Saturday, November 29, 2008

John Swainson: post-gubernatorial perjury

Photo from

John Burley Swainson was born in Canada in 1925 and came to Michigan with his family when he was two years old. He fought with the 95th Infantry Division of the United States Army during World War II, losing both his legs to a land mine explosion in France in 1944. After earning his law degree in 1951, Swainson was elected as a Democrat to the state senate and served there from 1954 to 1958, as Lieutenant Governor from 1958 and 1961, and as Governor from 1961 to 1963 after his election in 1960. He was defeated in the 1962 election by Republican candidate George Wilcken Romney (father of future Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney).

After leaving office, Swainson served as a circuit court judge and State Supreme Court justice, the latter from 1971 to 1975. It was in 1975 that Swainson was accused of bribery conspiracy and perjury after John J. Whalen, a burglar convicted in 1970, said he had arranged for a $20,000 bribe for Swainson to influence other high justices to order a new trial. Whalen brought these accusations to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1972, and even carried a concealed microphone while meeting with Harvey Wish, a bail bondsman also indicted in the incident and later convicted of bribery conspiracy. Wish was accused of being the intermediary through which the bribe would be funneled to Swainson. Though Swainson was cleared of the bribery charge, he was found guilty by a jury on November 23, 1975 of three counts of perjury. He served 60 days in a minimum security prison, and lost his law license for a time. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the conviction after Swainson appealed on the argument that the taped conversations between Whalen and Wish had influenced the jury's decision.

Whalen, who had begun informing the FBI on other matters including a Detroit fencing operation in which 13 people were arrested, had a rather rough time of things after Swainson's trial. Arsonists destroyed his home less than a week after the verdict, and in December of 1975 he was kidnapped, tortured, and shot by two men; he lived to tell the tale.

Swainson later became the president of the Michigan Historical Commission, a title which he held until his death of a heart attack in 1994. Two years later, the Commission established the Governor John B. Swainson Award to recognize "state, county, or municipal employees who have contributed to the preservation of Michigan history even though such activities are not part of their primary job responsibility."

Sources: National Governors Association, "Swainson Indicted" in Time Magazine on July 14 1975, "Justice Convicted of Lying to Jury" in the Daily Collegian on Nov. 3 1975, "Home of Witness Burns" in the Daily Collegian on Nov. 7 1975, "Key Witness in Michigan Case Kidnapped, Tortured, and Shot" in the New York Times on Dec. 20 1975, "John Swainson, 68, Michigan Governor and Perjured Judge" in the New York Times on May 16 1994, United States of America v. John B. Swainson,

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Wilbur Mills: the electorate doesn't mind strippers

Wilbur Mills and Fanne Fox. Photo from

Wilbur Daigh Mills was born in 1909, and 30 years later he began serving as a Democratic congressman from Arkansas. In the short time between his schooling and political service, he worked as an attorney, bank manager, and judge. Mills became a member of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1942, and began serving as its chairman in 1958.

Mills had been serving in Congress for 35 years when the U.S. Park Police stopped his vehicle in Washington, D.C. in the early morning hours of October 7, 1974. Five people were in the vehicle, and what followed was a bizarre scuffle with police in which a woman dashed into the shallow waters of the nearby Tidal Basin. She was apprehended by police and briefly hospitalized.

Mills initially denied any involvement in the incident, but later admitted to being in the car and intoxicated (though not the vehicle's driver). His embarrassment deepened when the woman in the Tidal Basin, then 38-year-old Annabell Battistella, was found to be a stripper. Under the name Fanne Fox, Battistella was billed as the "Argentine Firecracker" at the Silver Slipper club. Sources told the Washington Post that Mills and Fox became companions, if ones that quarreled loudly at times, and that Mills spent "lavishly" at the club. Mills said that he suffered cuts and scratches on his face when he tried to prevent Fox from leaving the car.

Despite the incident's proximity to Election Day, Mills was returned to office by a 59 percent majority. However, Mills made the ill-advised decision to visit Fox at a burlesque house in Boston soon after the election. After being introduced by Fox, Mills joked with the audience, received a kiss on the cheek from Fox, and left the stage. Though he said the appearance was meant to dispel rumors that he was having an affair with Fox, Mills' public appearance with her in a strip joint did nothing to help his image. He resigned as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in 1975, went into treatment for alcoholism, and retired from Congress in 1977.

Mills worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C. after his resignation, raised funds for alcohol abuse programs, and died in 1992. His name is prominently featured in several Arkansas locales, including an alcohol treatment center, a social sciences building at his alma mater of Hendrix College, and a freeway.

