bayley, who made Carroll's tenure as prosecutor the issue in the campaign. Once he took office, Bayley prosecuted Carroll, along with dozens of others in Seattle's law-enforcement establishment. It should be noted that charges against Carroll were ultimately, and controversially, dismissed. He wasn't convicted of anything, but his public career was over.

WHAT THE TIMES outrageously ignored was the fact that Charles O. Carroll was one of the most powerful political figures in Seattle's past half-century and that his downfall came amid one of the ugliest scandals in the city's history. Even more important, his downfall signaled major reform and a whole new style of governanceessentially the cleaner, more consensus-driven Seattle of today.

Seattle for years had an unofficial "tolerance policy" toward illegal gambling. The theory was if you confined gambling, prostitution, homosexuality, etc., to certain parts of town (like Skid Road and Chinatown), you could maintain some control over it. Unfortunately, putting such discretion in the hands of the police, sheriff's deputies, and liquor inspectors created an environment ripe for corruption. Prosecutor Carroll was proud that he'd kept organized crime out of Seattle, but the cops formed their own mob, extorting bribes and payoffs from club and tavern owners who wanted to stay open, shaking down gay and lesbian bars, meting out punishment with little fear of prosecution. Shares of their ill-gotten gains rose from the streets to the highest law-enforcement and political echelons.

That was the Seattle Way in the 1950s and '60s.

Lou Guzzo, a former Seattle Post- Intelligencer editor whose paper went after Carroll, calls him "the Major Domothe guy who ran things." As the most powerful Republican in the county, he handpicked candidates and judges, he decided who wasand who wasn'tprosecuted. He kept files, he could have phones tapped. He was the J. Edgar Hoover of King County politics.

Charles O. Carroll was Seattle's last boss, and his toppling ushered in a new era.

THE P-I OBITUARY of Carroll was a bit better, mentioning a "cloud of controversy" in the lead paragraph and devoting about half its lengthunfortunately, the second halfto a description of the scandal that "ignominiously" ended his career as prosecutor. Interestingly, the different obit treatments reflect the relative roles that the two dailies played in covering the scandal back in the 1960s and '70s. While The Seattle Times broke the police payoff scandal with stories in 1966, the paper generally downplayed subsequent coverage, especially when it came to Carroll. One of the top Times editors then, Ross Cunningham, was close to Carroll, and the two did each other favors. Plus, Carroll had the unqualified support of the business community, and the Times was their paper. The P-I, in contrast, went after the prosecutor with an exposé ´hat documented one of the region's top gambling operators paying regular visits to Carroll's home. The publication that made the best case against Carroll, thoughbased less on corruption than on his operating stylewas the old Seattle magazine, then owned by KING-TV.

I talked with Times Managing Editor Alex MacLeod last Friday, June 27. (It was his last day in the officehe has retired after being associated with the paper for nearly his entire life. His father, too, was a legendary Times editor.) MacLeod bristled at any suggestion that the Times' history with Carroll had anything to do with how it played the story last weekthose issues are ancient history. I asked if there was a lack of institutional memory at the Times that could explain it. "There is no lack of institutional memory at this paper. I grew up in this city," MacLeod averred.

MacLeod's memory was no doubt refreshed a few years ago when an angry Carroll gave him an earful over a potentially libelous false assertion in a Times story that Carroll had been convicted of bribery. MacLeod was grateful and relieved that he chose not to sue. (Carroll also threatened to sue Seattle Weekly in the mid-1990s over a story reference.)

MacLeod believes the Times obituary had the right focus, though he acknowledged that some mention of why his term as prosecutor ended should have been higher in the story. When I expressed shock that Carroll's real importance to the city's history was overlooked in favor of football, he said, "You have a different perspective on the history he's known for."

I'M NOT THE ONLY one. Guzzo's response to the obit was a stentorian "Good Lord!" Former prosecutor Bayley described it as "memorably incomplete." And former Times and P-I reporter O. Casey Corr, who wrote a chapter about the police payoff scandal and Carroll for his book KING: The Bullitts of Seattle and Their Communications Empire, said he was "stunned by what I read in the newspapers." Corr, who now works for Mayor Greg Nickels, thought the Carroll coverage did an injustice to the countless reformers who risked their lives and careers to clean up Seattle. (They included Corr's own father, an SPD deputy chief.) It was dangerous: A number of potential corruption witnesses disappeared or wound up dead.

Charles O. Carroll might have been a demon on the gridiron, but it's significant that he brought those same tough qualities into public life, where he was a key player in a civic exorcism that shaped modern Seattle. We deserve better than a whitewash, and so does he.

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