Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney William I. Cowhig was indicted yesterday on charges of receiving $34,000 in bribes at the rate of $500 a week from a private school that ran lucative bingo games and of profiting from illegal bingo games he helped organize.
Cowhig, 52, who has been Alexandria's top prosecutor since 1974, was accused in the indictments of continuing to demand and receive the bribes for weeks after he had called for appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of bingo improprieties.
It was the special prosecutor, Edward J. White, who sought yesterday's indictments from a city Circuit Court grand jury.
Cowhig apparently is the first Virginia commonwealth's attorney to be indicated while in office, according to Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman.
Three other men also were indicted yesterday on charges of running illegal gambling operations, including William H. Fields, top administrative assistant to City Council member Nicholas A. Colassanto.
The investigation of Alexandria bingo operations was begun in secret by city police last winter and was made public in April with the Circuit Court's appointment of special prosecutor White.
Federal officials are also conducting an investigation of possible official corruption and currency law violations and are examining the same allegations that led to yesterday's indictments. A federal grand jury heard witnesses for three days last month and is scheduled to resume in September.
Cowhig, in his second term as Alexandria's $42,500-a-year prosecutor, declined comment yesterday. He was informed of the indictments moments after they were handed down at 2 p.m. by his long-time administrative assistant, Mary Ann (Sam) Pastorek. He remained in his third-floor City Hall office until nearly 5 p.m., when he was driven away by Pastorek.
The indictment charges that Cowhig "did unlawfully and feloniously solicit and accept" $34,000 at the rate of $500 each week from mid-January 1977 until June 1978 from Dirgham Salahi, director of the nonprofit Montessori School of Alexandria. Cowhig took the money "in exchange for his exercise of disgretion as a public servant," according to the indictment signed by jury foreman Bruce B. Morris.
Salahi told a reporter last night, "I never offered any money to Cowhig." He declined to comment when asked whether Cowhig had solicited money from him as the indictment charges. Salahi said he had not testified before the grand jury and knew nothing about the indictments, although he had previously talked to investigators.
He said that in 1975, a year after the school had started fund-raising through bingo games, Cowhig "accused my wife of building an empire for ourselves." He said Cowhig felt the city should control bingo games, and the went after us because we were small. We were scared. After that I avoided him."
In March, when Cowhig was accused by some officials of being lax in enforcing bingo laws, he told the City Council in executive (closed) session that he had investigated the operation of the Montessori bingo game and found no violations, according to City Manager Donglas Harman and council member Donald C. Casey.
A second indictment against Cowhig claims that from March 1 to July 30, 1977, he conducted an illegal gambling operation, at a bingo parlor at 4603 Duke St. from which he received an unspecified amount of money.
The indictment alleges that the illegal gambling operation was run by B. & J. Specialities and that Cowhig received money from the sale of illegal gambling devices known as "tear tabs," which "were sold by him and members of his own family."
Tear tabs are pieces of cardboard on which slot machine-style symbols, such as apples, oranges or lemons are printed beneath paper tabs. Sold for as little as 50 cents, a buyer rips off the tabs to see if the combination of symbols printed underneath entitles him to a prize.
B. & J. Specialities is a company run by James R. Fike who has previously been indicted on a charge of running illegal gambling operations. In 1972 Cowhig, then in private practice, helped organize the company, according to corporation records. Fike has referred to the bingo investigation as a "political witch hunt" aimed at Cowhig.
A second count of the gambling indictment alleges that for three days starting May 13, Cowhig conducted an illegal gambling operation in the name of Scouting USA. Explorer Post No. 385, and that he "did personally receive money" from the sale of tear tabs.
An elected official under indictment can be suspended from office by a local Circuit Court judge, according to Virginia Attorney General Coleman.
Chief Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Frankin P. Backus said that "at this time I have no further authority" over Cowhig's possible removal and that all local judges are "so situated" (involved) in the local situation that it would be "improper for them to hear the cases." He said he would call for appointment of judges from other parts of the state to preside at the trials.
Bingo is a highly profitable game of chance that has been used in recent years as a surefire fund-raising device by local churches, charities and service organizations. Last year bingo games grossed $1.2 million in Alexandria, according to city records. Officials say the actual gross from both legal and illegal games may be much higher.
Virginia law permits nonprofit, charitable organizations to conduct bingo games as long as the people who run them are unpaid volunteer members of the sponsoring organizations. Unless these requirements and others are met and if profits from the games go to operators of the games rather than to the sponsoring* organizations, bingo games are illegal gambling according to several local attorneys.
It convicted of bribery, Cowhig would forfeit his office and could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison. Conviction of running an illegal gambling operation carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $30,000.
City Council member Casey called yesterday for Cowhig to remove himself from office, saying the prosecutor "can't function with a cloud over his head."
Beverly Beidler, another council member, said Cowhig told his staff yesterday that "it will all come out all right in the end." Beidler said Cowhig appeared "chin-uppish" after the indictments.
Council member Colassanto, who is Cowhig's step-uncle, said he did not think the council will ask Cowhig to resign and that he will not ask Fields, his aide who was also indicted yesterday to step down. "I hate to see anyone indicted," he said.
State Sen. Wiley Mitchell (R-Alexandria) said that although judgment would be withheld until the trials are held, "those involved should step aside."
Her recalled that several years ago Cowhig had pointed out to City Council members loop-holes in the state's bingo laws, particularly those involving "tear tabs," from which he is now accused of profiting.
Fields, Colassanto's aide, is accused in the indictment of conducting an illegal gambling enterprise from Sept. 1 to Dec. 2, 1977, in the name of the Potomac West Trade Association, the Alexandria YMCA and the Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department.
Also indicted were John Michael Keator, accused of conducting an illegal gambling operation from Jan. 26, 1977, to last May 7 in the name of St. Paul's Pentascostal Church, and George Leonard Berry, accused of running an illegal game in the names of the Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department the Liberty Rebekah Lodge, the Alexandria YMCA and Paul's Pentacostal Church between Dec. 9, 1977, and last May 7.
Keator and Fields could not be reached for comment. Berry declined to be interviewed.
Cowhig who has been a lawyer in Alexandria for 25 years, has been associated with the commonwealth's attorney's office most of that time.
A graduate of Georgetown University Law School, he was an assistant commonwealth's attorney for four years under Earl F. Wagner, then lost to Wagner in bitter Democratic primaries in 1965 and 1969, campaigning on reform platform.
In 1973, Cowhig, who is married and has four children, won the Democratic nomination and defeated Republican John E. Kennahan who had defeated Wagner in 1973.
Cowhig, stepson of the late Municipal Court Judge James N. Colassanto was unopposed in the 1977 election.
In 1971, Cowhig, his wife Shirley, his stepbrother Peter P. Colasanto and Colasanto's wife Judy, bought a small hotel on Exuma Island in the Bahamas for $172,500. By Cowhig's account the club has been a financial failure. The owners of the Two Turtles Club have a $150,000 loan outstanding on which they pay interest only.
Cowhig a private pilot has long been active in Democrative politics and a wide range of civic activities in Alexandria.
He was chairman of a bar association committee that developed proposals to speed the city's court process and generally won praise from Alexandria's legal establishment before the revelations about his bingo activities and his subsequent indictment.