Saturday, January 15, 2011

Walter E. Brehm: nothing but the tooth

President Harry Truman signs the bill creating the National Institute of Dental Research. Walter E. Brehm is second from the left.

It took a single, random incident to provide the impetus for the end of Walter Ellsworth Brehm's career in the House of Representatives: an old woman breaking her arm a thousand miles away. From this mishap and its aftermath, political columnist Drew Pearson was able to piece together enough evidence to implicate Brehm in a kickback scheme.

Brehm was born in Somerset, Ohio in May of 1892. After completing high school, he earned money through jobs in steel mills, rubber factories, and oil fields. He was also a member of Company D, Seventh Regiment, of the Ohio Infantry from 1908 to 1913. He attended Boston University and Ohio Wesleyan University, graduating from the Ohio State University Dental School in 1917. He began a dental practice in Logan, Ohio in 1921.

After about 15 years in this field, Brehm started dabbling in politics. Between 1936 and 1938, he was treasurer of the Republican executive committee of Hocking County and also served on the city council of Logan. He served in the state house of representatives from 1938 to 1942 before moving on to its federal counterpart after the election of 1942. He was returned in the next three elections and maintained a rather unassuming presence in Washington. His profession did influence his work there to some degree. His most notable action was the introduction of a bill to establish the National Institute of Dental Research. President Harry Truman signed it into law after it passed both chambers.

Brehm received a major test just a few months before the regular election of 1950. In September and October, Pearson wrote in his "Washington Merry-Go-Round" column that Brehm had accepted kickbacks from a woman who formerly worked as a clerk for him. Clara Soliday, a 75-year-old widow, worked for Brehm between January of 1945 and January of 1948. Pearson accused Brehm of taking $100, about half of Soliday's paycheck, each month and increasing the amount with each pay raise until it hit $240 a month. Though Brehm told Soliday that the money was going to a committee in Ohio for campaign work, Pearson asserted that this was illegal under the Corrupt Practices Act since Soliday's pay was provided by taxpayer dollars and was not to be used for political purposes.

Pearson seemed more concerned with ethical issues. He clearly didn't think much of a man who was routinely taking money from an elderly woman. Pearson said Soliday worked for the Treasury before taking the job with Brehm, since it was a slightly better salary even with the kickbacks and she didn't know those payments were illegal. He said Soliday was fired after she broke her arm late in 1947 while visiting her sister in Cleveland. Soliday got her X-rays in Washington, D.C. and cashed her paycheck with the Sergeant-at-Arms in the House. She told her daughter that she could get an additional $240 from her pocketbook, and the woman was surprised to find that it was in an envelope addressed to Brehm. Her son, Ray Soliday, delivered the money in person but asked that she be allowed to keep it to address her doctor's bills. Brehm refused, but eventually allowed Soliday to keep $100 of the allotted money. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Brehm fired Soliday not long after and replaced her with his son, James F. Brehm. All told, Pearson said, Brehm pocketed some $7,300.

Brehm denounced the columnist as a liar, but Pearson was unfazed; he'd received a similar response from J. Parnell Thomas and Andrew May, he noted, and both of them had gone to jail on charges of receiving illegal income. He added that Brehm was apparently trying to keep Ray quiet, accusing the congressmen of telling Ray not to talk to Pearson. Pearson also said that Brehm was pressuring Ray to tell FBI investigators that the kickbacks only amounted to $1,200. Then in late October, Soliday sued Brehm to recover the approximately $7,300 with another $10,000 in punitive damages. Brehm said the charges were "so fantastic" that "I just do not have anything to say." He later responded with a countering lawsuit accusing her of a political attack, asking for dismissal and $5,000 in damages. The quarrel and Pearson's accusations became an issue in the 1950 election, but Brehm still triumphed over Democratic rival Mell G. Underwood, Jr.

A federal grand jury didn't find Soliday's charges to be fantastic. In December of 1950, it indicted Brehm on six violations of the Corrupt Practices Act in 1947 and 1948. Whether or not Pearson's charge that Brehm was tampering with Ray was accurate, the amount of pilfered money was much lower than the columnist's count and quite close to the tally Brehm was allegedly trying to get Ray to agree to: $1,380. In addition to Soliday, Brehm was accused of taking chunks out of the paycheck of another clerk named Emma Craven. Brehm accepted the news with aplomb, saying, "Now maybe we can get the facts on the record. This is the only way I know to clear the good name of all concerned. I have never at any time or any place or under any circumstances committed a criminal act."

The trial started in April of 1951. Both clerks testified that they had given up half of their salaries, mailing the money to Brehm when he was in Ohio and delivering it in person when he was in Washington. Midway through the trial, Brehm's attorney argued for acquittal on the argument that the prosecution didn't have a solid enough case. The judge refused, and Brehm took the stand to say that he was unaware of the existence of the Corrupt Practices Act and that none of the money went to personal use.

After four hours and 20 minutes of deliberation in May, the jury found Brehm guilty of five of the counts, charging that he received $1,000 from Craven. The next month, he was given a suspended jail sentence of five to 15 months and a $5,000 fine. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction in October of 1952. Brehm retired from Congress not long after, having decided against running for a sixth term.

Brehm returned to dental work, eventually retiring from private practice and joining a dental supply company. He died in Columbus in August of 1971.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Washington Merry-Go-Round" in the Tuscaloosa News on Sep. 26 1950, "Washington Merry-Go-Round" in the Southeast Missourian on Oct. 2 1950, "Washington Merry-Go-Round" in the Lewiston Daily Sun on Oct. 9 1950, "Solon Of Ohio Faces Suit For Kickback" in the Deseret News on Oct. 25 1950, "Rep. Brehm, Of Ohio, Is Indicted On Illegal Contributions Charge" in the Lewiston Daily Sun on Dec. 21 1950, "Legislator Loses Acquittal Plea" in the Pittsburgh Press on Apr. 24 1951, "Congressman's Trial Near End" in the Pittsburgh Press on Apr. 30 1951, "Brehm Is Guilty On Five Counts" in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on May 1 1951, "Rep. Brehm Gets Suspended Sentence" in the Miami News on Jun. 11 1951, "Refuses To Review Rep. Brehm Case" in the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 14 1952, Dental Science in a New Age: The History of the National Institute of Dental Research by Ruth Roy Harris, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress 1774-2005 by Andrew R. Dodge