Monday, February 4, 2019

Byron (Low Tax) Looper: Killing The Competition


Uncontested races for the state legislature were a common sight in Tennessee in the 1998 election. In nine of the 18 races for the state senate, candidates were running unopposed. Fifty-six people running for the state house had the luxury of being the only name up for consideration in their district, meaning more than half of the 99 seats in the chamber would go to people who had not been challenged in their election.

Tommy Burks, the longtime state senator for Tennessee's 15th District, was widely considered a lock for his seat even though he had an opponent. Burks had been in the legislature for nearly three decades. The Democratic candidate had built up a reputation as an honest, hardworking, "salt of the earth" kind of fellow.

His challenger, by contrast, had done little to endear himself to voters. Although Byron Looper had managed to get elected tax assessor for Putnam County two years earlier, his tenure in the office had been marked by chaos, litigation, paranoia, and incompetence. Looper had also been indicted on several counts of official misconduct, and was scheduled to go to trial a month after Election Day. Although he appeared on the Republican ticket simply by signing up for the race, the local GOP apparatus (which had opted not to field a candidate against Burks) had no desire to endorse him.

As such, Burks had spent little if any time campaigning to keep his seat. He didn't take out any political advertisements, and no debates with Looper were scheduled. Burks' friends weren't even sure if he had met his rival. Burks instead spent his time working on his 1,000-acre hog and tobacco farm near the town of Monterey.

On the morning of October 19, 1998, Burks began preparing the farm for a visit from local schoolchildren later in the day. It was an annual ritual, with youngsters getting a chance to enjoy a hayride and take home a pumpkin from Burks' pumpkin patch.

A farmhand working on a trailer would recall that the attack on Burks had happened quickly. A black car drove up to the side of Burks' pickup truck, at which point the farmhand heard a loud "pop" sound. The car then sped off, leaving the farm.

When the farmhand went over to the truck, he found Burks sitting in the driver's seat, dead. The 54-year-old state senator had been shot just above his left eye and killed instantly.

Police investigating the murder soon ruled out a number of possible motives. The farmhand and Burks' wife were quickly discounted as potential suspects. There was no indication that anything in Burks' private life, or any of his sometimes controversial political stances, had prompted someone to kill him out of revenge or anger.

A few days later, police asked for the public's help in locating Burks' opponent in the state senate race. The implication was clear: Looper had the most to gain from Burks' demise, and  may have taken matters into his own hands to ensure that his race would be an uncontested one.

Early life

Byron Anthony Looper was born in Cookeville, Tennessee, on September 15, 1964. He spent only a brief amount of time in the area. The family moved to Georgia when he was still a child after his father, a school superintendent, took a job there. Looper's parents divorced soon after.

Looper began attending West Point in 1983, but had to withdraw from the service academy after he fell from a horse and injured his knee. He was honorably discharged and finished his studies at the University of Georgia.

Soon after returning to Georgia, Looper became politically active. He joined the Young Democrats and was elected president of the group but, in an early sign of Looper's abrasive personality, he was later urged to resign. He made his first electoral attempt in 1988, running unsuccessfully for the state legislature at the age of 23. He then worked as a legislative aide for three years.

Looper's resume becomes somewhat muddled at this point. He reportedly enrolled in the Stetson School of Business and Economics at Mercer University. He spent some time in Puerto Rico, and one former member of the Georgia house of representatives recalled that Looper called him up in the early morning hours one day, saying he intended to sue a law school on the island because it refused to teach one of his classes in English. He settled the matter for a small sum. Looper would also claim that he worked for a Bear Stearns affiliate on Puerto Rico and as an assistant to the president of a university, although the latter institution proved nonexistent.

While Looper's political activities were more limited during these years, he still managed to work on the 1988 presidential campaign of Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee. Four years later, he also worked on the successful campaign of Bill Clinton where Gore was the vice presidential pick. Looper's associates would later say that he was disappointed that he hadn't been rewarded for his work with a job in the administration.

Putnam County assessor

In the early 1990s, Looper reappeared in Cookeville, switched to the Republican Party, and immediately threw himself into local politics. In the 1994 election, he challenged incumbent state representative Jere Hargrove for his seat. Looper's campaigns would be characterized by blunt attacks and negativity; he frequently vowed to break up what he saw as a "good ole boy" clique of politicians, and publicly accused his opponents of crime and corruption.

At the same time, Looper made some efforts to try to ingratiate himself with these politicians. Hargrove claimed that despite Looper's "undignified" campaign, he later contacted the state representative asking for his help securing a job in the Farmers Home Administration or some federal agency in Puerto Rico.

Two years later, Looper set his sights on the assessor's office for Putnam County. At first, it seemed like another quixotic effort. The incumbent assessor, Bill Rippetoe, had been in office for 14 years. But Rippetoe was facing criticism for recent property reappraisals, and Looper's campaign efforts added raised further recriminations. Although the campaign did not include any public appearances or debates, Looper loudly accused Rippetoe of cutting deals for friends and vowed that he would lower taxes in the county. On Election Day, he earned about 800 more votes than his opponent to secure a narrow victory.

The voters soon discovered that not only was Looper unable to keep his campaign promises, he was also unable to effectively manage the office to which he had been elected. Despite his promise to lower taxes, he had little ability to affect voters' bills since he had no control over the tax rate. One former campaign worker recalled that Looper rarely showed up for work, and that he jetted off to Puerto Rico for a three-week jaunt shortly after taking office.

Others recalled that Looper was a biased, unlikable person in his official role. They said he talked down to Democrats, promised favors to Republicans, and treated the people of eastern Tennessee with a general condescension, acting like he had been sent there to save them from themselves. Employees in the assessor's office fared little better; Looper was prone to insulting them or terminating their employment if he suspected that they were disloyal to him. At one point, Looper became involved in a fistfight between a county taxpayer and one of the workers in the assessor's office.

Early in his term, Looper announced that he had uncovered $100 million in property that wasn't on the tax rolls. The county commission responded that this kind of backlog was not unusual and that the assessor should focus on doing his job instead of finding controversies.

Such grandiose announcements were not unusual for Looper. He had drawn up a list of hundreds of media outlets across Tennessee, and constantly fired off press releases to highlight the work of his office. These communications frequently railed against the alleged "good ole boy" network in the county and bragged that he was the "most educated" assessor in the state.

Looper also began to show signs of rampant paranoia. His employees recalled that he had a video camera installed to record visitors, and hired a security consultant to scour the premises for hidden microphones or listening devices. He also set up a barrier at the back of his office because he was worried that political enemies were recording his conversations. Forty employees were reportedly fired after Looper accused them of spying on him.

In his official capacity, Looper filed several lawsuits against other county agencies. He charged the Putnam County election commission with voting machine irregularities, a curious attack given his own electoral victory. He also sued to demand access to the phone records of the sheriff's office. Not surprisingly, Looper found himself targeted by litigation as well, including former employees suing for wrongful termination and an attorney who accused the assessor of libel.

Looper was also named in a paternity suit by a former girlfriend, who accused him of raping her and illegally transferring ownership of her home to his name by faking the deed. Looper responded with a statement deriding the woman, saying she "left me with heart palpitations, a small box of memorabilia, and a red G-string." When she threatened him with a $1.2 million lawsuit, however, Looper admitted that he was the father of her child.

In March 1998, an indictment charged Looper with 14 criminal charges including theft of services, official oppression for theft, official misconduct, misuse of county property, and misuse of county employees. Among other things, Looper was accused of arbitrarily reassessing the property of a person who refused to contribute to his campaign, soliciting campaign donations from developers in exchange for lower tax assessments, using county funds and workers for his incessant faxing of press releases, failing to assess some land parcels, and removing one taxpayer's property from the rolls in an attempt to make them ineligible for public office.

A trial was scheduled for December. Henry Fincher, a local attorney, immediately began an effort to remove Looper from office, charging him with neglecting his duties while pursuing a personal political agenda.

Murder of Tommy Burks

Tommy Burks had been in the Tennessee state senate for 28 years when he came up for re-election in 1998. He had long balanced his farming duties with his elected ones, waking up before sunrise to tend to his animals and crops before driving about 100 miles along Interstate 40 to the state capitol in Nashville. At the end of the day, he made the same trip home.

Fellow legislators remembered that Burks never missed a day in the senate, even when he had to navigate through treacherous snowstorms. The weather only prevented him from returning home on one occasion. After Burks' death, a stretch of I-40 would be renamed in his honor.

