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

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Robert Bernerd Anderson: from tax policy to tax evasion

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Like John Swainson, Robert Bernerd Anderson successfully maneuvered a political career before encountering scandal outside of office.

Born in 1910 in Texas, Anderson ran for a seat in the state legislature in 1932, the same year he was wrapping up law school at the University of Texas. After serving one term, he held several posts in the Texas government, including assistant attorney general, chairman of the state's unemployment commission, and tax and racing commissioner. He was exempted from service in World War II due to a childhood case of polio that left him with a limp. He did serve as a civilian aide to the Army Secretary during the war, however. In 1941, he became the manager of a half million-acre cattle ranch, which included supervising oil and gas leases with several Texas oil companies. He served as an officer with the Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association of Texas during the late 1940s.

Originally a Democrat, Anderson supported Dwight D. Eisenhower for President in 1952. The next year, Eisenhower appointed him Secretary of the Navy. It was Anderson, at Eisenhower's request, who desegregated that branch of the military. He later became Deputy Secretary of Defense and resigned from government work, switching parties to become a Republican before Eisenhower's re-election in 1956. While heading a Canadian mining company, Anderson kept close ties with the President, making a trip to the Middle East in 1956 to encourage better relationships between Egypt and Israel. In 1957, he returned to Eisenhower's cabinet as Treasury Secretary. Remaining in the position until the end of Eisenhower's presidency, Anderson encouraged the use of a budget surplus to reduce the national debt instead of lower taxes.

Over the next few decades, Anderson worked as an investment specialist in New York City, served on the boards of several companies, including Pan Am and Goodyear, and was an economic adviser to the Sultan of Oman. He also maintained ties with the succeeding presidential administrations, with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson appointing him to special committees on foreign aid and the federal budget. Anderson was also appointed special ambassador to Panama to address the issue of ownership of the Panama Canal. He resigned from that post in 1973 after a coup overturned a preliminary treaty, and his successor negotiated the treaty which ultimately turned over the canal to Panama at the turn of the millennium.

From 1983 to 1985, Anderson ran the Commercial Exchange Bank and Trust of Anguilla in the British West Indies with a partner, David Gould. Unfortunately, this was an illegal offshore bank, one where anonymous clients could deposit illegally obtained funds or hide income from the Internal Revenue Service. The bank had offices in New York, but was not registered or subject to regulation, and had no deposit insurance. Investors lost about $4.4 million, which Anderson gave to longtime friend Newton Steele. Steele used the funds to buy oil and gas leases in Oregon and pay off debts.

Anderson was charged with tax evasion for the years of 1983 and 1984, under-reporting his income by some $240,000. He was also suspected of being involved in a plot to sell arms to Iran, but never charged. After pleading guilty to the charges in 1987, Anderson was sentenced to serve one month in jail, five months of house arrest, and five years of probation. He was also ordered to pay back taxes to the IRS, pay restitution to the investors, and enter an alcohol treatment program. The judge noted that Anderson had been treated for alcoholism 10 times since 1981 and may have been negatively affected by his struggle to care for his late wife, who had suffered from Alzheimer's, over the course of a decade.

The conviction came very close to the end of Anderson's life. He was disbarred, and in 1989 died from complications after surgery for throat cancer.

Sources: The Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, "Moon Sentenced to 18 Months in Jail" in the Washington Post on July 17 1982, "Ex-Treasury Chief Admits Tax Fraud and Banking Crime" in the New York Times on March 27 1987, "From Treasury Secretary to Guilt in Fraud" in the New York Times on June 16 1987, "Ex-Treasury Chief Gets 1-Month Sentence in Bank Fraud Case" in the New York Times on June 26 1987, "Robert B. Anderson, Ex-Treasury Chief, Dies at 79" in the New York Times on Aug. 16 1989

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Judah Philip Benjamin: fugitive from justice?

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The American Civil War is steeped in enough myth and legend and accounts differing across the Mason-Dixon line that the truth might be difficult to track down. Judah Philip Benjamin didn't help historians much by staying quiet about his role in the Confederate government, despite allegations against him so damning that they forced his flight from the country.

Born in 1811 on the island of St. Croix in what are now the Virgin Islands, Benjamin later moved with his family to South Carolina. He attended Yale when he was only 14 years old, though he evidently left before graduation under mysterious circumstances. Moving to New Orleans, Benjamin entered the business of law but also dabbled in railroad development and sugar planting. He owned some 140 slaves until he sold his plantation in 1850.

In 1842, Benjamin was elected as a Whig to the Louisiana state legislature and subsequently became the second Jew to be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1852. When the Whig Party dissolved under the mounting pressures leading to the Civil War, Benjamin became a Democrat. After Louisiana seceded to join the group of states forming the Confederacy in 1861, Benjamin left the Senate and was appointed Attorney General of the Confederate government by president Jefferson Davis.

