Thursday, January 22, 2009

R. Budd Dwyer: out with a bang

R. Budd Dwyer. Photo from

Robert Budd Dwyer may have gone down in history as just another state official taken down by a financial scandal. Instead, Dwyer's determination to die in office rather than resign in disgrace, and his horrifying final press conference 22 years ago today, have earned him a small place in popular culture.

Born in 1939 in Missouri, Dwyer graduated from Allegheny College and worked as a teacher before being elected as a Republican to the Pennsylvania house of representatives in 1965. He served there until 1970, when he moved over to the state senate, and continued in that capacity until he was elected state treasurer in 1980.

In 1983, after the opportunity came about for state and local governments to recover overpayments made to the federal government under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, the California-based company Computer Technology Associates sought a contract for recovery work in Pennsylvania. Governor Dick Thornburgh, also a Republican, signed a bill authorizing Dwyer to handle the FICA recoveries, but objected after shady dealings involving the treasurer and CTA came to light. Dwyer came under investigation for awarding a $4.6 million contract to the company without putting it out to bid. He was accused of receiving a $300,000 kickback in the decision, though he canceled the contract after learning of the investigation.

In 1986, Dwyer and Robert Asher, the state Republican chairman who was accused of diverting the kickback funds to the party, were indicted on charges of bribery conspiracy, mail fraud, and racketeering. Dwyer maintained his innocence throughout the affair, but convictions of other officials related to the scandal soon began to pile up. William T. Smith, GOP chair of Dauphin County, was sentenced to 12 years in prison after turning in evidence against Dwyer; John Torquato, Jr., head of CTA, was sentenced to serve four years. In December 1986, both Dwyer and Asher were found guilty of the charges against them and faced up to 55 years in prison. Dwyer had been offered a plea bargain that would allow him to plead to one count and face a maximum of five years, but he rejected it. He also unsuccessfully sought a pardon from President Ronald Reagan.

Following the conviction, Dwyer was allowed to remain as treasurer but, at the same time, ordered by the judge to refrain from taking part in matters related to the treasury. Scheduled to be sentenced on January 23, 1987, Dwyer spent much of his time writing. He asked his son to transfer to a college that was closer to home.

One day prior to his sentencing, Dwyer called a press conference in his office, where the assembled media assumed he would announce his resignation. Instead, Dwyer read nervously through a half-hour statement professing his innocence. He denounced the judge in the case as handing out "medieval" sentences and accused Thornburgh, recently out of office, as starting the investigation because Dwyer had exposed supposed travel abuses in the Governor's office (in his autobiography, Thornburgh denounces the accusation and others made by Dwyer as attempts to "enhance his own image by embarrassing me and my family"). He apologized for voting for the death penalty as a state legislator. Noticing at one point that some television crews were packing up their cameras, Dwyer urged them to stay, saying, "We're not finished yet."

After wrapping up his speech, Dwyer gave three envelopes to his aides. Then, reaching into a manila envelope that he had placed behind his lectern, he pulled out a .357 Magnum handgun. Some of the aides or reporters in attendance evidently tried to approach him, as Dwyer spent the next several seconds warning people off. His last words were, "This will hurt someone." He then put the gun in his mouth and fired.

It later became clear that Dwyer's suicide had been planned well in advance. He had purchased the gun the month before, after his conviction. The envelopes he had given to his aides included arrangements for a funeral, his organ donor card (his retinas were later preserved), and a letter to newly elected Democratic Governor Bob Casey, who had been in office for two days. In that letter, he said that "the 'justice' system did not function properly in my case" and suggested appointing his wife, Joanne, as interim treasurer. "I stress to you that I did not resign but was State Treasurer to the end," Dwyer added. Several other letters went out to friends and colleagues, including numerous state treasurers. The letters criticized the justice system, saying plea bargains had been granted to people in the scandal in exchange for implicating him.

Dwyer widowed his wife and left behind two children. His family and friends, including the minister at his funeral, also maintained that Dwyer had been innocent of the charges against him. Three weeks later, the state legislature approved G. Davis Greene, Jr., a Democrat who said he did not intend to run for re-election to the post in 1988, as interim treasurer. Two months after his suicide, the National Association of State Treasurers demanded that the proceedings against Dwyer be analyzed, but an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department found no wrongdoing.

Television crews at the scene captured Dwyer's suicide on camera, and the tape was shown unedited on some local stations. This, combined with his unconventional exit from office, inspired a variety of cultural tributes both crass and well-meaning. The footage has appeared on several collections of disturbing videos as well as Bowling For Columbine, a documentary that addresses gun violence in the United States. Kurt Cobain, lead singer for the band Nirvana, is said to have obsessively watched a video of Dwyer's suicide in the years before he took his own life. Another rock band, Filter, released a song inspired by Dwyer entitled "Hey Man, Nice Shot." Despite a protest from Dwyer's widow and the seemingly mocking title, the song's composer said it was intended as a tribute (indeed, it contains such sympathetic lyrics as "You'd fight and you were right, but they were just too strong / They'd stick it in your face and let you smell what they consider wrong").

Perhaps most tragically, Dwyer may have thought he had much more to lose than he really did. His co-defendant, Robert Asher, was sentenced to serve only one year and one day and pay a $205,000 fine. Asher has since returned to politics and currently serves as a national committeeman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party. In the waning days of President George W. Bush's administration, columnist Jeffrey Lord suggested that a pardon for Dwyer was appropriate. Columnist Paul Carpenter disagreed, saying such an action would pave the way for someone to suggest that Asher be pardoned for his past criminal actions as well.

Sources: "Pennsylvania Official Indicted in Bribery Case" in the New York Times on May 14 1986, "Treasurer Dwyer Kills Self" in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Jan. 23 1987, "Official Calls In Press and Kills Himself" in the New York Times on Jan. 23 1987, "Official Who Killed Himself Had Rejected Plea Bargain" in the New York Times on Jan. 25 1987, "Dwyer's Widow Now Sees Clues" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jan. 27 1987, "Official Gets a Year and a Day in Pennsylvania Bribery Case" in the New York Times on Jan. 28 1987, "Pa. Senate OK's New Treasurer" in the Daily Collegian on Feb. 12 1987, "Treasurers Want Probe of Dwyer Case" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on March 12 1987, "Inquiry Finds No Wrongdoing in Pennsylvania Suicide Case" in the New York Times on Aug. 30 1987, "Rock Song Refers to Suicide of State Treasurer Budd Dwyer" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 7 1995, "A Plea for Mercy: Budd Dwyer Merits a Pardon" in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Jan. 11 2009, "A Pardon for GOP Bigwig Asher Would Help Hide His Background" in the Morning Call on Jan. 14 2009, Where the Evidence Leads: An Autobiography by Dick Thornburgh, Why People Die by Suicide by Thomas E. Joiner,Programming for TV, Radio, and Cable by Edwin T. Vane and Lynne S. Gross,, The Political Graveyard, Notable Names Database, the Internet Movie Database

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You can watch the video of the suicide here