Although he was a Democrat, Burks had adopted a number of conservative positions which frequently put him at odds with his own party. He was opposed to gambling and the state lottery, and in 1991 sponsored a bill to criminalize abortion in cases where the mother's life was not in danger. He also sponsored a widely derided bill to dismiss Tennessee teachers who taught evolution as fact. Burks' less controversial stances included support for anti-drug programs, public television, and crime victims' rights.

Burks had also sponsored a bill which would publicly shame first-time offenders convicted of driving under the influence, requiring them to pick up roadside trash while wearing orange vests emblazoned with the message "I am a drunk driver." This may have rankled Looper, who had been convicted of DUI in Georgia in 1986 and 1987 and unsuccessfully tried to have the charges expunged from his record.

There was little reason to view Looper's challenge to the popular state senator as anything other than a farce. He had even taken the bizarre step of legally changing his middle name to (Low Tax), parentheses included, and proudly included this moniker on all of his advertising materials. Though he had filed to run against Burks, he had simultaneously joined the race to challenge Representative Bart Gordon, a Democrat, for his House of Representatives seat; Looper abandoned this race after finishing third in the Republican primary. He declared public service to be "the most noble of all pursuits" and voiced his opposition for "big government, high taxes, fast spending, and mollycoddling criminals."

Following Burks' murder, public attention quickly turned to Looper. As the case gained national attention, residents in eastern Tennessee questioned why he seemed to have gone into hiding. It was also considered highly suspicious that Looper hadn't bothered to call Burks' widow, Charlotte, to offer his condolences. The state senator's death had not only left Burks' three daughters without a father, it had also occurred on the birthday of his middle child.

State law spelled out a clear motive for the crime. If a candidate for office died within 40 days of the election, their name could not appear on the ballot. Since Burks had been killed within this window, his name would be removed and Looper's would be the only one legally eligible in the state senate race for the 15th District.

Soon after Burks' murder, local Democrats encouraged Charlotte to mount a write-in campaign to succeed her husband and ensure that Looper wouldn't win by default. Although Republicans needed to flip just two Democratic seats to take control of the state legislature, they backed Charlotte's candidacy and disavowed Looper. Brad Todd, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, declared, "We did not recruit Mr. Looper to run for state senate or any other office. We have not assisted his campaign in any material way, nor will we."

On October 24, after a four-day absence, Looper returned to his home. He was promptly arrested, charged with first-degree murder, and held on a $1.5 million bond.

Byron Looper's mugshot following his arrest (Source)

The arrest did not disqualify Looper from the race since he had only been charged with a felony, not convicted. To further complicate matters, he was still the Putnam County tax assessor. From his jail cell, he fired his deputy tax assessor, leaving the office with no one in charge. Two more ouster petitions were filed against him, and the state finally stepped in to remove him in January 1999 after he attempted to keep doing his job while incarcerated.

The strange circumstances of the election generated strong turnout on Election Day. When the ballots were counted, Charlotte had won in an overwhelming landslide: 30,252 votes, or about 93 percent of the ballots cast in the district. It was said to be the first successful write-in campaign in Tennessee.

Charlotte Burks speaking at a legislative breakfast in 2012. (Source)

Looper still managed to collect 1,531 votes, although some of these were no doubt early votes that had been filed before his arrest. However, some of Looper's supporters questioned the motives of investigators, noting that Looper had publicly attacked them in the past. The police were also releasing little information on how they had tied Looper to Burks' murder; this evidence would be presented two years later, when Looper went to trial.


In the lead-up to the trial, Looper changed attorneys eight times. Although the murder charge was eligible for the death penalty, the Burks family declined to pursue it; they felt a life sentence would offer more closure than the ongoing appeals a death penalty case would generate.

The trial got underway on August 14, 2000. In the opening statement, District Attorney Bill Gibson declared, "Byron Looper is obsessed with the burning desire for power and public office. He is also a man who knew he didn't have a chance of beating Tommy Burks." The state argued that the murder had been motivated by Looper's desire to gain Burks' position and power, and that Looper was the only one with a motive for the killing. Prosecutor Tony Craighead deemed it an attempt to "win this election with a Smith & Wesson."

One witness recalled that Looper had mentioned the possibility of eliminating his opponent in order to win his election. William Lindsay Adams Jr. said he contacted Looper after spotting an advertisement for the position of his campaign manager. Adams said that Looper asserted that the campaign could be run at minimal expense, especially if his opponent wasn't in the race or if something happened to Burks before Election Day. He opted not to take the job.

But one of the state's most crucial witnesses was Joe Bond, a Marine recruiter and high school friend of Looper's. Bond testified that several months before Burks was murdered, Looper called him to say he was running for office. He also said that he planned to kill his opponent so he could be the only person on the ballot.

Bond said that he passed the remark off as a joke, but became more concerned after Looper began asking him about firearms, including recommendations for guns with reliable accuracy that could be easily concealed. A few months before the murder, Looper visited Bond at his home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, saying it was imperative that he acquire a weapon since the election was fast approaching. Bond said he would do so, even though he had no intention of getting his friend a gun. Looper persisted, repeatedly calling Bond and even sending a $150 money order to cover the cost of the firearm.

On the evening of the murder, Bond testified, Looper had shown up at his home and confessed to killing his opponent. "I did it man, I did it," Bond recalled Looper saying. "I killed that dude." When Bond asked who he was referring to, Looper responded, "That guy I was running against. I busted a cap in that dude's head." Looper told Bond that he had purchased a gun in a private sale, and thrown it out the window of his car after driving for about 10 or 15 minutes.

In March 1999, a man working with a construction company along I-40 had discovered a 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson handgun and turned it in to police. A firearms expert later gave his opinion that this was the weapon used in Burks' murder.

Byron Looper during his trial (Source)

Other testimony focused on the car that had been spotted on Burks' farm. Wesley Rex, the farmhand who had seen the car drive up alongside Burks' truck, recalled that it was a black car with circles on the back. He had also identified Looper as the driver after seeing one of his political advertisements on TV on the evening of the murder. A worker at a local fast food restaurant said Looper had shown up at the drive-thru in a dark car on the morning of the murder, nervous and in a rush, and had become extremely upset about a mistake with his order.

Investigators had managed to track down the vehicle Looper had briefly owned around the time of the murder. Two days before Burks was shot, he had purchased a used 1987 Audi sedan from a private seller in Lilburn, Georgia. The vehicle make matched Rex's description, since the Audi symbol featured interlocking circles. A mechanic in Tucker, Georgia, a community about five miles from Lilburn, said a customer who signed his name as "Anthony Looper" had brought the car in for repairs, estimating that it was sometime between October 11 and 20, 1998, and asked to leave it at the shop for a few weeks. Looper later called to say that he no longer wanted the vehicle, and it was resold.

The Audi's tires raised one point of contention. Once the car was discovered, an analysis of its tires found that they did not match the tracks left at the Burks farm. A test of the tires on the Chevrolet Beretta that Looper had been driving when he returned to Tennessee also failed to yield a match. But the man who sold the Audi to Looper still had the receipt for its tires; once these were mounted on the Audi, they left tracks that matched those at the crime scene. Prosecutors posited that Looper had simply changed the tires after killing Burks; Bond said Looper had told him he planned to do so.

A good portion of the defense strategy focused on an attempt to discredit the story put forward by Bond. Looper's attorneys, former Georgia state legislator McCracken Poston and former California legislator Ron Cordova, tried unsuccessfully to impeach Bond as a witness. They instead accused him of seeking revenge against Looper since the defendant had made advances against his girlfriend (later wife) when they were teenagers. One witness said Bond didn't have a reputation for truthfulness. The defense also called Bond's mother-in-law to the stand to suggest that Bond didn't have a good enough relationship with Looper to host him in the fall of 1998, since he had asked Looper to leave his residence during a visit in the summer after learning that his wife was uncomfortable with the defendant.

Several years later, Cordova would suggest that Looper may have helped set up Burks' murder, but didn't carry out the crime. He said he did not think that Looper was capable of killing Burks on his own, but may have recruited Bond to do so; however, he stressed that it was only a theory and he didn't have any evidence to back it up. The defense never presented an alternate suspect at the trial, and the prosecution pointed out that Rex had seen only one person in the car fleeing the scene.

Both Cordova and Poston believed that there was reasonable doubt that Looper had killed Burks. They had Looper's mother present an alibi, testifying that her son had been staying with her at the time of the murder; however, she had last seen him on the evening before the murder and had not seen Looper during the morning.

Poston later said that Looper had helped to sabotage his own case by withholding information from his attorneys. But Cordova and Poston felt that Looper did not have a legitimate motive for killing Burks, since they believed he would have known he would be caught and that Charlotte would likely be recruited to run in her husband's place. "The evidence is going to show that Byron Looper knows how to win an election," Poston said in his opening statement. "The evidence also is going to show that he knows how to lose one and move on. Mr. Looper's weapon has always been words, and that's never changed."