Though widely regarded as a capable official, Benjamin was not the most popular member of the cabinet, with some scholars attributing this to anti-Semitism. In September 1861, he was appointed the Confederacy's second Secretary of War. Clashing with military leaders, Benjamin was held accountable for the loss of Roanoke Island to Union forces as well as other losses in the western theater. Henry Foote, the Tennessee representative in the Confederate Congress, introduced a bill of no confidence against Benjamin in 1862.

Davis, not wanting to lose Benjamin's expertise, encouraged him to resign and appointed him as the Confederacy's third Secretary of State. Benjamin focused his efforts on cultivating diplomatic relations with England and France, including securing the Erlanger Loan, in which a French banking house agreed to market $15 million in Confederate cotton bonds to inject much-needed capital into the Confederacy's economy. Benjamin was still dogged by political enemies, however, who accused him of smuggling and transferring money to personal bank accounts in Europe. The rumors tended to focus on similar misconduct, with accusations that Benjamin had left Yale for thievery and stole money from the treasury when the cabinet had to vacate Richmond (the cabinet did pack up the treasury upon departure, however, and people are still trying to track down that gold).

Though it was advocated by other government and military officials as well, Benjamin came under fire for suggesting that slaves be allowed to fight for the Confederacy in exchange for emancipation. A subsequent vote in the Confederate Congress to find him "not a wise and prudent Secretary of State" failed in a tie. Despite being a controversial figure, Benjamin's likeness was printed on the Confederate two-dollar bill.

Benjamin's move through cabinet positions was more a result of the instability of the Confederacy than any proven scandal. It was a series of events toward the end of the war that made reconciliation with the United States an impossibility for him. By that time, he had become involved in covert activities against the United States, including encouraging dissent and funding spy rings operating out of Canada. This would not bode well for him when the cabinet fled the capital before its fall to Union forces. In April of 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. In the aftermath of the shooting, Benjamin didn't come off in the best light. He'd burned documents before leaving Richmond and had financed an operation that aimed to kidnap Lincoln. How closely the Confederate spy operations were tied to the conspirators is unclear, but prior to the assassination Booth opened an account in the same bank that was a drop point for Confederate cash, and John Surratt (son of Mary Surratt, an assassination conspirator who was later convicted and hanged) ferried money to Confederate agents in Canada. William Seward, the United States Secretary of State, had been wounded in an assassination attempt connected to that on Lincoln and said he thought Benjamin had been the sole Confederate cabinet member in on the plot.

Benjamin was not the only one implicated in the assassination; Davis's name showed up frequently as well. Historians seem to agree that Benjamin had no part in the plot, saying the accusations arose out of a mixture of anti-Semitism and people offering testimony against the Confederate government officials in hopes of collecting a reward. However, fearing that he would not receive a fair trial in such an atmosphere, Benjamin fled in disguise. After a four-month journey, he departed the country by boat from Florida, escaping to the Caribbean before crossing the Atlantic to England. Davis was captured and indicted for treason, but the charges were later dropped; the story of the former Congressman, Senator, and Secretary of War from Mississippi is surely enough for a future entry.

Benjamin made his way to England, where he quickly settled into a career as a successful barrister. In 1872, he was elected to the Queen's Counsel. He died in 1884 on a visit to France, having never publicly spoken or written about his time in the Confederate government.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary edited by Charles F. Ritter and Jon L. Wakelyn, Encyclopedia Britannica, "Judah Benjamin, The Jewish Confederate" by the American Jewish Historical Society, The Jewish Confederates by Robert N. Rosen, Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers Jr., The Rebel and the Rose: James A. Semple, Julia Gardner Tyler, and the Lost Confederate Gold by Wesley Millett and Gerald White

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Henry Osborne: two scandals, twice removed

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Aside from being the subject of some of the earliest political scandals in the country's history, Henry Osborne has the dubious distinction of getting sacked twice due to two very different instances of misconduct.

Born in 1751 in Newton, Ireland, Osborne emigrated to America. In 1779, in the midst of the American Revolution, he was admitted to the Philadelphia bar. The Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appointed him the judge advocate of the Pennsylvania militia in 1780, and in 1781 he was appointed escheator general for the commonwealth (a position that addressed what to do with the estates of people who had died without leaving an heir). In 1782, Osborne was appointed solicitor to collect evidence for the state's claim to the Wyoming Valley.

Osborne took a wife during his time in America, but unfortunately already had a wife whom he had left behind in Ireland. When she crossed the Atlantic in 1783 with proof of their marriage, the Council found that he had committed bigamy and dismissed him from all of the offices he'd held.

Osborne left the state with his first wife and reappeared in Georgia around 1785. His political career in that state was similarly well-rounded, and he held posts as the collector for ports south of Sunbury, justice of the peace for Glynn and Camden counties, and Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Southern Department. He served in the House of Assembly from 1786 and 1788 and as chief justice from 1787 to 1789. Osborne was appointed as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1786, but never made the trip back to his old stomping grounds.

After 1789, Osborne became a justice in the Georgia Superior Court. His time on the bench was cut short two years later, when General Anthony Wayne, the Federalist candidate for a Georgia seat in the House of Representatives, defeated incumbent Anti-Federalist candidate James Jackson in the general election of January 1791. Though Jackson protested that the vote had been fradulent, the House vote to seat him tied and the speaker upheld Wayne's victory.

