Saturday, August 7, 2010

Frank D. McKay: the Teflon boss


Frank Donald McKay made plenty of enemies in his time as a political boss, but perhaps the most bizarre action by one of his foes came in October of 1935. McKay's maid called police after noticing that two men were peering at his house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from a concealed position. When officers arrived, they found former police commissioner John Gillespie and a gas station employee spying on the residence. Both men were arrested, and police discovered that they had been armed with a rifle and pistol. Gillespie insisted that the weapons were for his own protection, saying McKay was a dangerous man. He blamed McKay and Republican Governor Frank Fitzgerald for his downfall after Fitzgerald repudiated him.

McKay had gradually built his empire to the point where he was capable of controlling much of the Republican politics in Michigan. He was born in Grand Rapids in 1883 and got his start working in furniture factories. He then built up his personal fortune by becoming a financier, extending into real estate, insurance, and banking interests. He also owned the Michigan Times and had holdings in lumber, tires, food, and numerous other areas. In addition to making him a millionaire, this extensive network helped him gain control over patronage jobs and public contracts in the Grand Rapids district. Though one retrospective said he spoke in "short, explosive phrases, usually profane," McKay was still able to form alliances on the local level and with other party bosses in the state. He once said he dedicated 95 percent of his time to business and only five percent to politics, but McKay's grip tightened to the point where he could sway the delegates to any candidate of his choice at the GOP state primaries.

McKay had not truly consolidated his power until the 1930s, but his first brush with the law came in November of 1919. He was one of 135 people indicted on corruption, fraud, and conspiracy charges. The focal point of these crimes was Republican Senator Truman H. Newberry, the biggest name of the defendants, and the charge that $500,000 to $1 million was improperly used to influence Newberry's re-election over Democratic candidate and automobile magnate Henry Ford in 1918. McKay was then serving as an assignment clerk in the Detroit courts, and charged with twice giving $10 to residents in "overt acts" of corruption. He was not convicted of the crime.

McKay's only real political office was state treasurer, which he held from 1925 to 1930. One year after he left, he was investigated by a grand jury over his handling of state funds, but never charged with a crime. He was still suspected of wielding excessive control over the governor's office, however. In 1935, Fitzgerald defended his relationship with McKay after Republican Representative Albert J. Engel warned that the GOP's chances of success in 1936 would be endangered if the party did not distance itself from McKay. Fitzgerald accused Engel of acting out of self-interest or making an attempt to discredit the current administration. "McKay is my friend," he said. "I don't say this is true of Congressman Engel, but I find that most of those who criticize him ask me to do things that Frank McKay would never dream of asking...The charge that this administration is hooked up with Frank McKay has been whispered constantly, but no one has ever produced definitive evidence of it."

Engel responded by demanding a full probe of Fitzgerald's activities. Though this apparently did not happen, Engel proved correct in his warning, at least as it related to the governor's office. In the 1936 race, Democratic candidate Frank Murphy made "McKayism" an issue and vowed to end it in state government; voters turned Fitzgerald out in November. McKay was investigated by the state legislature to see if his personal wealth correlated with his political activities, but once again no charges were forthcoming.

The year 1940 was a mixed bag for McKay. He retained enough power that he was able to convince Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie to grant him control of statewide patronage jobs if he were sent to the White House. At the same convention, however, anti-boss factions were successful in blocking him from getting a vote and preventing his re-election as Republican national committeeman. He was also subject to three grand jury investigations throughout the year related to fraud, extortion, and kickbacks. In November, Franklin D. Roosevelt bested Willkie for an unprecedented third term as President; the same month, McKay was indicted on charges of fraud and mail fraud. In one incident, he was accused of defrauding Edsel Ford of $9,918 to reimburse himself for contributions made to Fitzgerald's 1938 gubernatorial campaign. Two mail fraud counts said he collected money under false pretenses to finance the state Republican Party's debt. Another charge alleged that he tried to bilk Grand Rapids out of $300,000 in an approximately $2.2 million bond issue to finance a pipeline in 1938. And liquor issues resurfaced again, with prosecutors saying McKay collected $500,000 in tribute from 16 national distillers over five years.

The state's Liquor Control Commission had taken over bulk liquor purchases and retail licenses following the repeal of Prohibition. Not surprisingly, the three men on the board were McKay stooges, and distillers seeking business from the state had to go through the boss. McKay ensured that those friendly to the GOP got first consideration, while distillers considered more Democratic were bumped to the back of the line. It seemed likely that McKay collected a bit of cash in exchange for granting applicants access to the commission. After five days of deliberation in July of 1941, however, the jury had failed to reach a verdict. The jury was dismissed and subjected to a tampering investigation, but in May of 1942 McKay was acquitted along with seven co-defendants. The Edsel Ford charge was dismissed in July, and in October the pipeline count was dropped after the prosecutor determined that the chance of success at trial was too remote.

The result was a common one in McKay's repeated visits to the courtroom. The state could only prove McKay told state employees related to the liquor commission that their jobs depended on continued GOP success. Proving corruption was more difficult, but it didn't stop prosecutors from trying. In December of 1944, McKay was indicted alongside sports promoter Floyd Fitzsimmons and state representative William Green for bribery conspiracy. This time, McKay was charged with influencing the state legislature on an issue related to horse racing and parimutuel betting. The legislature defeated a bill aiming to boost state revenues from the activities, something which would have hurt the mob's stake in the sport. McKay was known to have connections to such gangsters, including the infamous Purple Gang, through their transition from illegal to sanctioned liquor sales.