The defense positions failed to impress the jury. After deliberating for just over two hours, they returned a guilty verdict. On August 23, 2000, Looper was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.


Looper was held in the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary until this prison closed in 2009. He was then transferred to the nearby Morgan County Correctional Complex. He never went to trial on the official misconduct charges, which the state opted not to pursue since Looper had already been condemned to a life behind bars.

Throughout his sentence, Looper maintained his innocence and occasionally tried to appeal his guilty verdict. His cell was strewn with legal papers, and he targeted a variety of entities with civil suits. He sued a TV station, saying they had misrepresented their intentions when interviewing him and aired a program that portrayed him in a negative light, as well as the Tennessee Department of Corrections, which he said had failed to adequately treat him and other prisoners for health problems.

On June 26, 2013, Looper reportedly struck a pregnant prison counselor on both sides of her head, knocking off her glasses. The incident occurred during a discussion between the counselor and a prison unit manager about a request Looper had made; he apparently became upset after learning that he would be transferred from solitary confinement into the general population, since he was worried that he was a high-profile prisoner and would be hurt by other inmates.

Prison authorities said that Looper was restrained with "the least amount of force necessary." Two hours later, he was found dead in his cell.

An autopsy determined that cardiac issues were the primary cause of Looper's death, as he had experienced high blood pressure and the hardening of his arteries. This health issue was compounded by toxic levels of antidepressants he had been taking.

Looper's family and attorneys were suspicious of this conclusion. Poston declared the circumstances of Looper's death to be "extremely suspicious," saying he had seen Looper's body and thought it looked like he had been severely beaten while hogtied. There were abrasions and contusions around his head, arms, and legs, some of which were consistent with injuries that would be caused by shackles and handcuffs. Another prisoner had written to his girlfriend on the day of Looper's death and mentioned that guards had beaten "some chubby white guy" to death while he was restrained.

Poston also alleged that authorities from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation contacted Charlotte to let her know about Looper's death, while Looper's mother did not find out until she saw a news report on her son's demise. He said Looper's mother was initially told that her son would be charged with assault after touching a counselor on her arm, but that prison authorities later changed their story to say Looper had slapped the counselor. Poston said a nurse had treated Looper for a head wound about an hour before he was found dead.

The Tennessee Department of Correction responded to the allegations by simply referring to the conclusions of the autopsy. Looper's family commissioned a second autopsy, which determined that Looper's heart was not abnormally large at the time of his death. Poston and Looper's family never issued a follow-up on any other findings.

Charlotte, meanwhile, had proved popular in her own right. She continued to serve in the state senate until opting not to run for re-election in 2014.


Tennessee Secretary of State, "In Tennessee, A Lawmaker Dies and His Rival Vanishes" in the Washington Post on Oct. 23 1998, "Tennessee Senator's Killing and Opponent's Arrest Upend Small Town" in the New York Times on Oct. 24 1998, "Tennessee Lawmaker Killed; Election Opponent Arrested" in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 24 1998, "Candidate Jailed in Foe's Slaying" in the Washington Post on Oct. 24 1998, "Suspect Relentlessly Ran For Office" in the Associated Press on Oct. 24 1998, "Suspect in Death of State Senator Obsessed by Foes" in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 27 1998, "Ex-Tenn. Politician Begins Murder Trial" on CBS News on Aug. 15 2000, "Politician Goes On Trial For Opponent's Murder" in the Journal Times on Aug. 15 2000, "Guilty Verdict in Campaign Murder Trial" on ABC News on Aug. 23 2000, "Looper Found Guilty in Murder of Sen. Tommy Burks" in the Rome News-Tribune on Aug. 23 2000, "Convicted Murderer 'Low Tax' Looper Sues Prison Medical Manager Over Health Care" in the Nashville Post on Jan. 9 2002, "Prison Incident Report Shows Assault Before Byron Looper Found Dead" in the Times Free Press on Jun. 28 2013, "Byron Looper's Attorney Crying Foul in Death of Politician Turned Killer" in the Knoxville News Sentinel on Sep. 13 2013, "Byron Looper's Family Seeks Independent Autopsy After 'Heart Event' Death Report" in the Times Free Press on Jun. 29 2013, "The Death of Senator Tommy Burks and Byron (Low Tax) Looper" in the Nashville Scene on Aug. 16 2018, "Byron Looper" episode of Dying to Belong on Oxygen on Sep. 16 2018, "Way Back When: Looking Back in History" by Bob McMillan in the Herald Citizen compiled on, State of Tennessee v. Byron Looper, State Jones v. Looper

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

James Curley: Twice Convicted "Mayor of the Poor"

In many political scandals, a representative accused of misconduct has been in office for decades, cultivating enough popularity that they can weather the blow to their image. James Michael Curley, by contrast, had his first stint in jail when his political career had barely started. Instead of ruining his future in the field, however, Curley's first scandal helped boost his popularity.

On December 2, 1902, Curley sat down to take a civil service exam. A member of the Massachusetts state house of representatives, Curley was not taking the exam on his own behalf; instead, he was impersonating a constituent who was trying to become a mail carrier. On February 25, 1903, he was arrested and charged with fraud. Along with an associate named Thomas Curley (no relation) he was convicted on April 3.

Curley was sentenced to serve 60 days in jail, and began his sentence on November 7, 1904, after a series of unsuccessful appeals. In response, hundreds of citizens demonstrated in the streets of Boston to show their support for him. The civil service examination system had been criticized as setting unnecessarily high educational requirements for jobs, a major concern for the Irish population in the city that considered the system to be unfairly weighted against them.

While still in jail, Curley won the Democratic primary by a margin of roughly 1,200 votes of more than 3,200 ballots cast. He won the subsequent general election as well, and would serve on the board of aldermen until 1910. "He Did It For a Friend" became a campaign rallying cry which handily disarmed any criticism about Curley's criminal record.

A towering figure in Boston politics, Curley was well-loved by a populace that saw him as their personal friend and advocate. However, he also had more than one run-in with the law and lived long enough to see his influence and appeal slowly wane away.

Early life

James Michael Curley was born in Boston on November 20, 1874 and attended the city's public schools. His father, who had immigrated to the United States in 1865 at the age of 15, died after lifting a heavy curbstone when Curley was just 10 years old. The incident helped stoke what would be Curley's enduring hatred for Boston's political power players, since the boss for his own ward did little to help the family after their breadwinner passed away.

Curley's mother helped the family stay afloat by working as a cleaning woman. Curley, already contributing to the family income by working as a newsboy, started jobs at a marketplace and drugstore as well. He then became a delivery driver, continuing his education by attending night classes twice a week.

Curley also worked as a salesman with the bakers' and confectioners' supply firm Logan, Johnston & Co., and held jobs in real estate and the insurance business. He entered politics in 1898, unsuccessfully running for Boston's city council, before winning a seat the next year.

Following his successful jailhouse campaign in 1904, Curley served on the board of aldermen until 1910 before returning to the city council. In the midst of these campaigns, he married his first wife, Mary E. Herlihy, in 1906.

In 1910, Curley entered his district's congressional race. In the Democratic primary, he competed against incumbent Representative Joseph O'Connell as well as a former congressman, William McNary. Curley made humility a staple of his campaign. When he found that his opponents had bought up all of the billboards in the district, he simply adorned them with streamers reading, "Elect a Humble Man: James Michael Curley." Although he came under fire for his personal honesty, especially given his criminal record, Curley vowed not to run a negative campaign against his opponents.

The strategy worked. After winning the primary, Curley was chosen in the general election for a House of Representatives term starting in March 1911.

Curley vs. Honey Fitz

While his election to Congress was a major milestone, Curley's primary objective was to become mayor of Boston. In November 1913, while still in the House, he announced that he would run for this position.

The incumbent mayor, John F. Fitzgerald (grandfather of President John F. Kennedy), had privately promised Curley that he would not seek re-election. But when he was pressured by the city's Democratic bosses to run for another term, Fitzgerald gave in. Rather than abandon his campaign, Curley decided that he would challenge Fitzgerald in the Democratic primary. He spurned the support of the party bosses, even vowing to end bossism if he was elected.