Sources: Notable Names Database, Encyclopedia of Arkansas, "Pre-Dawn Escapade; Congressman Mills Denies Part in Incident" in the Evening Independent on Oct. 9 1974, "Mills Admits Being Present During Tidal Basin Scuffle" in the Washington Post on Oct. 11 1974, "The Fall of Chairman Wilbur Mills" in Time Magazine on Dec. 16 1974

Saturday, November 22, 2008

David C. Butler: Nebraska gets off to a rough start

Photo from

David Christy Butler was born in 1829 and had a background in agriculture and livestock. He grew up in Indiana, and his first brush with politics was his nomination by the Republican Party to run for the state senate in 1856. He eventually withdrew from that race, moved to Nebraska, and was elected to the territory's legislature in 1861. He was elected governor in 1866, again in 1868, and again in 1870.

The author of "Portrait & Biographical Album of Johnson and Pawnee Counties Nebraska" is clearly a friend of Butler, citing the governor's establishment of public buildings without legislative assistance after moving the state's capital to Lincoln. Excising the scandal that later befell Butler, the author praises his "financial sagacity in the management of the affairs of the state" and states that the governor "retired" from office.

In actuality, Butler was impeached on March 24, 1871 on 11 counts of improperly handing out loans that were targeted for education. After an impeachment trial, 10 of the counts were dismissed, but Butler was found guilty of a single count alleging private use of approximately $16,000 from the sale of public lands. Butler was removed from office on June 2, 1871 and replaced by Secretary of State William Hartford James, who had been serving as the interim governor following the impeachment.

In the end, Butler had a soft landing. The impeachment charges were expunged from his record by the state senate in 1877, and Butler was elected to that chamber in 1882. He failed to reclaim the governor's seat when he ran as a third party in 1888, however, and died in 1891. His name lives on in Butler County, a county in the eastern part of Nebraska.

Sources: The Political Graveyard, the National Governors Association,, Political Corruption in America by Mark Grossman.


The idea for this blog arose out of a conversation my father and I had this summer while I was home on vacation. I can't remember if there was a specific political scandal in the United States at that time. Credit for the title goes to my father, although I suppose this will be more of an encyclopedia than a dictionary.

I eventually compiled a list of scandals on federal, state, and local levels from a handy if almost certainly incomplete list on Wikipedia. Granted, this list has its limitations. While the scandals seemed to increase exponentially as the country aged, with an avalanche of scandals in the first decade of the 21st century, this is likely due to the use of the Internet as a way to keep an up-to-date record of corruption. The city of Chicago seems to have a disproportionately high number of scandals associated with it, which may mean that its government is extremely corrupt or may mean that someone with an interest in Chicago scandals has done more work updating the list than people with knowledge of local scandals in other cities. There was also some discussion on the site's talk page as to whether people were trying to skew it one way or another to suggest that one party was more corrupt than the other. Given that the Democratic and Republican parties seemed to switch sensibilities around the 1960s, any attempt to tar one or the other as being more corrupt is an exercise in idiocy. Rest assured, both parties will be covered.

Moreover, some of the items aren't necessarily scandals, even if they may be examples of rampant corruption, such as New York's infamous Tammany Hall. All politicians do controversial things, but controversy alone does not a scandal make. For the purposes of this blog, I'll be looking more at individuals affected in such a way that their political image is tarnished: through criminal indictment, offensive statements, bad behavior, or other means. Giving lie to the blog's title, I'll also be looking at politicians who survived scandals, by being acquitted of charges, by remaining politically viable despite a scandal, and so on. While I will likely cover scandals as local as county-level or state legislatures, I likely won't go much further than that. I've worked as a newspaper reporter in a rural area for a little more than a year and a half now, and in that brief time I've covered two criminal matters involving town officials accused of embezzling municipal funds. I imagine such misconduct occurs nationwide on a fairly large scale, and it would be a nightmare to track down all of these incidents over the course of 232 years of history.

I will do my best to thoroughly research each matter, though most of this research will likely be done online given the relative lack of library resources. As I have a full-time job, there may also be a significant amount of time between each blog post, but I will try to keep it updated as often as possible. My father has also expressed interest in doing a few entries, so I may send some names his way. The scandals themselves will appear in random order, so you I may cover an 18th century incident in one post and follow it up with one from the 1990s.

I welcome any suggestions, corrections, and comments, and hope you will enjoy the blog!