The case had a dramatic ending. The state had targeted several people on corruption charges, charging some 50 people with crimes. State senator Warren G. Hooper, a legislator who had confessed to state corruption and agreed to turn state's evidence, was set to be the star witness in the trial of McKay and his cohorts. The state's case rested heavily on this man, and in January of 1945 he was found shot to death inside his burning car outside Springport. It was an indisputable gangland murder, and it received a bizarre twist when state attorney general John R. Dethmers charged widespread malfeasance at the Jackson State Penitentiary. Dethmers alleged that the inmates had essentially taken over control of the prison, with officials allowing them to pay for prostitutes to be brought in and accepting bribes to sanction escapes. In such an atmosphere, Dethmers said, it was entirely possible that imprisoned gangsters could have been granted a temporary release to murder Hooper, then return to the prison for a perfect alibi.

Four Detroit youths were charged with conspiracy in such a scheme. Prosecutors argued that one of the defendants was allowed to confer with members of the Purple Gang prior to the murder, and that the men conspired to arrange Hooper's death for a $15,000 payoff. The state made several thinly veiled accusations of McKay's involvement in the plot, though McKay himself was never directly charged. Dethmers said the murder was specifically meant to silence testimony against McKay, and special prosecutor Kim Sigler identified McKay as "the one man most interested in the death of the death of the Albion senator." The four men were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in August of 1945 and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison each. No one was ever charged with the actual murder of Hooper.

The state launched one more salvo at McKay, once again charging malfeasance related to the liquor trade. In June of 1945, he and former Flint mayor William McKeighan, along with three other men, were indicted on a charge of conspiracy to violate state liquor laws. The group was accused of receiving a dollar a case from distillers for liquor sold in Michigan between 1938 and 1940. Distillers who wanted larger liquor orders from the state had forked over some $400,000, the state charged, and McKay and his co-defendants helped move things along by threatening and intimidating the commission.

The trial had to be moved after allegations of jury tampering. The state called 32 witnesses to the stand at the trial in 1946. The defense didn't call anyone, and the gambit worked. In February, the judge directed a verdict of not guilty after determining that the state failed to prove any criminal acts. Charges of bribery had been thrown out at the beginning of the trial, and that seriously undermined the conspiracy allegations. Moreover, the judge said it appeared to be a case of McKay and the other men trying to get increased sales and listings for the state liquor commission. Sigler argued that the outcome demonstrated a need for a law making it illegal to sell political influence, though enacting and enforcing such a law would be quite difficult.

McKay had also made an enemy in future president Gerald Ford. When Ford's stepfather advised him that he would have to earn McKay's favor if he wanted to get anywhere in Michigan politics, Ford went to meet with the boss. After waiting for several hours, McKay brushed him off after only three minutes. Angered, Ford joined the anti-boss advocates. He eased on these activities during World War II to join the military, but used this to his advantage when he returned to the state. As part of his campaign for the 1948 Republican nomination for the House of Representatives, he set up a red, white, and blue Navy surplus Quonset hut right outside McKay's office tower in Grand Rapids. In a sign of McKay's diminished power, he wasn't even able to kick the upstart candidate off his property. At the Republican primary, Ford ousted McKay's pick, 10-year incumbent Bartel Jonkman, Jr. and went on to win the general election.

McKay quietly disappeared from the political scene, and at some point he moved to Florida to continue business activities there. He died in Miami Beach in January of 1965.

Sources: The Political Graveyard, "Newberry And 133 Others Indicted For Election Plot" in the New York Times on Nov. 30 1919, "Gillespie Is Freed After Short Arrest" in the Ludington Daily News on Oct. 15 1935, "Engel's Talk Challenged By Governor" in the Ludington Daily News on Nov. 2 1935, "Engel Asks Probe Of McKay's Power" in the Ludington Daily News on Nov. 5 1935, "Business & Finance: Grand Rapids Heroism" in Time on May 25 1936, "House To Continue McKay Investigation" in the Ludington Daily News on Apr. 25 1939, "Michigan GOP Chief Indicted" in the Miami News on Nov. 27 1940, "Study Further Action Against McKay" in the Ludington Daily News on Nov. 28 1940, "Grand Jury Resumes Investigation Into Jury" in the Ludington Daily News on Jul. 23 1941, "GOP Committeeman Acquitted Of Fraud" in the Reading Eagle on May 26 1942, "Dismiss McKay Mail Fraud Charge" in the Milwaukee Journal on Jul. 18 1942, "McKay Freed Of Last Count" in the Milwaukee Journal on Oct. 15 1942, "Jury Accuses Politics Figure" in the Milwaukee Journal on Dec. 3 1944, "Michigan State Senator, Witness In Probe, Slain" in the Evening Independent on Jan. 12 1945, "Politician Held In Bribe Plot" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jun. 17 1945, "Blow Lid On Orgies In World's Largest Prison" in the Lodi News-Sentinel on Jul. 25 1945, "Four Detroit Hoodlums Convicted In Murder Plot" in the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 1 1945, "Judge Orders Frank McKay Freed Of Conspiracy Charge" in the Ludington Daily News on Feb. 14 1946, "Sale Of Political Influence Leads To Drive For Curbs" in the Milwaukee Sentinel on Dec. 8 1947, "The Shaping Of The President: Ford's Early Years" in New York Magazine on Aug. 26 1974, Gerald R. Ford by Douglas Brinkley, Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment with History by James M. Cannon, The Powers That Punish: Prisons and Politics in the Era of the "Big House," 1920-1955 by Charles Bright

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