John F. Fitzgerald, aka "Honey Fitz," at left with son-in-law Joe Kennedy Sr. and grandson John F. Kennedy (Source)

Curley found a source of leverage in Fitzgerald's extramarital activities. The discovery that "Honey Fitz" had been canoodling with Elizabeth Ryan, an entertainer and cigarette girl nicknamed Toodles, at the Ferncroft Inn helped torpedo the mayor's chances of an electoral victory. Curley stoked the sensational coverage by delivering lectures with titles such as "Great Lovers in History: From Cleopatra to Toodles." On December 18, Fitzgerald withdrew his name from consideration.

The mayor's withdrawal did not solidify support behind Curley. He was annoyed when the Boston city council, dominated by Democrats, endorsed the man chosen to run in Fitzgerald's place (city councilor Thomas Kenny) instead of him. He became more confrontational during the campaign. When hecklers disrupted one appearance, he denounced them as "second story workers, milk bottle robbers, and doormat thieves." Jeered at another appearance, he asked the audience if anyone wanted to come onstage to "make anything of it." He had reportedly already laid one heckler flat with a punch before issuing this declaration.

Curley was also not above unscrupulous tactics during his campaign. Among other tactics, he mailed out notices to areas considered to be Kenny strongholds giving them incorrect information on where to find their polling place. Curley is credited with coining the phrase "Vote early and vote often."

In the final vote, Curley earned 43,262 votes to Kenny's 37,522. He had resigned from the House, effective February 4, to take on his new duties.

"Mayor of the poor"

Curley would sporadically serve as mayor, or throw his name into consideration for the position, for the next four decades. But under the city's reform charter, he found himself wielding immense power during his first term. He ousted hundreds of officeholders appointed by Fitzgerald, and personally met with any citizen who came in asking for a job or favor.

Targeted by political bosses and the business community, which quickly realized that Curley would favor Boston's poorer citizens over them, Curley lost the 1917 election to Andrew Peters, a figure in President Woodrow Wilson's administration. The state legislature, alarmed by the extent of Curley's mayoral power, responded in 1918 by barring Boston mayors from running for re-election; while they would be able to compete in future elections, they could only serve one term at a time. The legislation would stand for 20 years.

Following his defeat, Curley ran unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives in 1918 before becoming president of the Hibernia Savings Bank in Boston. But he soon turned his attention back to the mayor's office. The race again proved bitter; Curley ran a brutally negative campaign against his opponent, a Catholic lawyer named John R. Murphy. He sent canvassers posing as Baptist supporters of Murphy into Catholic districts to help raise suspicion of the candidate, or had them spread a rumor that Murphy intended to divorce his wife to marry a 16-year-old girl. On December 13, 1921, he was elected by a narrow margin of approximately 2,500 votes out of about 146,000 cast. His second term lasted from 1922 to 1926.

During his term, Curley won acclaim as a "man of the people" or "mayor of the poor" for his efforts to provide Boston's impoverished residents with jobs or other benefits. During the early 20th century, Boston was a city in decline. Shipping at the harbor was not as robust as it once was, the downtown was in a depressed state, and industries were departing.

One of the first actions Curley took in office was to order long handled mops for the cleaning women of City Hall so they wouldn't have to scrub the floors on their hands and knees. He sought to connect those looking to work with jobs that would benefit the city, including raking leaves, shoveling snow, reseeding the grass at cemeteries, and cataloging books at the library. During his second term, he oversaw a number of public improvements including the construction of schools, the L Street Bathhouse complex in South Boston, 12 new parks, health care relief stations, and hospital improvements.

Curley also sought to make residential properties in Boston more affordable by keeping their assessments low while raising assessments on downtown properties. Naturally, the tactic of taxing wealthier neighborhoods to help poorer ones put the mayor at odds with the business community. The disdain was mutual; one story, perhaps exaggerated or apocryphal, holds that Curley berated the president of the First National Bank after he refused to loan money to the city, even threatening to open the city's water mains to flood the bank's basement and vaults if they did not comply.

Later analyses suggested that this strategy may have helped accelerate the degradation of Boston's downtown. Looking to escape Curley's onerous tax assessments, businesses fled to the suburbs and left empty storefronts in their wake. This urban blight would not be remedied until the 1960s.

Despite his image as an advocate for the city's downtrodden residents, there were also indicators that Curley found unscrupulous ways to build his own wealth. Despite earning a salary of only $10,000 a year during his first term as mayor, he managed to have an ostentatious neo-Georgian mansion built for himself on Jamaicaway. He moved into the residence, which prominently featured shamrocks carved into the shutters, in 1915.

Curley's Jamaicaway mansion (Source)

During one mayoral stint, Curley was charged with stealing from the city through a scheme involving bond sales and a friend he had appointed as city treasurer. After the case dragged on through 34 continuances, he was finally ordered to pay $42,629 back into Boston's coffers in $500 weekly installments, with interest.

Remarkably, this instance of malfeasance also failed to shake the faith of Curley's most ardent supporters. Some years later, he made a radio address appealing for assistance with the repayment, saying he was having trouble making ends meet. In effect, he was asking Bostonians to contribute their own cash to help him repay public funds he had stolen. His adoring followers answered in droves, visiting the Jamaicaway mansion to drop off what cash they could spare.

The Roosevelt years

In 1924, in the midst of his second term in office, Curley entered the Massachusetts gubernatorial race. But his popularity in Boston did not extend to the rest of the state as a whole. He was soundly trounced by Republican candidate Alvan Fuller, earning 282,000 votes to Fuller's 641,000.

This campaign would result in another physical confrontation involving Curley two years later. Curley had helped a publisher named Frederick Enwright to launch a tabloid newspaper in 1921, and Enwright had returned the favor by having the paper endorse Curley in the 1924 election - the only one of Boston's six dailies to do so. But the relationship soured as each man accused the other of owing money, and the newspaper's coverage of Curley quickly turned negative.

On October 4, 1926, Curley spotted Enwright having lunch in the financial district and surprised him with an uppercut. While Curley would later claim that he had acted in self-defense, Enwright said he had been sucker punched. His Boston Telegraph soon ran an editorial cartoon portraying Curley as an inmate and a drunkard who had learned to hit from behind as a street fighter. Curley promptly filed a libel suit, and the jury ruled in his favor.

Prohibited from running for re-election under the 1918 state law, Curley had to wait until 1929 for his next chance at the office. He was again voted in, tallying up 117,084 ballots against Republican challenger Frederick Mansfield's 96,626. The election was held just one week after Black Tuesday, the catastrophic stock market crash that marked the start of the Great Depression.

Curley's latest four-year term began in January 1930. His abrasive personality resulted in a clash with Governor Joseph Ely over how relief programs would be administered. Boston would be allocated 12,500 jobs under the Public Works Administration, a little more than half of what the city was actually entitled to.

In the lead-up to the 1932 presidential election, Curley opted to support Franklin D. Roosevelt over Al Smith for the Democratic nomination. This marked a strong departure from his constituency, since Smith, a former New York governor and the Democratic candidate in 1928, was the preferred choice of most of the city's sizable Catholic population. At the party convention, Curley somehow managed to attend as a delegate representing Puerto Rico and threw his support behind FDR.

Curley and FDR (Source)

Following FDR's nomination and subsequent victory in the general election, Curley expected that he would be rewarded with a plum political position. In particular, he was hoping to be named ambassador to Italy. Instead, the newly elected President offered him the less appealing role of ambassador to Poland. A disappointed Curley rejected the offer with a quote from Shakespeare's Henry VIII, pointedly charging that FDR "left me naked to mine enemies."

The tiff with FDR was short-lived. With enthusiasm for Democratic candidates running high, Curley was able to decisively win the 1934 gubernatorial election. About 736,000 Massachusetts residents voted for him, while 627,000 opted for Republican candidate Caspar Griswold Bacon and 94,000 went for third party candidate Frank Goodwin.

As governor of Massachusetts, Curley oversaw FDR's New Deal programs and bolstered them with his own state relief programs. He focused on infrastructure, spending large sums to improve roads and bridges. However, a later analysis suggested that he may have unnecessarily delayed New Deal programs in the state by squabbling with federal authorities over who would control the funding.

In the late 1930s, Curley's influence began to falter for a time. In 1936, while still governor, he ran for a Senate seat but lost to Republican candidate Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. He was also defeated in his attempts to return to the Boston mayoral office in 1937 and 1941, and in 1938 won the Democratic nomination for governor but lost the general election. However, he was successful in the 1942 race for the House of Representatives and won re-election two years later.

Fraud conviction

In the 1945 election, Curley was returned to the Boston mayor's office on a landslide count of 111,824 votes. It was more than both of his opponents combined.

This victory was all the more remarkable because Curley was under federal indictment at the time. His trial had even been postponed to allow him to run for office.

