Friday, February 27, 2009

Andrew J. May: war crimes

Andrew Jackson May, at right, with Dwight D. Eisenhower (center) and Chester Nimitz (left). Image from pro.corbis.com

As head of a military committee during World War II, Andrew Jackson May found himself in a position of significant influence. Unfortunately, a jury decided after the war ended that May had not responsibly used that influence.

Born in Floyd County in Kentucky in 1875, May worked as a teacher before graduating from the Southern Normal Law University and entering that field. In addition to being involved in agriculture, coal mining, and banking, he served as the county attorney for Floyd County and special judge of circuit court for Johnson and Martin counties for two years.

After losing his first attempt in 1928, May was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1930. He was returned to office in the next seven elections. In 1938, as war loomed closer in Europe and Asia, he became chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs and held the post throughout the entire war and until he left Congress.

Following a tour of the Pacific theater in the summer of 1943, May gave a press conference in which he reassured reporters that American submarines were surviving well because the Japanese were setting their depth charges to explode at too shallow a depth. Some newspapers printed the information; Admiral Charles Lockwood later said that the Japanese took account of the deficiency and that the blunder may have cost the Navy up to ten submarines and 800 sailors. However, author Mike Otlund theorizes that the Japanese may have been experimenting with deeper charges some months prior to May's press conference.

In 1946, accusations surfaced that May had wrongfully used his influence to help build the munitions combine of brothers Murray and Henry Garsson in New York. Time reported that the brothers had ties to the mob and had previously been charged, but not convicted, of crimes ranging from bribery to evasion of corporation laws. The magazine said their company had been "paper-built" in 1942 to provide 4.2-inch shells and quickly won a contract from the government before the company even existed. By the war's end, the combine had done some $78 million in business. While the shells were initially rumored to be highly defective, investigators later found that only 63 misfirings out of every 4 million caused the deaths of 38 men and injuries to 127 others; moreover, the defect rested in the fuses, not in the shells themselves.

May himself was charged with accepting bribes from the brothers, while the Garssons were accused of conspiracy to defraud the government of May's services. Joseph F. Freeman, the Garssons' Washington agent, was also implicated in the crimes but later cleared. In the midst of this turmoil, May lost his re-election bid in 1946 to the Republican candidate, W. Howes Meade.

During an 11-week trial, May was charged with using his sway in Congress to pressure government officials to award contracts to the Garssons, unfreeze their funds, look into a cut-back contract for truck bodies manufactured by the bodies, and seeking draft furloughs or deferments for friends of the Garssons. In return for these favors, May was alleged to have received significant bribes from the brothers. Some of these were in the form of checks or the Garssons depositing money into May's account or paying off notes. By far the largest was money paid to the Cumberland Lumber Company, conveniently located in May's hometown of Prestonburg. The Garssons bought up the company and May served as their agent; prosecutors charged that the company made for a handy front for bribes, as over $50,000 paid by the Garssons went for lumber which they never received.

May said his funding of the Garssons was a way of assisting the war efforts and equated the money to campaign contributions. However, he later admitted that his personal funds had become intermixed with those of Cumberland Lumber. Henry Garsson said the combine had tried to offer May compensation for his work on their behalf, but that he had refused.

The jury returned a remarkably speedy verdict in July of 1947, finding May and the Garssons guilty of three counts of bribery conspiracy after only one hour and 50 minutes of deliberation. May was found to have taken some $53,000 in bribes, but was not required to pay any fine. All three men were sentenced to serve between eight months and two years in prison, and all unsuccessfully appealed the verdict.

May spent nine months in prison in 1950 and was able to return to law work. President Harry Truman granted him a pardon in 1952, and he died in Prestonburg in 1959.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, The Political Graveyard, "Murray Garsson's Suckers" in Time on Aug. 12 1946, "Garsson Sequel" in Time on Sept. 16 1946, "Judge Denies May, Garsson Plea, Frees One" in the Deseret News on May 14 1947, "Garsson Testifies 'Compensation' Offered Andrew J. May Was Refused" in the Deseret News on June 3 1947, "Handy Andy" in Time on June 9 1947, "May, Garssons Guilty in Bribe Conspiracy Case" in the St. Petersburg Times on July 4 1947, "Garssons and May Ordered to Prison" in the New York Times on Dec. 2 1949, The Pacific Campaign: World War II, the U.S.-Japanese Naval War, 1941-1945 by Dan Van der Vat, Find 'em, Chase 'em, Sink 'em: The Mysterious Loss of the WWII Submarine 'USS Gudgeon' by Mike Ostlund

No comments: