Sunday, May 6, 2012

Joe Waggonner: solicitation immunity

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A close friend of Wilbur Mills, a fellow member of the House of Representatives, Joseph David Waggonner, Jr. was there to support Mills following revelations that he had a dubious relationship with a stripper and was struggling with alcohol problems. Two years later, Waggonner weathered his own scandal.

Waggonner was born in Plain Dealing, Louisiana in September of 1918. He graduated from Plain Dealing High School in 1935 before earning a bachelor's degree from Louisiana Tech University in 1941. Although he entered the business world after this graduation, he joined the Navy for the duration of World War II and returned for service in the Korean War between 1951 and 1952.

Waggonner's first experience with politics began in 1954, when he was elected to the Bossier Parish school board. He served there for six years, spending his last year as a member of the Louisiana state board of education as well. In 1961, he was the president of both the United Schools Committee of Louisiana and Louisiana School Boards Association. Waggonner also ran unsuccessfully for state comptroller in 1959.

When Representative Overton Brooks died in September of 1961, the district held a special election in December to fill the vacancy. Waggonner was chosen as the Democratic nominee and faced off against Republican candidate Charlton H. Lyons, Sr. Both men were extremely conservative and in favor of segregation; in fact, Waggonner had briefly left the Democratic Party in 1960 to run in the general election as an elector for the States Rights Party. When the results came in, Waggonner had defeated Lyons. He would be re-elected in 1962 and in each of the next seven congressional elections.

During his time in Congress, Waggonner was credited with bringing a number of improvements to his district. These included the establishment of an interstate between Lafayette and Shreveport, development to make the Red River navigable, helping convince General Motors to set up a plant in Shreveport, and acquiring funding for the Barksdale Air Force Base and Fort Polk. Waggonner served on the Ways and Means Committee as well as the House committee that administered the space program. He became one of the most prominent leaders of the conservative Southern Democrats and a vocal opponent of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whom he accused of engaging in paid activity while a judge as well as a $200,000 payment to a mobster while Douglas was the head of the Albert Parvin Foundation.

Waggonner also became an outspoken critic of civil rights measures and other initiatives by President Lyndon Johnson. He led the fight against Johnson's school aid and antipoverty measures, declaring, "There's no demand, for the first time in many years, for this legislation except from those who are politically motivated." He described the civil rights group Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a "radical, Communist-infiltrated gangs of agitators...dedicated to violence for the sake of the party line." Waggonner claimed that civil rights measures unfairly targeted the South. He said that congressmen were "blackmailed into acting" on a bill on housing discrimination since it was being pushed through Congress at the same time as a number of violent incidents in the South. In response to President Richard Nixon's 1969 civil rights bill, Waggonner complained, "You've got to quit whipping the South."

Despite this criticism, Waggonner was a strong Nixon supporter. He was taken aback when transcripts related to the Watergate scandal were released in August of 1974. "The only thing I've got to say is it hurts," he told a reporter. "I'll let the dust settle before I say more, and think the whole thing through." Yet the men remained close enough that Nixon consulted with Waggonner as the scandal reached its crescendo. Waggonner told Nixon that he could probably rally 70 Democrats to oppose the President's impeachment, but warned that if he did so there would still be a demand to hold Nixon in contempt of the Supreme Court for refusing to turn over his audio tapes as ordered. The advice no doubt played a part in Nixon's ultimate decision to resign. "After my call with Joe Waggonner...realized that we are really looking at about thirty days in which the climactic decision with regard to whether we are able to stay in office," he recorded in his journal.

In June of 1976, reports surfaced that Waggonner had briefly been detained by the Washington, D.C. police earlier in the year after soliciting a police officer posing as a prostitute. According to the police, three vice officers were stationed at a corner frequented by prostitutes and Waggonner circled the block three times before motioning to one of the women. He arranged to meet with her and pay $50 for sex, at which point the policewoman tapped the top of his car as a signal for officers in the area to arrest him. After a trip to the police station, however, Waggonner was released without being charged.

Waggonner had a different version of events, claiming he had been the victim of entrapment. He said a woman was trying to entice him and he refused, but when an unmarked car pulled up he became frightened and fled the scene. He said officers caught him after a short foot chase, but were ultimately satisfied with his account of the events. He was nevertheless none too pleased when the media found out about the incident. The New York Post broke the story, accusing the police and U.S. Attorney's Office of trying to cover the matter up. They quoted Waggonner as saying, "Gentlemen, this will destroy me. This will destroy my family. Do you want to destroy me?"

The incident did have the effect of abolishing a century-old practice in the nation's capital. Soliciting a prostitute was a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a $250 fine. Yet as Police Chief Maurice J. Cullinane explained, members of Congress had immunity from all misdemeanors. The original intent of the law was to prevent the arrest of congressmen in relation to civil charges, but the matter involving Waggonner prompted the department to consider changing the policy. After a legal review, the misdemeanor immunity for congressmen was scrapped in July of 1976.

The matter had no effect on the year's election. Waggonner easily won the Democratic nomination in August and had no Republican rival in the general election. In fact, there had been five other sex scandals involving Democratic congressmen in 1976 and most of the officials involved survived for another term. Only Wayne Hays, who opted to resign before the election, and Allan Howe, a Utah representative defeated in the election after his conviction on a charge of soliciting a prostitute, would not return to Congress.

The new term Waggonner won would be his last. His most notable work at this point was his advocacy of the oil and gas industries. In February of 1978, he announced that he was retiring after the completion of his term "to be with my family and to share with them...God's abundance of life." He died in October of 2007 in Shreveport.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, The Waggonner Center at Louisiana Tech University, "Democrat Is Favored In Election" in the Spokesman-Review on Dec. 19 1961, "House May Not Accept Open Housing Amendment" in the News and Courier on Mar. 11 1968, "Congress Passes Rights Bill; LBJ Vows 'Early' Signature" in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Apr. 11 1968, "Voting Rights Measure Clears House" in the News and Courier on Dec. 12 1969, "House Set To Vote On Cambodia Funds" in The Telegraph on May 10 1973, "Justice Douglas Target Of New Probe Demands" in the Press-Courier on May 10 1973, "Disclosure Stuns Backers" in the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 6 1974, "'Flatfoot Floozie' Catches A Congressman, Paper Says" in the Miami News on June 17 1974, "Hays Will Resign From House Post" in the Free-Lance Star on June 18 1976, "GOP Predicts, Democrats Dispute, Prediction Of House Gains" in the Herald-Journal on Jul. 15 1976, "Immunity Ended For Congressmen" in the Spokesman-Review on July 26 1976, "Incumbent Defeated" in the Spokesman-Review on Aug. 15 1976, "Books Closed on Sex Scandal" in The Telegraph on Dec. 9 1976, "2 Demos To Retire" in the Deseret News on Feb. 11 1978, "2 More Congressmen To Retire" in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on Feb. 11 1978, "Joe Waggonner, La. Congressman" in the Boston Globe on Oct. 10 2007, Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment with History by James M. Cannon, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson

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