Curley had participated in Engineers Group Inc., a fraudulent organization that misrepresented its resources in order to win war contracts for clients. Curley's role in the scheme had been fairly minimal; he had simply let the organization use his name on their letterhead, and he would argue that he had been the "victim of a professional confidence man whose professions of honesty deceived me and others." But he had still collected $60,000 in government funds by attaching his name to the group. The scheme was uncovered during then-Senator Harry S. Truman's investigation into the U.S. national defense program.

In February 1946, just a month into his fourth term as mayor, Curley was convicted of 10 counts of mail fraud. Also convicted were Donald Wakefield Smith, a former member of the National Relations Board, and James G. Fuller, who had acted as the vice president of Engineers Group Inc.

Curley continued to serve as mayor as his case went through the appeals process. He finally ran out of options when the Supreme Court opted not to consider his arguments. In June 1947, he was sentenced to serve six to 18 months behind bars. In poor health, Curley disregarded his doctor's orders and traveled to the nation's capital to personally request that the sentence be suspended; a federal judge refused, and Curley began serving his sentence in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

While a criminal conviction is typically enough to get a politician to resign their office, Curley refused to step down. City Clerk John B. Hynes served as acting mayor during Curley's imprisonment; at Curley's direction, he collected the mayor's salary but donated it to charity. It is unclear just how much influence he continued to have from his out-of-state jail cell.

Similar to the public outcry in support of Curley after his previous fraud conviction, his latest plight inspired mass demonstrations among his supporters. Bostonians protested in the streets, and more than 172,000 people (about a quarter of the city's population) signed a petition demanding clemency "because of his health and other extenuating circumstances."

The entire Massachusetts congressional delegation also indicated their support for a pardon, with one notable exception: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who had succeeded Curley as a congressman and would go on to be elected President in 1960. The action was widely scene as a rebuke to Curley for how he had treated Kennedy's grandfather. However, other accounts suggested that Kennedy was skeptical about Curley's claims of illness, or did not want to give the mayor special treatment when he had turned down appeals by the families of other prisoners.

The day before Thanksgiving, President Harry Truman commuted Curley's sentence. The mayor had served five months of his sentence, just shy of its minimum term. The action was ostensibly due to Curley's poor health, including fears that he would die in prison if he wasn't released. However, it is more likely that Truman acted under pressure from Curley's constituents and the Massachusetts delegation. After all, Curley was able to quickly return to work after his release.

Despite receiving a warm welcome upon his return to Boston, Curley also doomed his future in the office with an off-the-cuff remark. Soon after resuming his mayoral duties, he quipped that he had accomplished more in one day than Hynes had done in five months. Offended by the remark, Hynes decided to challenge Curley in the 1949 election.

John B. Hynes (Source)

The restriction on running for re-election had been lifted, so Curley was trying to hold on to the mayor's office for the first time since 1917. He denounced Hynes as a candidate who would favor Boston's businesses over its people. Hynes fired back that Curley was out of touch.

By this point, Curley's influence had also waned considerably; an increasing number of voters knew him more for his fraud conviction than for his earlier advocacy for the poor. Despite garnering just over 126,000 votes, he lost to Hynes by about 11,000 votes.

Later life

Soon after this defeat, a dual tragedy struck the Curley household. On February 11, 1950, his 41-year-old daughter Mary suddenly died of a cerebral hemorrhage while talking to her 34-year-old brother Leo on the phone. Later in the same day, Leo collapsed and died of the same ailment after learning of his sister's death.

Curley was no stranger to this kind of loss. His first wife had died on June 10, 1930, and in 1937 he re-married to a woman named Gertrude Marion Dennis. Curley had nine children altogether, but would outlive seven of them. Five died before the age of 40, including twin sons who died shortly after their birth in 1921.

On April 14, 1950, Truman issued Curley a pardon for both his 1903 fraud conviction and his more recent conviction. It was essentially a favor, a way of offering Curley a clear slate; the charges hadn't included any lasting sanctions, since he could still vote and hold office under Massachusetts law.

Curley launched two more mayoral bids in 1951 and 1955, both unsuccessful. In 1957, he was appointed to the State Labor Relations Commission. His memoir, I'd Do It Again!, was published in the same year; he'd earlier published another autobiographical work, The Purple Shamrock, with journalist Joseph Dinneen. In 1958, the movie The Last Hurrah was released, based on a book written about Curley by Edwin O'Connor. Spencer Tracy played the lead.

Curley died in Boston on November 12, 1958. Following his death, he lay in state at the State House Hall of Flags; he was only the fourth person in Massachusetts history to do so.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Curley Gets Prison for Mail Fraud" in the Deseret News on Feb. 18 1946, "Truman to Free Curley Tonight" in the Lawrence Journal-World on Nov. 26 1947, "Truman Pardons Ex-Mayor Curley" in the Medera Tribune on Apr. 14 1950, "The Last of The Bosses" in American Heritage in June 1959, "Boston's Powerful Rogue" in the Christian Science Monitor on Dec. 29 1992, "How to Govern From Jail" on Slate on Dec. 2 2004, "The Mayor of the Poor" in CommonWealth on Sep. 22 2013, "The First Mayor of the New Boston" in CommonWealth on Sep. 25 2013, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga by Doris Kearns Goodwin, James Michael Curley: A Short Biography with Personal Reminiscences by William Bulger, John William McCormack: A Political Biography by Garrison Nelson, Rogues and Redeemers: When Politics Was King in Irish Boston by Gerard O'Neill

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"The Artful Dodger," A New Book by the Author of The Downfall Dictionary

When I started this blog back in 2008, I had no idea just how bizarre some of the stories I uncovered would be. In the 10 years I've written entries for this site, I've catalogued such strange tales as the congressman who castrated two men and the senator accused of betraying both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War.

One interesting historical narrative I encountered was only tangentially related to the figure I covered for one post. In researching Thomas Miller, the Alien Property Custodian who was convicted of taking kickbacks, I learned that he had seized property from a World War I draft dodger as well as German nationals.

The newspaper stories related to Grover Cleveland Bergdoll were so enticing that I couldn't believe his history had fallen by the wayside. Here was a man who had trained with the Wright Brothers and earned fame as a pilot, only to become infamous when he evaded the draft, tricked his guards into releasing him from prison by claiming to have buried a gold cache, and made a high-profile escape to Europe.

After many years of research and writing, I've published a history on Bergdoll's life. The Artful Dodger: The 20-Year Pursuit of World War I Draft Dodger Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, can be purchased as a print edition for $25 or for Kindle for $9.99.

Any readers of this blog are sure to be fascinated by this story. I hope you can pick up a copy and leave a review!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Bob Davis: Rubber Checks and Leotards

Two years after she caused a stir by publicizing a sexy private photo, Marty Davis—wife of Michigan congressman Bob Davis—was in the news again. This time, she was supporting a controversial measure to give members of Congress a 15.6 percent pay raise.

At the start of the congressional session in January 1987, members were receiving a cost of living salary increase from $75,100 a year to $77,400. It was not an insubstantial amount of money; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this salary would have the same buying power as $171,796 in present day - on par with the current base salary of $174,000 in today's Congress.

Under a proposal by President Ronald Reagan, however, the congressional salary would automatically increase to $89,500 per year unless the raise was voted down by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This annual salary would have the same buying power as nearly $200,000 a year today.

Not surprisingly, many citizens were outraged by the proposal. Countless people would have considered the congressional salary to be more than adequate, and the idea of budgeting millions of dollars more to congressmen's paychecks was particularly contentious since it came in the midst of federal deficits and domestic budget cuts.

Many members of Congress agreed that the generous raise proposed by Reagan was unnecessary. Representative Virginia Smith, a Nebraska Republican, not only wanted to block the raise, but also the minor bump in pay members had received at the start of the session. "We can get by on $75,100 a year, and overwhelmingly the people back home in my district expect us to," she said. "For Nebraskans, times are harsh."

Smith's comment and proposal prompted Marty Davis to respond with a letter to the editor, which appeared in the Washington Post. "Seventy-five thousand dollars may blow people away in Nebraska," the letter read in part, "but in Washington, it is pin money."

Plenty of residents in Bob Davis's district were blown away by a $75,000 salary as well, and they weren't too pleased with Marty's comments. After all, the median price for a house in the northern Michigan region the congressman represented was only $31,000. Some constituents criticized her objection to the congressional salary as being out of touch. A duo from the town of Iron Mountain started a tongue-in-cheek charitable collection called Moola for Marty, urging their fellow "Yoopers" to send $1 checks to the congressman's wife to support her lifestyle.

