Friday, May 16, 2014

Richard W. Leche: keep on trucking


When the political machine overseen by Huey P. Long was left leaderless after Long's assassination, Richard Webster Leche was selected to take the reins. Leche's time as governor of Louisiana would essentially mark the beginning of the end of the Long machine's power, as he retreated from some positions held by the late "Kingfish." Leche himself would be be best known for making good on a statement he made after his inauguration: "When I took the oath of office, I didn't take any vow of poverty."

Born in New Orleans on May 15, 1898, Leche attended the local schools before starting studies at Tulane University. The entry of the United States into World War I interrupted his education, as Leche volunteered for the Army. He fell ill in the outbreak of Spanish influenza and never saw active combat, but still managed to serve two years in the military and leave as a second lieutenant in the infantry. After some time as an auto parts salesman in Chicago, Leche returned to school and earned an LL.B from Loyola University in 1923. He began practicing law soon after.

Leche's first bid for public office came in 1928, when he ran as a Democrat for the Louisiana state senate. Though he was unsuccessful, the experience did bring Leche into the fold of Long's machine as it successfully sent the Kingfish into the governor's office. Two years later, when Long ran for Senate, Long managed his campaign as well as that of congressional candidate of Paul H. Maloney. Both men were elected.

Long refused to relinquish the governor's title even after his election to the Senate, continuing his state duties until January of 1932. When he left the state title, it kicked off a procession of short-lived governors. Though Lieutenant Governor Paul N. Cyr was in line to take Long's place, Long managed to maneuver state senate president Alvin O. King into the office. King served for only a matter of months before he was replaced by Oscar K. Allen, a former state senator.

Leche served as King's private secretary and legal adviser between 1932 and 1934. He left the position when he was appointed to the Louisiana Court of Appeals, Parish of Orleans. Leche may have happily left politics behind in favor of a judicial career but for an unexpected event in September of 1935. Long, nearing the end of his first Senate term, had recently announced that he would run for President. When visiting the state capitol in Baton Rouge, he was fatally shot by an assassin. Without the Kingfish, there was a vacuum at the top of the Long machine.

Leche was chosen to fill this void. With Allen's death in January of 1936, Lieutenant Governor James A. Noe reluctantly held the governor's office for the remainder of the term. Leche easily won the Democratic nomination, earning three times the number of votes as the anti-Long candidate. He ran unopposed in the general election in April and was sworn into office in May, becoming the first governor to have access to the significant executive powers the legislature bestowed upon the office after Long's death.

During his term, Leche kept up some of Long's initiatives to improve state infrastructure but also worked to improve Louisiana's relations with the federal government through stronger support of New Deal programs. He oversaw improvements to roads, bridges, and schools as well as the construction of new hospitals. Leche's term included the establishment of a department of commerce and industry, the passing of a state conservation bill, and the organization of a state mineral board. Leche also took some steps that Long had strongly opposed, including a 10-year tax exemption for new businesses and a one percent sales tax to support welfare programs.

Leche may have sought to abandon his role as governor before the completion of his term, as he had his eye on one of two new federal district court judge's positions created in Louisiana in 1938. By this time, however, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into possible financial wrongdoing and improper relations among state departments in Louisiana. Leche made only $7,500 a year as governor, but he had managed to purchase a yacht, country estate, and private hunting reserve during his short  time in office. Leche had also made the questionable decision to fund a lavish, air-conditioned cage for the Louisiana State University tiger mascot as the state's residents suffered the hardships of the Great Depression.

The Times-Picayune and its afternoon paper, States, joined in the offensive against state corruption. Articles exposed misdeeds among state officials, including a practice among Long stalwarts to force supporters in the state government to deduct from their salaries to support political causes. The coverage did not gain much traction until an article in 1939 which included a photo of an LSU truck delivering windows to a house construction site of Leche's close friends, James and Catherine McLachlan.

Leche resigned later in the month, citing poor health. He was succeeded by Earl K. Long, Huey Long's younger brother. The resignation came just as the widespread state corruption was exposed in a torrent of criminal charges that came to be known as the Louisiana Scandals. Some 250 people were indicted. Several Long supporters committed suicide, and LSU president James Monroe Smith fled to Canada in an unsuccessful effort to avoid punishment. Prosecutors estimated that about $100 million had been swindled from the state in the course of the scandals. The revelation of this corruption also allowed the anti-Long faction to break the machine's extended hold on the governor's office; though Earl K. Long would return for two non-consecutive terms in the late 1940s and 1950s, anti-Long Democrat Sam H. Jones defeated him in the 1940 gubernatorial election.

Leche was indicted later in 1939 and accused of complicity in a number of schemes. One charged that he conspired with businessmen Freeman Burford and Seymour Weiss to step up oil production and pipe the excess into Texas in violation of interstate commerce law, netting a $67,000 profit by dodging oil regulations. Leche was also accused of misusing money intended for LSU and using money from the Works Progress Administration, a federal program of the New Deal, to build his house. Another scheme involved the sale of 233 trucks to the State Highway Commission at inflated prices between 1937 and 1938; prosecutors charged that Leche's political allies had managed the sales and defrauded the state of $111,370, with the governor receiving $31,000 in kickbacks for his role.

Leche admitted to making money on the oil deal, paying only $10,000 for a house worth $75,000, and netting an income of $450,000 while in office. However, he argued that he had made this money through legal means. He said he had made a profit from oil and gas commissions as well as the sale of a Long-friendly newspaper called American Progress.

Though a jury acquitted Leche on bribery charges, he was convicted of mail fraud related to the truck scheme in June of 1940. Sentenced to 10 years in prison and disbarment, he began serving his jail time in December of 1941. Released on parole in 1945, Leche turned to agriculture and began running the Bayou Gardens, a nursery that still exists today. President Harry Truman, shortly before leaving office in January of 1953, granted Leche a pardon.

The presidential action allowed Leche to be readmitted to the bar, and he resumed his legal practice. He also began serving as a construction lobbyist in the 1960s. Leche died on February 22, 1965.

Sources: National Governors Association, Louisiana Secretary of State, The Encyclopedia of Louisiana, "Federal Jury Indicts Leche of Louisiana" in the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 7 1939, "Leche in Penitentiary" in the Times Daily on Dec. 31 1941, "1939: Political Scandals Capture New Orleans Headlines" in the Times-Picayune on Nov. 12 2011, Political Corruption in America: An Encyclopedia of Scandals, Power, and Greed by Mark Grossman, The Governors of Louisiana by Miriam G. Reeves, Louisiana Governors: Rulers, Rascals, and Reformers by Walter Greaves-Cowan and Jack B. McGuire, I Called Him Grand Dad by Thomas T. Fields Jr.