Wednesday, December 24, 2008

James "Honest Dick" Tate: gone without a trace

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From Kentucky Politicians by John J. McAfee

James William Tate was born in 1831 in Franklin County, Kentucky. After working as a post office clerk, he was appointed to the post of assistant secretary of state in 1854 and 1859, resigning both times to follow commercial pursuits. In 1865, he became an aide to the clerk at the Kentucky House of Representatives, and in 1867 he ran as a Democrat for state treasurer and won. "Honest Dick" Tate served in the post for the next two decades, comfortably winning re-election every two years. John J. McAfee, writing in 1886, described Tate as honest and amiable, a "trusted and honored treasurer" with an "unblemished record for probity and principle."

Two years later, Tate's reputation was tarnished in one of the most bizarre financial scandals ever to hit the political scene. During his 21 years of service, Tate's bookkeeping had never been seriously scrutinized. As the state government moved to do so in 1887 and 1888, Tate managed to delay the process by saying he needed more time to get his records in order. On March 14, 1888, Tate departed for Louisville. Two days later, he took a train for Ohio and was never seen in Kentucky again.

On March 20, Governor Simon Buckner suspended Tate from his duties. By that time, Tate had a good head start on the government, which discovered that he had disappeared along with a substantial amount of money. Investigators found the treasurer's records in a shambles, and it took 10 days to sort through them and discover a $247,000 shortfall. The theft led to increased suspicions in the capital for a time, as several legislators had borrowed from the treasury. Fayette Hewitt, the state's auditor, came under criticism for not overseeing Tate's activities. Ultimately, it was determined that Tate acted alone.

Soon after Tate was found to be missing, a $5,000 reward was offered for his capture. The Kentucky Legislature introduced articles of impeachment against the treasurer, found him guilty in absentia of four counts, and removed him from office. Buckner appointed Stephen G. Sharp to serve as a replacement. A criminal indictment charging embezzlement was handed down in Franklin County three months after Tate's disappearance.

The exact amount that Tate absconded with remains unclear, since some of the nearly quarter-million dollar sum was due to shoddy practices and not direct theft. Tate had distributed several illegal IOUs, ranging from less than two dollars to over $5,000, that had never been paid back; some money was used to gamble on stocks, and some was simply stored improperly and found in various places in the treasury. Tate's bond and sureties helped reduce the burden on the state. Tate certainly took some of the cash, however. He was found to have purchased land in other states as well as coal mines in Kentucky. A clerk in the treasury testified that he saw Tate filling up two sacks with gold and silver coins and a wad of bills shortly before his disappearance.

The incident led the state to create the office of the state examiner and inspector to oversee the treasurer and auditor. The state also imposed term limits on elected officials.

Tate left behind a wife and daughter, and corresponded with them until December of 1888, going to Japan and China before returning to the United States. The letters stopped on December 3. Some 1,200 people petitioned for his pardon in 1896, but nothing became of it. The New York Times reported in 1890 that friends thought Tate had died in China within the past year. However, citing Tate's daughter as a source, the Times reported seven years later that Tate was believed to be alive and well, a wealthy coffee planter in Brazil who had even made trips to Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair and as part of a pan-American delegation. Tate's daughter, seeking to collect on a life insurance policy, had been looking to have him declared legally dead under a Kentucky statute. In January of 1898, the Times reported that the insurance companies had agreed to pay off on the policy.

Sources: History Mysteries by James C. Klotter, Kentucky Politicians: Sketches of Representative Corn-Crackers and Other Miscellany by John J. McAfee, Kentucky: Decades of Discord 1865-1900 by Hambleton Tapp and James C. Klotter, The Weekly Underwriter Volume 62 (1900), "Defaulter's Death Admitted" on Jan. 22 1898 of the New York Times, "Ex-Treasurer Tate May Be Pardoned" on Dec. 6 1896 of the New York Times, "Believed to Be Dead" on Aug. 9 1890 of the New York Times, "A Lost Defaulter Found" on Sept. 27, 1897

Sunday, December 21, 2008

J. Parnell Thomas: former HUAC chair fails to set a good example

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Born in New Jersey in 1895, John Parnell Thomas served overseas with the United States Army both during and after World War I. Returning to the Garden State and a career in the insurance business, Thomas gradually rose through the political spectrum. Starting as a member of the borough council of Allendale, New Jersey, he became mayor of the city in 1926 and served until 1930. He was also elected to the State House in 1935, but soon left those chambers when he was elected in 1936 as the Republican congressman to represent New Jersey's Seventh District.