Marty sent a lengthy followup letter to the Washington Post, admitting that it had been hyperbolic to dismiss the congressional salary as "pin money" but maintaining that the income was modest when all factors were considered. She said many congressmen were struggling to maintain two homes—one in their district, and one in the nation's capital—alongside car payments and other expenses.

Marty also suggested that politicians bore a disproportionate amount of the public's ire whenever people rose objections to salaries they considered exorbitant. "There's no great hue and cry over Washington Bullets star Moses Malone's hefty $2 million-plus salary for dribbling and shooting," she said. "But politicians, responsible for the laws of the land, are reviled for wanting a piece of the American dream - a few extra bucks to keep up with the cost of living."

Ironically, Bob Davis himself was not in favor of the pay raise for Congress. An aide to the congressman said Davis hadn't supported any such raises since he was first elected to the House of Representatives, and he didn't intend to start now. He also said that Davis was supportive of his wife, since he wasn't surprised that "two intelligent people might reach different conclusions" on the matter. The raise would ultimately go through in a rather farcical manner, after the House voted to reject it but only after missing the deadline by one day, thus causing the boost in pay to take place automatically.

The controversy over congressional salaries and Marty's remarks would mark something of a watershed moment in Davis's life. By the end of the year, the marriage to his outspoken wife would be faltering. A few years later, he would be named as one of the top offenders in the abuse of a House financial system; he would claim that his actions had been driven, in part, by the challenge of paying expenses related to his divorce and job responsibilities.

Early life and politics

Robert William Davis was born in Marquette, Michigan, on July 31, 1932. After graduating from Lasalle High School in St. Ignace in 1950, he went on to attend Northern Michigan University and Hillsdale College. In 1954, he earned a degree in mortuary science from Wayne State University.

Four years earlier, Davis's father had left his job at a funeral home to start his own. Davis joined him in the family business, running the Davis Funeral Home in St. Ignace from 1954 to 1966. For a time, he also owned a greenhouse and flower shop.

Davis's political career began in 1964, when he was elected to the city council of St. Ignace. He served as a Michigan state representative from 1966 to 1970, then as the majority whip of the state senate from 1970 to 1974. Between 1974 and 1978, he was the Republican leader in the state senate.

In 1978, Davis left state politics to run for the House of Representatives. He was elected to Michigan's 11th District, which at 22,000 square miles was one of the largest in the country. In addition to the entire Upper Peninsula, the district sprawled over much of the northern part of the state's Lower Peninsula, reaching as far as the suburbs of Detroit. Although he had spent much of his early life in St. Ignace, Davis would live in the more southern community of Gaylord for most of his time in Congress.

Davis with President Ronald Reagan in 1988 (Source)

A moderate conservative in his views, Davis would do his most substantive work on the Armed Forces Committee and the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. The latter was considered particularly appropriate, since the 11th District bordered three of the five Great Lakes. During his time in office, he helped establish the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Keweenaw National Historical Park. He worked to bring an addition to the Hammond Bay Biological Laboratory near Cheboygan to improve national research into sea lamprey control. He also successfully pushed back against efforts to decommission the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw, arguing that it would impede icebreaking on the Great Lakes, and helped bring the service's buoy tender Acacia to Charlevoix.

Davis also secured funding and support for a variety of public improvements in his district, including roads, hospitals, libraries, and senior housing. In 1968, he joined with Governor George Romney to lower tolls on the Mackinac Bridge, which connects the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. This effort cut the toll from $7.50 for a round trip to $1.50 each way, quickly leading to a 22 percent boost in travel on the bridge.

He maintained nine offices throughout the vast district with a team of staffers to respond to constituent concerns. In a 1992 interview, he said he tried to help anyone who asked for assistance. "I've had people from Manistique call and tell me that their driveway wasn't plowed. We never turned down any [request for help]," he said. "We didn't always solve it, but no matter how small it was, we didn't turn it down."

This work made Davis a popular figure throughout much of Michigan. He easily won re-election in 1980 and the subsequent five House contests.

The black leotard

Davis married Marty, his third wife, in 1976. Marty was a former television and radio anchor, and worked as a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C. after Davis began serving in the House. In February 1985, she was outraged to read a letter in the magazine Washington Dossier which expressed surprise at the attractiveness of a congressman's wife. The implication, she felt, was that congressional wives were generally regarded as dowdy, stay-at-home types.

Marty fired off a letter to Dossier, Marty protesting that not all women married to congressmen were "cloying Barbie dolls swathed in Ultrasuede" or "stuck in a 1950s Donna Reed time warp." She said she was speaking for herself as well as "the business-oriented, career-oriented women in our ranks."

The letter likely would have attracted little notice had Marty not decided to back it up with a revealing photograph, with which she hoped to dispel the notion that an attractive, aspirational congressional wife was out of the ordinary. In the photo, Marty is bending over and shooting the camera an alluring look while wearing a cutaway black exercise leotard and high heels. She had originally taken the photo for her husband, to show off how she had lost 62 pounds after giving birth to their daughter.

The photo was quickly picked up and distributed in media outlets beyond Dossier. In an interview with the Washington Post, she marveled at the "completely overblown" coverage of the image and her letter. She said her husband had invited her to attend the State of the Union address, but she was worried she would upstage the President if she showed up. She turned down offers to appear on a number of TV shows, including Today and Good Morning America, saying she didn't want to "be fodder for the early morning news vulture."

At the same time, Marty was happy to use interviews on the subject to explain why she decided to send the photo to Dossier. It was clear that she had a good deal of pent-up annoyance over how congressional wives were treated in the nation's capital. More often than not, she complained, they were regarded as an extension of their husbands instead of individuals. She was disgusted by how frequently lobbyists called her "honey" or "sweetheart."

Yet her letter to Dossier had also been a way to combat perceptions that women married to congressmen weren't physically attractive. Men had frequently commented that she didn't "look like a congressman's wife." In her interview with the Washington Post, she commented, "Just because she's married to a congressman, she doesn't have to look like a toad. She's not a dog with no brains."

Marty said several congressional wives expressed their support and thanked her for changing the way people looked at them. Arlene Crane, wife of Republican Representative Philip Crane of Illinois, figured the photo had been meant as something of a joke. "If that's the case, she exhibited what has sustained me for the past 15 years in Washington, and that is a sense of humor," she said.

Other wives weren't laughing. Sally Dornan, who was married to Republican Representative Robert K. Dornan of California, thought Marty was simply trying to get attention and possibly trying to break into show business. Indeed, some of the people contacting her were Hollywood agents, and there was talk of making Marty the host of a women's talk show. "I exercise in a leotard, but I don't invite photographers in," said Sally. "She is certainly not speaking for me or many other wives I know."

There was even some speculation that Marty's risqué photo would erode support for her husband in Michigan. Dick Storm, a radio reporter with WHUH in Houghton, said, "We have a conservative population in the district, a lot of senior citizens and Apostolic Lutherans, and they're just not going to go for it." But a newspaper editor in the same town, Rick Fromm, said both Davis and Marty were well-liked in the district and the incident likely wouldn't have any effect. "I think most people, contrary to popular opinion, might think 'more power to her,'" he said. "She wanted to make a point and I think she made it very well."

Davis himself stood by his wife. He claimed that he had simply had a good chuckle when he found out about the image, and had suffered nothing worse than some ribbing by his colleagues. He commented that Marty's actions showed that "congressional wives aren't what people think."

Divorce from Marty

Despite showing support for Marty after both the photo imbroglio and her controversial stance on congressional pay, Davis's relationship with his wife was starting to break down. The couple began taking intermittent separations from one another in 1987. Davis began dating a woman named Brook Ball on and off during these breaks.

In December 1988, Davis and Marty officially separated. Davis filed for divorce in March 1989. About a month later, Marty filed for financial support in Virginia. Soon after, Davis came under scrutiny for his relationship with Ball.

At the start of the year, Davis had gotten Ball a job helping to research and prepare reports for the minority members of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. She had no prior experience with maritime matters, having formerly worked as division secretary for the Air Force office at the Pentagon. Her new position on the committee came with a $28,000 salary, $6,000 more than she had previously been making. Soon after Ball started the job, Davis moved in with her. At 28 years old, she was exactly half his age.

When news of this arrangement broke, Davis insisted he had done nothing wrong. He and Ball had first checked with the Ethics Committee to make sure there wouldn't be any issues with the hire and their subsequent cohabitation. He noted how they had used similar caution when Ball accompanied him on a business trip through Europe in 1987; Davis's way had been paid by a company in his district, while Ball covered her own expenses.

