Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ernest K. Bramblett: the Pearson payroll triple

Image from the Pittsburgh Press

When it came to exposing political corruption, Drew Pearson's muckraking column "The Washington Merry-Go-Round" had a significant role in discovering the misuse of office payrolls. Having already had a role in uncovering such scandals related to Representatives J. Parnell Thomas and Walter Brehm, in 1953 Pearson added Ernest King Bramblett to the list.

Born in Fresno, California in April of 1901, Bramblett graduated from Stanford University in 1925. He stayed at the school for graduate work, supplementing it with other work at San Jose State University and the University of Southern California. His first jobs were in the insurance and auto industries from 1925 to 1928, but for the greater part of his life he worked in education. He was in this field from 1928 to 1946, and held his first political offices during this time as well.

In 1939, Bramblett became the mayor of Pacific Grove. He also became coordinator of the Monterey County schools in 1943 and a member of the Republican Central Committee in 1944. He held all of these roles until 1946, when he won a seat in the House of Representatives. He won the next three elections to retain this office as well.

Pearson's first complaints about Bramblett were mainly critical about the congressman's ethics. In May of 1952, newspaper columnist Drew Pearson criticized the congressman for putting his wife on his payroll as a secretary. Bramblett explained in a letter to his constituents, "We know that Communist agents are everywhere around us. They're in place in every strategic place in the nation, particularly so in California." Bramblett said the uncertainty had reached a point where his wife was the one person he knew he could trust with the sensitive material in his office. Pearson retorted that Bramblett, as a member of the Agriculture Committee, "has access to nothing more top secret than the latest cure for chicken lice."

Pearson followed up this column with the accusation that Bramblett's wife had been on the payroll since 1947, before Communism became an overriding concern. He added that his wife was earning $8,192.04 a year, more than some FBI agents who were certainly doing more to combat any Communist subterfuge. Pearson also alleged in October of 1952 that Bramblett had offered to boost the salary of secretary Vivian DeWitt from $2,400 to $5,000 if she paid him $5,000 in advance; DeWitt refused, Pearson said, and was dropped from Bramblett's staff three months later.

Pearson's suspicions were not confirmed until 1953. In May, a federal grand jury opened an investigation into Bramblett's payroll. Two months later, he was indicted on 18 counts of making false statements. These specific charges alleged that Bramblett had attempted to alter his records to conceal $4,036 in kickbacks from former clerks Margaret M. Swanson and Olga Hardaway.

The trial began in February of 1954. The prosecutor charged that Bramblett collected Swanson's salary for 17 months and Hardaway's for seven months. Swanson, the state said, did "no work whatever" while on Bramblett's staff. Swanson's husband, who also worked as a House clerk, gave the curious testimony that he suggested to Bramblett that he take his wife off the payroll to avoid criticism and put Margaret on. Swanson's husband even recalled that he had offered to send her salary to Bramblett, and that it was under this arrangement that Margaret had been hired. Bramblett rehired his wife at a later date without the Swansons' knowledge, the prosecution said. Moreover, they said that Hardaway had been placed on the payroll without her knowledge, with Bramblett having her sign her checks face down so she did not know they were being transferred over to him.

The state's case related to Hardaway was weakened when it was shown that Hardaway, whose husband was Bramblett's former campaign manager, did some work for Bramblett. However, Bramblett was convicted of the remaining seven counts involving the collection of $3,300 from Swanson. The judgment was stayed after the defense challenged the applicability of the false statements law to the legislative branch. Meanwhile, Bramblett opted to not run for re-election in 1954.

The Supreme Court agreed to review the false statements law, but unanimously upheld the conviction in April of 1955. Two months later, Bramblett received a sentence of four months to one year in prison, all suspended, along with a year of probation and $5,000 fine. His attorney, Edward B. Williams, complained that Bramblett had been professionally, economically, and socially "immobilized" by the charges and lost the reputation he had built up over the years. As a result, Williams said, Bramblett had no immediate prospects for employment. The judge granted an additional 60 days for the payment of the fine.

Bramblett made one last attempt to appeal the conviction, but the Federal Court of Appeals upheld it in January of 1956. Later that year, he was the target of a federal lawsuit charging that the amount diverted into Bramblett's bank account was much higher than alleged in at his trial. The suit asked for the return of $35,408 it said had been funneled to Bramblett, as well as $36,316 in damages for a total of $71,724. It is unclear how this suit was resolved.

Bramblett began working as a consultant. He spent some time in Washington, D.C. after leaving Congress, but returned to California to live the rest of his life in Woodland Hills. He died in December of 1966.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "How to Put Wife on the Pay Roll" in the St. Petersburg Times on May 13 1952, "Washington Merry-Go-Round" in the Oxnard Press-Courier on Jun. 2 1952, "Jury to Study Office Pay Roll of Lawmaker" in the St. Petersburg Times on May 16 1953, "Four Bramblett Employees Called in Payroll Probe" in the Oxnard Press-Courier on May 28 1953, "Rep. Bramblett Denies Charges" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jun. 19 1953, "Congressman Accused on Pay to Wife" in the Oxnard Press-Courier on Feb. 2 1954, "Lawmaker on Trial for 'Padding' Payroll" in the Pittsburgh Press on Feb. 3 1954, "High Court Agrees to Rule on Alleged Bramblett Kickback" in the Lawrence Journal-World on Oct. 18 1954, "Ex-Lawmaker Loses in Scandal Plea" in the Milwaukee Sentinel on Apr. 5 1955, "Bramblett Gets Fine, Probation" in the Oxnard Press-Courier on Jun. 15 1955, "Bramblett Loses Kickback Appeal" in the New York Times on Jan. 20 1956, "Bramblett Sued for $71,724" in the Tri City Herald on Nov. 1 1956

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