Though Thomas was brought back to Congress in the six contests following his initial election, he has not aged well in historical retrospect. This opinion is due largely to Thomas's time with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which he chaired from 1947 to 1949. It was under Thomas's chairmanship, in the fervent anti-Communist period following World War II, that the committee launched an investigation into supposed subversive activities in the Hollywood film industry in May of 1947. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which included such prominent members as Walt Disney, John Wayne, and Ronald Reagan (future President of the United States), cooperated with the investigation. The Committee for the First Amendment, whose members included Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, and Katharine Hepburn, was formed to oppose the Alliance. Hepburn personally excoriated Thomas as well as the Alliance at a political rally for Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential bid, saying, "Today J. Parnell Thomas is engaged in a personally conducted smear campaign of the motion picture industry. He is aided and abetted in this effort by a group of super-patriots who call themselves the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. For myself, I want no part of their ideals or those of Mr. Thomas."

Nineteen people in the movie business were subpoenaed to appear before the committee in October. Of those, ten refused to testify under the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. The "Hollywood Ten" were charged with contempt and ordered to serve time in prison. A group of studio executives and producers agreed not to employ the Ten or other suspected Communists, and the blacklist was on.

In 1948, the Justice Department began an investigation into allegations, publicized by columnist Drew Pearson, that Thomas had been receiving kickbacks from office employees. Thomas denounced the investigation, calling it "cheap Pendergast politics." Attorney General Tom C. Clark said politics played no part in the matter, noting that the office had been involved in the prosecutions of Democratic congressmen James Curley and Andrew May on unrelated activity. Thomas demanded the right to appear before the grand jury after Election Day (when voters returned him to office) but, citing the Fifth Amendment, refused to testify when he did so.

In November, Thomas and his former secretary, Helen Campbell, were indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government. Thomas was charged with padding his payroll with employees that did no actual work so that the additional funds could go directly to his bank account. Campbell's attorney said she had arranged the scheme under coercion from Thomas, and charges against her were later dropped due to her role in breaking the criminal activity and providing evidence.

Thomas pleaded not guilty. By the third day of his December trial, he had been accused of putting five women on the payroll as ghost employees. At that point, he changed his plea to no contest, ending the trial and sending it to sentencing. Time, referring to Thomas as a "pudgy, petulant man," said he was expected to resign from Congress "to let a better American take his place." The magazine also mocked Thomas for expecting mercy from the courts, saying he had shown none as chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Alexander Holtzoff, the federal judge in the matter, clearly did not feel the same way, saying at Thomas's sentencing, "There is no doubt he did much good as head of the Un-American Activities Committee." Holtzoff denied that this was a mitigating factor, saying that Thomas "had a duty to set an example of upright living" due to his past chairmanship. He sentenced the congressman to serve six to 18 months in prison and pay a $10,000 fine.

Thomas announced his resignation, effective January 2, 1950, and was able to collect his federal pay for the remaining weeks until that date. His wife, Amelia, said Thomas had been "maligned and persecuted" since his time on the committee, and announced her intention to run for the seat to "continue the same struggle against subversive influences." She dropped out within the month, and William B. Widnall, a Republican, was elected in February 1950 in a special election held to fill the vacancy.

Thomas spent eight-and-a-half months in the same federal penitentiary where two of the Hollywood Ten had done time for contempt before he was paroled. Following his release, he edited and published three New Jersey newspapers from 1951 to 1955. President Harry Truman granted him a pardon in 1952. After unsuccessfully challenging his replacement for the Republican nomination in the 1954 election, Thomas worked in real estate and investment securities. He later moved to Florida, where he died in 1970.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, In Capra's Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin by Ian Scott, Daily Life in the United States, 1940-1959: Shifting Worlds by Eugenia Kaledin, Kate: The Woman who was Hepburn by William J. Mann, Time Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, The Political Graveyard, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The New York Times, Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present by James Chapman

Friday, December 19, 2008

Eugene Edward Schmitz: Golden Gate graft

Eugene Edward Schmitz and Abe Ruef. Photos from

Born in 1864, Eugene Edward Schmitz found himself in California when his parents joined the gold rush. A musician and orchestra conductor, he was the head of the Musicians' Union at the beginning of the 20th century when he was tapped by lawyer Abe Ruef to run for mayor of San Francisco on the Union Labor Party ticket. He was elected to the office in 1901, replacing incumbent mayor James D. Phelan.