Davis added that Ball was doing a capable job and was actually saving taxpayers money, since she drew the lowest pay on the committee. The average salary of a committee staff member was $30,000 higher. "I would have hired Brook for that position even if we hadn't been dating," she said. "But that's not what anyone in my position would say, and I don't expect many people to believe that." He didn't believe that the hiring issue would affect his popularity at home. "People base their opinions of me on how I do my job, and I do a good job...I made no mistake here," he maintained.

The issue also wound up making Davis's acrimonious divorce a more public affair. In the course of defending the hiring of his girlfriend, the congressman also accused Marty of bringing the issue to light in the first place. He said he had refused his ex-wife's demands for $4,000 a month in child support, and suspected that she had tipped off the Detroit Free Press about Ball's employment in hopes that the courts would order him to pay more alimony.

Marty denied this charge, but admitted that she had been in a tough spot financially since the divorce. In another interview with the Washington Post, she said she was "completely broke." She was living in Arlington with the five-year-old daughter she had had with Davis, and she was paying $3,068 a month for rent, a car lease, electricity, and her daughter's schooling. Between her limited earnings and considerable debts, she had been forced to apply for welfare; she was turned down because her income was $100 over the maximum limit.

Those who had been unsympathetic to Marty's complaints about congressional earnings a couple of years earlier may have been similarly unlikely to empathize with her current situation, given that her expenses included $1,900 a month for a three-bedroom apartment and tuition for private school. But she claimed that Davis was paying only $234 a week in child support, less than a third of what she said was necessary for her to get by. Davis's attorney called her estimates "unfair" and "untrue," saying Davis had been paying her rent for a few months in addition to the weekly child support.

A Michigan court set Davis's alimony payments at $2,000 a month, a sum he protested as too high. His own financial situation was not sound enough that he could sustain this kind of regular contribution, he said. Marty, abandoning her old position about inadequate congressional pay, responded that her ex-husband made $91,500 a year and could comfortably afford to pay twice what they were asking. Davis argued that his actual income was closer to $67,000 after taxes. The court ultimately made only a modest increase in Davis's alimony requirements, asking him to pay Marty $247 a week.

The general assessment held that the proceedings wouldn't hurt Davis's reputation too much, since he represented a larger and more rural district. "We're so spread out, we're so isolated, these kinds of things don't hit people the same way they do in a big city," said Bob Anderson, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully against Davis in the 1986 election.

In 1992, Davis married Ball. They would remain wed until Davis's death 17 years later.

Campaign funds

The complaints about congressional compensation raised by Marty at the start of the 1987 and Davis during the couple's divorce seemed to ring hollow after a July 1990 press investigation. Since 1978, Davis's campaign efforts had collected $1.6 million and spent $1.52 million. Over the course of these bids, $225,000 in campaign money had gone toward Davis's personal expenses.

This kind of remuneration was not prohibited under federal law. The Federal Election Commission would only investigate campaign funds used for personal expenses if there was a complaint. But the receipts did show that Davis had not been as hard up for cash as previously indicated. He often wrote out multiple checks on the same day, including one to Marty for $4,800 in 1984 and two $500 payments to his son, Bob Jr. The largest single check sent to his personal bank account from campaign funds, $7,721.28 on December 1, 1988, was for "travel, meals and lodging."

Davis hadn't reported these payments as income. He said there was no need to, since the checks were reimbursement for the considerable expenses he incurred in covering his sizable district. He also defended the use of $103,000 in campaign funds in non-election years. "Everything a congressman does is related to being re-elected," he said. Davis also added, "I campaign all the time. I don't wait to the last minute to campaign. I campaign 12 months a a year. I work at it all the time."

A loophole in the federal election laws also allowed congressmen to pocket any leftover campaign funds if they left office before 1993. Davis assured a reporter that he wouldn't be taking advantage of this potential windfall. "Bob Davis will be here long after that time," he said. "I don't intend to retire. Never."

Banking scandal

For more than 150 years, the House of Representatives had hosted a bank which was open only to a select group of members. These included congressmen, their spouses, House staffers, and journalists. During Davis's time in office, the House Bank was a fairly simple institution; it could cash checks for its members, but it didn't offer interest or grant loans. The Office of the Sergeant at Arms oversaw its operation.

On September 18, 1991, the General Accounting Office found that the House Bank had honored a whopping 8,331 bad checks in the year leading up to June 30, 1990. Two weeks after this revelation, the bank was closed and the Ethics Committee began a five-month investigation into the issue.

The committee found that the House Bank had developed the ill-advised practice of honoring checks even if they overdrew the balance in a member's account. The bank essentially considered the withdrawal to be an advance on their next deposit. The generous overdraft protection meant that members could abuse the system by having the bank honor thousands of dollars worth of bounced checks without seeing the slightest blemish on their credit.

In the 39 months between July 1, 1988 and October 3, 1991, nearly 20,000 bad checks had been written from House Bank accounts. Some had been six-figure sums. The investigation proceeded using account numbers instead of names, although there was plenty of debate over how many offenders should be exposed. The House Bank didn't have clear rules against overdrafts, and the Ethics Committee did not want to embarrass congressmen who may have only bounced one or two checks due to an honest mistake.

Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), briefly wore a paper bag when speaking before Congress about the House Bank scandal on Oct. 1, 1991. After removing the bag, he said it was time to expose the scandal and return honor to the institution. (Source)

The committee initially decided that it would spotlight members whose overdrafts were "routine, repeated and significant." Many congressmen had overdrawn their accounts to get money for their campaigns, but others had used them to acquire funding for business ventures or other potentially profitable actions. After much negotiation, they set up a rubric to identify the worst offenders. To qualify, a congressman would have had to overdraw their account by more than their net monthly pay in at least eight of the 39 months under review. These parameters would only lead to the exposure of the 24 worst offenders: 19 sitting congressmen and five former members.

There were complaints that this limited disclosure was inadequate, especially given the widespread abuse of the House Bank. Some pointed out that many of the most egregious offenders could still escape notice; some congressmen had written more than 800 bad checks, but hadn't overdrawn their accounts beyond their monthly salary. Republicans in particular were eager to press the issue, since Democrats represented the bulk of the offenders (in part because they outnumbered the GOP almost two-to-one in the House). These congressmen trumpeted the overdrafts as a sign of Democratic mismanagement of the bank as well as the House in general.

House Democrats eventually gave in to the pressure to name every member who had written at least one bad check on their House Bank account. A total of 325 members, including 269 still in the House, would be implicated; it was the largest ethics scandal in House history. On March 13, 1992, a unanimous House resolution agreed that every offender would be named.

One day after this vote, Davis flew home and held a town hall meeting. He confessed that he would not only be named in the forthcoming revelation, but that he would likely have one of the highest counts of bad checks; he had bounced more than 800 during the period in question. He said his overdrafts occurred during "the worst period in my financial life," when his finances were in turmoil as a result of his divorce. He also blamed his own "sloppy bookkeeping," "lax procedure" at the House Bank, and the expenses involved in traveling throughout the large district.

Davis said the overdrafts hadn't resulted in a loss of any taxpayer money, since any bad checks were buoyed up by deposits made from other congressmen and House Bank members. He also said that he had not broken any rules or laws since the bank was actually a "cooperative check-cashing fund" instead of a true financial institution. But he acknowledged that the revelation was likely to upset his constituents. "I realize the bottom line here is that congressmen got benefits that most Americans didn't and that was wrong," he said. "I offer my sincerest apologies to the people who I represent."

As the House began to publish the names of all offenders in the bank scandal, it emerged that Davis had written the third highest number of bad checks. Between July 1, 1988 and October 3, 1991, he had drawn 878 checks from the House Bank without sufficient funds in his account to cover them. He was overdrawn for 13 months of the 39-month period. The face value of the bad checks totaled more than $344,000, the sixth highest amount among all offenders.

Davis was one of only three of the 21 worst offenders who didn't report any unearned income during the period in question. In fact, his last financial discloser form named his home as his only personal asset. He also declared that he had debts to three lending institutions ranging from $35,000 to $115,000.

Davis's record not only opened him up for criticism from the Democrats, but also made him a target within his own party. The Republicans had hoped to capitalize on the banking scandal in the upcoming election, but soon found that many from their own ranks had also abused the House Bank. Democrats were particularly delighted to find that Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, who had been especially vocal in criticizing the Democrats over the issue, had collected $26,891 from 22 bad checks. A total of 117 of the offenders, or more than one in three, hailed from the GOP. Tommy F. Robinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas, had the highest tally of bad checks at 996.

A Newsweek poll suggested that voters would be unlikely to support the worst offenders in the House Bank scandal. In April, GOP national committeeman Chuck Yob wrote to Davis asking him to abandon any attempt for an eighth term.