Returning to Georgia, Jackson published a series of accusations against Osborne and Thomas Gibbons, Wayne's campaign manager, saying the duo had rigged the vote. Jackson charged Gibbons with getting unqualified magistrates to oversee the returns. Osborne was accused of a wider range of malfeasance, including illegally reopening the polls after dark, suppressing votes in Camden and Glynn counties, and personally casting 69 votes for Wayne.

The state legislature brought articles of impeachment against Osborne, but he refused to testify during the trial, saying the matter was one for federal officials to consider rather than state authorities. In December of 1791, the state senate convicted Osborne of five of the six counts brought against him. He was removed from the Superior Court, barred from holding an office of public trust for 30 years, lost his commission as a Camden magistrate, and was ordered to pay a $600 fine to cover the costs of the impeachment process.

Gibbons was not charged with any wrongdoing in the matter, but was later removed from the state senate after he was implicated in a separate vote-rigging scandal. Wayne's seat was declared vacant in 1792; Wayne, who was also not implicated in the fraud that helped him win his seat, decided not to run and returned to the military. Jackson's fight to regain his seat turned out to be for naught, as John Milledge was elected in the special election, but he was elected to the Senate not long after. Both Milledge and Jackson served as Governor of Georgia, and Milledge was elected to fill Jackson's seat in the Senate after the latter's death in 1806.

The impeachment appears to have effectively ended Osborne's political career, although he benefited from a clause in the 1798 state constitution that released prior convictions on impeachments and restored those individuals to citizenship. Osborne died in 1800 on St. Simmons Island in Georgia.

Sources: The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections edited by Gordon DenBoer, A Standard History of Georgia and Georgians by Lucian Lamar Knight, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia 1783-1806 by George R. Lamplugh, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States by Roger Foster, Pennsylvania State Archives

Friday, January 2, 2009

Thomas W. Miller: poor custodial work

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According to The American Promise, a history textbook written by six authors and published in 2003, Republican President Warren G. Harding's term in office (cut short by his death in 1923) was stained by political corruption, including the indictment of several of his appointees and the imprisonment of three of them, although Harding himself was never implicated in any wrongdoing. While the most well-known of the Harding Administration scandals is the Teapot Dome scandal, which led to the conviction of Interior Secretary Albert Fall, the case of Thomas Woodnutt Miller is less publicized.

Miller was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1886. After graduating from Yale, he worked as a steel roller, secretary to a Delaware congressman, and secretary of state of Delaware before he was elected to Congress in 1914 as a Republican. After serving one term and losing re-election in 1916, Miller fought in World War I, earning the Purple Heart and rising to the rank of colonel.

In 1921, Miller was appointed to be the Custodian of the Office of Alien Property, which handled property seized during the war. During this time, the German-owned American subsidiary of the American Metal Company was sold for $7 million to a syndicate of Americans and some of the original German officials of the subsidiary. In this deal, Miller was accused of accepting $50,000 for himself and resigned in 1924, staying on until 1925 when Harding's successor, Calvin Coolidge, found a replacement.

Miller was indicted in October of 1925 on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government. He was not alone. Also implicated were Harry Daugherty, Attorney General until 1924; Jesse Smith, a private assistant to Daugherty; and John T. King, a Connecticut Republican party boss. Daugherty was accused of getting $224,000 in the deal ($50,000 of which was in a joint account with Smith) and King was charged with receiving $112,000.

King and Smith both died before they could go to trial, Smith by suicide. In 1926, Miller and Daugherty were subjected to a 23-day trial, after which the jury deliberated for 66 hours before deadlocking on convicting either man. At a new trial the next year, Daugherty was acquitted thanks to a single juror who deadlocked the jury once again. Miller was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Miller was paroled after 13 months, and pardoned in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover. He then moved to Nevada, where he was a founder of the state park system and served as chairman of the Nevada State Park Commission for 16 of the years between 1935 and 1973. He also served as a field representative of the United States Veterans' Employment Service between 1945 and 1957. Miller died in Reno in 1973.

Sources: Warren G. Harding by John Wesley Dean, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Col. Miller Resigns" in The New York Times on Sept. 30 1924, "Col. Miller Indicted in $7,000,000 Fraud in Alien Property" in the New York Times on Oct. 31 1925, "Daugherty Indicted as Conspirator in Alien Metals Sale" in the New York Times on May 8 1926, "Twelve Jurors" in Time Magazine on Oct. 18 1926, "Daugherty is Freed as Jury Disagrees" in the New York Times on March 5 1927, "Prison for Miller and a $5,000 Fine" in The New York Times on March 8 1927, "Miller is Paroled at Atlanta Prison" in The New York Times on May 8 1929, Webster's Guide to American History by Charles Lincoln van Doren and Robert McHenry, America's 60 Families by Ferdinand Lundberg, "Miller Citizenship Restored by Hoover" in The New York Times on Feb. 3 1933