The New York Times, commenting several years down the line, said, "It was not long before everyone knew that while Schmitz, the fiddler, was Mayor, Abe Ruef, the lawyer, was making all the music about City Hall." Graft spread under "Handsome Gene" Schmitz's administration as "Boss" Ruef accepted retainers and bribes to facilitate business in the city. While Schmitz and Ruef may have been at the head of the graft, the San Francisco Chronicle looked back on the time by noting that approximately 3,000 indictments related to corruption were handed down over a five-year period.

Following Schmitz's re-election in 1905, Fremont Older, editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt for federal assistance in investigating the corruption in the city and county government. Roosevelt agreed, and sugar magnate Rudolph Spreckels stepped in to help bankroll the $100,000 needed for the job. William Burns, of the United States Secret Service, started the investigation.

Schmitz, Ruef, and the other corrupt politicians in the city won a brief if not particularly welcome reprieve when a strong earthquake rocked the city on April 18, 1906. The quake and subsequent fires destroyed about 500 blocks-28,000 buildings-in the city.

In November of 1906, indictments were handed down against Schmitz and Ruef. The two men were accused of extorting money from French restaurants (i.e., brothels). Several city officials and business executives were also indicted on corruption charges.

Despite the indictment, Schmitz still maintained some authority as a public figure. Tensions between Japan and the United States were rising, due in part to xenophobia and school policies on the West Coast that called for the segregation of Japanese-American students. Schmitz and school officials traveled to the White House to discuss the issue with Roosevelt, which was resolved, however inadequately, with in the 1907 "Gentlemen's Agreement" allowing integration in exchange for a hold on further Japanese emigration to the United States.

Though Ruef preempted a trial by pleading guilty to charges, Schmitz chose to go ahead with a trial. He was accused of using his influence as mayor to compel police commissioners to withhold licenses from the French restaurants. According to the alleged scheme, Ruef would then guarantee the restaurant owners a license if they agreed to pay him $5,000 a year. Once they did so, Schmitz would go back to the police commissioners and push for the license to be granted. He was also accused of removing a commissioner who had been against granting the establishments any licenses at all.

Schmitz denied the charges, but the most damning testimony came when Ruef himself took the stand and said he'd given Schmitz half of the extortion fees he'd collected. The jury found Schmitz guilty in June of 1907 and the mayor's office was declared vacant. After choosing Charles Boxton as a temporary replacement, the Board of Supervisors appointed Edward Robeson Taylor as the next mayor.

Sentenced to serve five years in prison, Schmitz won a reprieve when an appellate court determined in January of 1908 that the indictment was insufficient. Ruef was also freed by this decision, and it is worth noting that his second go-round in the courts was marked by considerably more turmoil. Jurors were bribed, and federal prosecutor Francis J. Heney had to review 1,450 of them before an unbiased sampling could be found. The home of a key witness, and other buildings he owned, were bombed. On November 13, 1908, an ex-convict who had been removed as a potential juror shot Heney in court. Miraculously, Heney survived, though the bullet was lodged in his jaw and the prosecution was taken over by Hiram Johnson, who would go on to become Governor of California and a U.S. Senator. Ruef was found guilty in December and sentenced to serve 14 years in prison.

Schmitz's successful appeal essentially marked the end of his troubles. In 1912, a judge dismissed 27 indictments on gas and trolley matters that had been levied against him. One of the factors in the dismissal was Ruef's refusal to take the stand a second time against Schmitz.

Older felt remorse for Ruef in the years after his conviction, and began advocating his release in the Bulletin. Ruef served four years and seven months in prison before he was paroled, and died in 1936. Schmitz made two unsuccessful runs for mayor in 1915 and 1919 before being elected to the Board of Supervisors, ironically the same board that replaced him following his conviction. He died in 1928.

Sources: The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Mayor Schmitz Found Guilty" in the New York Times on June 14 1907, "Drop Schmitz Graft Case" in the New York Times on May 26 1912, "In San Francisco" in Time on Sep. 9 1929, Embattled Dreams: California in War by Kevin Starr, Strange But True San Francisco by Lisa Montanarelli and Ann Harrison, American Reformers, 1870-1920 by Steven L. Piott, Volume XCI of The Outlook, "The System" as Uncovered by The San Francisco Graft Prosecution by Franklin Hichborn, It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own by Richard White, National Trust Guide - San Francisco by Peter Booth Wiley, "San Francisco, the First 150 Years--Circa 1900" at

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Jack Ryan: a "sexless sex scandal"

Jack Ryan and ex-wife Jeri Ryan. Photo from

Given the recent scandal involving Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, it seems like a prudent time to look at a fairly recent Illinois scandal that also indirectly relates to Barack Obama. In 2004, Obama won his seat in the U.S. Senate, owing quite a bit to a couple of messy divorces on both sides of the aisle.