On May 4, Davis announced that he would not run for re-election. He pointed out how a poll taken in the previous month had shown that he would likely win both the Republican primary for his seat as well as the general election. However, he figured he would only be able to win through a large fundraising effort and nonstop campaigning; he also assumed that any opponents in either race would use the banking scandal to launch an extremely negative campaign against him. "Ultimately, I decided that I was not interested in that kind of negativism," he said.

Inside Edition sting

In a strange coda to his political career, Davis found himself targeted by the tabloid TV show Inside Edition. With so many congressmen being forced from office, rumors were swirling that the representatives affected by the scandal were desperate to stay in Washington and would do anything to secure new employment there. Inside Edition sought to test whether retiring representatives would stoop to corrupt acts in exchange for a lucrative new job.

The show created a setup where they would have a person claim to be representing a nonexistent trade association, the National Association of Bolt Distributors. They would offer the departing congressman a $250,000 annual salary to head this group. All they asked in the meantime was their assistance in influencing pending government legislation related to the fasteners industry. A hidden camera would be rolling to see if the congressman took the bait.

Inside Edition tried to tempt both Davis and Representative Robin Tallon, a South Carolina Democrat who would be stepping down after his term expired in 1993. Tallon had bounced two checks from the House Bank, but this hadn't played a factor in his decision to retire from office. Redistricting had given his district a majority black population, and he had been pressured to step aside and allow a black candidate to run.

In September 1992, Inside Edition went ahead with the sting. John L. Jackley, a former Democratic press secretary who had published a book about congressional chicanery five months earlier, disguised himself as lobbyist "Donald Lee" and met with Davis at a D.C. restaurant. Jackley, writing about the encounter for his next book, described Davis as boorish, dismissive of his constituents, and eager to accept a corrupt quid pro quo.

"You could almost see the drool of greed begin to form at the edges of his mouth. We had offered him a fantastic job—great pay, benefits, travel, the whole works—and he was beside himself with desire," Jackley wrote. "For one of the largest congressional check-overdrafters in the House, it was unparalleled. Davis represented Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and he candidly told us that after fourteen years in Washington, there was damn little that interested him back home."

The setup unraveled after the maître d' appeared and delivered a note to Davis, warning that he was being videotaped. Some GOP wonks had noticed Inside Edition's poorly disguised camera inside a gift box and relayed the message. Unnerved, Davis soon left the meeting. Nevertheless, Jackley claimed that Davis left a voice mail the next morning saying he had "taken the initiative" to set up meetings with an attorney, Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness, and a regulator working on bolt regulations at the National Institute of Standards.

Tallon claimed that he abandoned his own meeting as soon as the proposal of influence peddling came up. Jackley said he thought Tallon was also interested in the offer, but did note that the congressman was more cautious. In checking out the references from the meeting, Tallon discovered that Inside Edition was behind the whole thing.

In February 1993, word of the botched sting hit the papers. Davis said he was considering legal action against the program, but he ultimately never sued.

Later life

The Republicans continued to hold up the "Rubbergate" scandal as a primarily Democratic infraction. President George H.W. Bush even brought up the issue, accusing the Democrats of being incapable of running "a tiny bank or a tiny post office." He told voters, "It is time for a new Congress. You give me the right lawmakers, and I'll give you the right laws."

But the Democrats were easily able to accuse Republicans of hypocrisy. Three former representatives who had gone on to join the Bush Cabinet were found to have overdrafts: Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, and Secretary of Agriculture Edward Madigan. In the 1992 election, the Democrats lost only nine seats to the Republicans; they maintained a healthy majority in the House. Bush himself would lose the presidency to Democratic candidate Bill Clinton.

By one measure, however, the scandal would have a major impact on the House of Representatives. Davis was one of 77 congressmen implicated in the affair who either left office or were defeated in their primary or the general election. This meant more than one in four sitting representatives who overdrew their accounts were not returned to office.

Malcolm Wilkey, a retired federal appeals court judge, was named as special counsel to investigate the House Bank scandal. He determined that 20 sitting or former members may have committed crimes in the course of the scandal. A number of people—including the former Sergeant at Arms and several former congressmen, their family members, or staffers—were ultimately convicted of charges stemming from the investigation. In 1993, Davis was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the Justice Department.

Despite his reassurance to a reporter in 1990 that he did not plan to retire, Davis's early departure meant he would be able to benefit from the loophole in federal campaign laws after all. He pocketed $40,147 in leftover campaign funds before leaving office in January 1993.

A photo of Davis and wife Brook Ball Davis, posted on Brook's Facebook page about seven months before Davis's death. (Source)

Redistricting changed the 11th District considerably. It was reduced to a much smaller area around Detroit and stayed firmly Republican, with GOP candidate Joe Knollenberg taking the seat in the 1992 election. Much of the area formerly covered by Davis would now be covered by the 1st District. Republican candidate Phillip Ruppe, who had preceded Davis in office for 12 years, lost the race in this district to Democratic candidate Bart Stupak.

Davis stayed in the D.C. area after leaving Congress and kept out of the headlines. He began his own lobbying firm, and also worked for the international law firm K&L Gates. He opposed an ultimately successful proposal to set term limits for state officials in Michigan in 1992, saying he thought his long tenure in office had helped him build trust and serve his constituents more effectively. In 2002, an act of Congress named the St. Ignace post office for him.

After suffering from kidney failure and heart trouble, Davis died on October 16, 2009 in Arlington, Virginia. He was 77 years old.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, ""Congress Wives Not Toads, One Says - And Proves It" in the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 6 1985, "Marty Davis and the Pose That Was" in the Washington Post on Feb. 7 1985, "Marty Davis Has Other Congressional Wives Talking" in UPI on Feb. 7 1985, "Congressman's Wife Shatters the Stereotype" in the Boca Raton News on Feb. 7 1985, "Marty Davis Bends Over Forwards to Create a New Image for Housewives" in People on Feb. 25 1985, Photo Changes Life for Legislator's Wife" in the Detroit Free Press on Mar. 4 1985, "2 in GOP Try to Block Pay Raise for Congress" in the Washington Post on Jan. 7 1987, "Congressman, Wife Differ on Pay Increase" in the Detroit Free Press on Jan. 20 1987, "Pay Raise Splits State Legislators" in the Battle Creek Enquirer on Feb. 2 1987, "What $75,000 Won't Buy in Washington" in the Washington Post on Feb. 8 1987, "Financial Gun is At Our Heads" in the Battle Creek Enquirer on Feb. 10 1987, "Congressman, Wife Trade Barbs in Pending Divorce" in the Detroit Free Press on May 31 1989, "Turmoil in Congress: Congressman Defends Hiring of Companion" in the New York Times on Jun. 1 1989, "Congressman Is Target of Hiring Controversy" in the Journal of Commerce on Jun. 1 1989, "Friend's Hiring Throws Davis Into Ethics Fray" in the Detroit Free Press on Jun. 4 1989, "Welfare Woes of Hill Wife Marty Davis" in the Washington Post on Jun. 8 1989, "So Davis Hired Lover? Voters Aren't Objecting" in the Detroit Free Press on Jun. 8 1989, "Davis Got $225,000 In Election Funds" in the Green Bay Press-Gazette on Jul. 29 1990, "24 May Be Named in House Bank Case" in the New York Times on Mar. 7 1992, "Michigan Congressman Admits to 800-Plus Overdrafts" in UPI on Mar. 14 1992, "House Bank List an Index of Lives Out of Control" in the Los Angeles Times on Mar. 15 1992, "Davis Bounces $344,000 in Checks; Will Voters Bounce Him?" in the Detroit Free Press on Mar. 15 1992, "Foley Proposes Using Outsider to Run House Services" in the New York Times on Mar. 16 1992, "Third-Worst Congressional Check Bouncer Is Retiring" in UPI on May 4 1992, "Stop Filibustering and Take Out The Trash!" in Spy in October 1992, "Tabloid Show Aims at Ex-Lawmakers" in the Detroit Free Press on Feb. 19 1993, "Voters Enraged Over House Bank Abuses" in the 1992 CQ Almanac, "Former U.S. Rep Bob Davis Dies at 77" in the Oakland Press on Oct. 16 2009, "Former Congressman Bob Davis, 77" in the Washington Post on Oct. 19 2009, "Legislators Recall Davis' Lifetime of Public Service" in The St. Ignace News on Oct. 22 2009, Beyond the Hill: A Directory of Congress from 1984 to 1993. Where Have All the Members Gone? by Rebecca Borders and C.C. Dockery, Below the Beltway: Money, Power, and Sex in Bill Clinton's Washington by John L. Jackley