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John Bagnariol: He was 'a Renton man through and through'

John Bagnariol of Renton is welcomed home by friends and family in May 1984 after serving two years in a federal prison in Calfornia. Bagnariol died Sunday of pneumonia. - Archival photo/1984
John Bagnariol of Renton is welcomed home by friends and family in May 1984 after serving two years in a federal prison in Calfornia. Bagnariol died Sunday of pneumonia.
— image credit: Archival photo/1984

John Bagnariol, 77, of Renton, considered one of the state's most powerful politicians in the 1970s until a scandal ended his political career in the early 1980s, has died.

Bagnariol died Sunday at Valley Medical Center of pneumonia. He had been in declining health in recent years due to a series of strokes, said his daughter, Gina Bagnariol-Benavides of Auburn. His wife Barbara cared for him at home.

His friends knew him as "Baggy."

"My dad was a Renton man through and through," said Bagnariol-Benavides. "His home and his heart were always in Renton."

For years, he ran an insurance agency in Renton before he was elected to the Legislature and again after serving two years in a federal prison.

In 1984, he opened Bagnariol's Vineyard Inn, what became a popular Italian restaurant on Union Avenue in the Highlands where his grandma's recipes were the star and he was the much-loved host. It closed in 1994.

"My dad was larger than life at the restaurant," said Bagnariol-Benavides.

Bagnariol's political career began in 1967, when, at age 34, he was elected to the state House of Representatives representing the 11th District. Less than a decade later, the Democrat was elected speaker of the House.

At one point, because of a 49-49 split in the House, Bagnariol shared power with Republican Duane Berentson.

Valley Newspapers reported in 1977 that Berentson said of Bagnariol at his election to the House leadership post:

"We consider you to be a very fair man, and we've noticed you're slow to anger and that your word is good. That is important in this body."

Bagnariol's political downfall came the day before he was expected to announce his run for governor. "Gamscam," as the scandal was known, involved an attempt to build a gambling empire in Washington state.

In 1980 a jury convicted Bagnariol of conspiring to legalize casino-style gambling in the state, agreeing to take an 18 percent rakeoff of the profits, according to a Valley Newspapers article at the time.

According to the article, the self-styled "businessmen" who proposed to set up the operation and offered the kickbacks turned out to be FBI undercover agents.

Also convicted were Gordon Walgren, Senate majority leader, and lobbyist Patrick Gallagher.

In their defense, according to the article, "the trio, especially Walgren and Bagnariol, argued part of their job was to listen to lobbyists and various proposals. They denied they had agreed to under-table deals.

"Friends of the defendants asserted the FBI didn't have the deal clearly down on tape, a point the FBI blamed on malfunctioning of a $4,000 tape recorder."

In a telephone interview from prison in 1983 with Valley Newspapers, Bagnariol said, "I still think I'm innocent." According to the article, he hinted at hope "he'll someday be vindicated in the public mind."

Bagnariol served two years in the federal prison at Lompoc, Calif. He was paroled in May 1984. His wife Edna ran Bagnariol's insurance business while he was in prison.

He considered making a political comeback in 1987 – running for mayor in Renton – but there were questions whether a convicted felon could run for office.

"If my dad any real regrets when he got sick were that he couldn't follow through on helping to prove his innocence," said Bagnariol-Benavides.

"My dad was definitely guilty of having bad judgment," she said. But in her opinion he committed no crime.

Bagnariol was born in Earlington flats in Renton, the son of John and Violet Bagnariol. His parents were first-generation Italians in the United States, where they met.

"My father was very proud to be an Italian," she said.

Bagnariol is survived by his wife Barbara; daughters Gina Bagnariol-Benavides of Auburn, Jody Mather of Aloha, Ore., Sharon Bagnariol of Renton, Theresa Fawcett of Kent, Lori Hatch of Clarkston and Angela Anderson of Puyallup; sons Michael from California, David of Puyallup and Sean Veley of Olympia, and stepsons Rob Harris and Damon Harris of Renton.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Monday, Dec. 14, at St. Anthony's Church, 314 S. Fourth St., where he was a member.

Burial is at Greenwood Memorial Park. Afterward, the family will have a wake at the VFW Hall in Renton. Remembrances are suggested to the American Diabetes Association.

Dean A. Radford can be reached at 425-255-3484, ext. 5050.

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