Jack Ryan, 44 at the time he ran for the Senate in 2004, earned a total of three degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard. After working with the Goldman Sachs investment firm, he left the financial sector in 2000 to become a teacher at the Hales Franciscan High School, a parochial school for boys in Chicago. His bid to replace Republican Peter G. Fitzgerald, who had won the Senate seat in 1998 and was opting not to run for re-election, was Ryan's first attempt at political office. He won the nomination on March 16, the same day Obama won the Democratic nomination.

Obama had been trailing in his race until the divorce records of frontrunner M. Blair Hull became public. Brenda Sexton, who had twice been married to Hull, accused him of physically attacking her and threatening her life. In addition to knocking Hull out of the top spot, the findings led to increased curiousity over Ryan's own divorce from Jeri Ryan, a television actress best known for her roles in Star Trek: Voyager and Boston Public, in 1999. His Republican opponents in the primary had called for the unsealing of the records, and following his nomination the Chicago Tribune and a Chicago television station sued for access to them.

Ryan's files had initially been open, but he successfully had them sealed in 2001 on the argument that doing so would protect his young son. There were signs, however, that the file might contain some interesting information. In 2000, Ryan had tried to seal portions of the documents that a judge said might contain "inflammatory, inappropriate, and embarrassing material," but failed; on that occasion, Jeri Ryan's lawyers had argued that he was attempting to seal the documents because they could be potentially dangerous to a political career. During the 2004 campaign, Ryan said he would not let the Democrats use his divorce records as ammunition; his lawyer said there would be a "feeding frenzy" if they were released and that the documents would be distorted. Jeri Ryan also came out against releasing the records.

A California judge ruled on March 29 that some of the records should be unsealed, once a court-appointed official had determined which documents would negatively affect the Ryans' then 9-year-old son. On June 21, several documents were unsealed.

The effect on Ryan's campaign was immediate and catastrophic. In the divorce records, Jeri Ryan said her husband had taken her to sex clubs in New York City, New Orleans, and Paris in the late 1990s and tried to get her to have sex in front of other people. The clubs in New York were described as containing whips and chains and other materials. She stated that the Paris sex club made her physically ill, and that she lost attraction for Ryan when he told her "it was not a 'turn-on' for me to cry."

Ryan had denounced the claims when they were first made as libelous and "smut." When they resurfaced, he referred to his original statement but did not reaffirm the denial. Ryan said he did arrange "romantic getaways" for he and his wife, and that they had briefly gone to an "avant-garde" club in Paris that neither had been comfortable at. He called the focus on the divorce "a new low for politics."

Though his main argument was that the divorce was a non-issue, Ryan curiously sought to put a positive spin on the accusations. In a radio interview the day after the revelations, he said that the accusations were not an indication that he broke any laws or commandments, stating, "I think if that's the worst people can say about me in the heat of a difficult dispute, I think it speaks very well about my character." In the same interview, Ryan said, "She says three times over eight years [of marriage], we went to places that she felt uncomfortable...That's the worst of it. I think almost any spouse would take that as, `Gosh, if that's the worst someone can say about me after seeing me live my life for eight years . . . ' then people say, `Gosh, the guy's lived a pretty clean life.'"

Ryan tried to rally through such public appearances and the release of a set of "talking points" for his supporters to use in his defense, but was soon facing criticism from his own party as well. Judy Baar Topinka, chair of the state's Republican Party, and former Governor Jim Edgar said Ryan hadn't been forthcoming when asked if the divorce records contained any potentially embarrassing material. Ryan denied this account, saying Topinka had actually asked him if there was anything in the file that precluded his becoming a U.S. Senator; he also said he had already disclosed the information in the files to party officials. Topinka and Edgar, in turn, disputed Ryan's version of events, with Edgar saying Ryan had only described the "avant-garde" club.

Ryan ended his campaign on June 24, saying the focus on the divorce would take focus away from the issues. He criticized the Tribune, saying the records had been unsealed over the objections of both parents and that he had wished to have them closed in the interest of his son. Obama chose to laud Ryan's community work upon his departure, saying, "What happened to him over the last three days was unfortunate...It's not something I certainly would wish on anybody. And having said that, from this point forward, I think we will be continuing to talk about the issues." Ryan officially dropped out of the race in July.

Ryan's resignation left the GOP scrambling for a replacement. In August, after unsuccessfully courting former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and Orion Samuelson, an agricultural broadcaster, they finally settled on conservative commentator Alan that time residing in Maryland. Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, compared the selection process to The Gong Show.

In an October interview, Ryan said he had resigned because he couldn't fight a "two-front war" against the Democrats and Republicans. He advised that divorce issues not be used against politicians in either party, saying he did not support the release of divorce records then Democratic candidate for President, John Kerry. He joked that the uproar was a "sexless sex scandal" and returned to Hales Franciscan as a substitute teacher, considering returning to teaching full-time when it became possible. In 2005, he launched 22nd Century Media, which publishes a chain of weekly newspapers focusing on local news in the Chicago suburbs.

Obama won the 2004 Senate general election in a landslide, taking 70 percent of the vote to Keyes' 27 percent.

Sources:, "In Illinois, a Contest of Contrasts" in the Washington Post on March 17 2004, "Some Ryan Divorce Files Should be Unsealed" in the Chicago Tribune on March 30 2004, "Court Sets Release of Ryan's Divorce Records" in the Chicago Tribune on June 18 2004, "GOP Leaders Say They Felt Misled on Ryan File" in the Chicago Tribune on June 23 2004, "Illinois Senate Campaign Thrown into Prurient Turmoil" in the New York Times on June 23 2004, "Ryan Quits Race" in the Chicago Tribune on June 26 2004, "Candidate Officially Drops Out" in the New York Times on July 30 2004, "Illinois GOP Finally Picks a Candidate" in the New York Times on August 5 2004, "Jack Ryan '81: The Conservative Idealist" in the Dartmouth Independent on Oct. 1 2004, CNN results of 2004 election,

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: bag women and the Bahamas

Photo from

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was born in 1908 in Connecticut, the son of the pastor at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. After serving as the pastor at the church for a time, he became the first black man to be elected to the New York City Council in 1941 and was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives in 1945. By this time Powell had already established himself as a voice in the civil rights movement, urging grassroots action to have businesses start hiring blacks. In Congress, Powell's efforts included antipoverty and minimum wage acts, but also focused on desegregation and anti-discrimination. He repeatedly introduced the "Powell Amendment," seeking to bar federal funding to any project supporting segregation. In 1960, he became the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

It was that same year that Powell's troubles began. In a televised interview, he accused Harlem widow Esther James of being a "bag woman," someone who collects police graft money. James sued for libel, and in 1963 a jury awarded her $211,500. Powell refused to pay the damages or appear in court, and began returning to his district only on Sundays so he could not be served by court officers. When he was cited for contempt of court in November 1966, the House began investigating the issue and allegations that Powell was misusing federal funds for travel, particularly to his vacation home in Bimini in the Bahamas.

In January of 1967, Powell was removed as chairman from the Education and Labor Committee pending the results of a special committee investigation. In his autobiography, Powell charges other members with hypocrisy over the travel issue, saying the head of the investigation, Democratic congressman Wayne Hays of Ohio, once "took a House dining-room waiter on a junket to Paris." The committee recommended that Powell be seated, but pay a $40,000 fine and be stripped of his chairmanship. The House rejected the recommendation 220-202, then voted 307-116 in March that Powell should not be seated in Congress.

Powell immediately sued to keep his seat. He remained popular in his district, and was re-elected by a nearly 7-to-1 margin over two opponents at a special election in April to fill his own vacancy. However, Powell did not show up to be sworn in, and spent much of the year in self-imposed exile in Bimini due to the contempt of court issue. Eventually, an agreement was worked out that removed the threat of jail over the contempt issue and a fundraising effort produced the funds for James' reward.

In 1968, Powell was re-elected by an 80.6 percent majority. Upon his return to Congress in 1969, he had to pay a $25,000 fine and step down as chairman. That year, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-1 vote that the removal of Powell from his seat had been unconstitutional. The whole affair appears to have taken the wind out of Powell's sails, however; he was frequently absent from the House, and narrowly lost the 1970 Democratic primary to Charles B. Rangel, who still serves the district to this day.

Powell died two years later. A boulevard and state office building in Harlem are named in his honor.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Oxford African-American Studies Center, Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Powell Loses Defamation Case" in the New York Times on April 5 1963, "Powell Elected to House Again by Almost 7 to 1" in the New York Times on April 12 1967, The House: The History of the House of Representatives by Robert Vincent Remini, The American Congress by Julian E. Zelizer, Adam by Adam by Adam Clayton Powell Jr.,