Sunday, August 23, 2015

Frank Boykin: conspiracy made for love

When Frank William Boykin first ran afoul of the law, he sought help from someone who had foiled a scheme to collect money from a railroad for dead cows. Livestock was one of the many interests Boykin had speculated in to make his fortune, and he was known to run cattle across the Mobile and Ohio Railroad even when trains were approaching. Whenever a locomotive ran down the animals, he would file a damage claim. The railroad always shelled out the money until their new attorney, Harry Hardy Smith, decided it was worth it to contest the claims in court; moreover, Smith had been winning these cases.

So when Boykin became one of 117 people indicted in December of 1923 in what would become known as Alabama's "Whiskey Trials," he called Smith and asked him to be his lawyer.

The defendants in these trials were charged in widespread corruption to violate the Prohibition laws. Businessmen, sheriffs, police chiefs, and legislators were among those caught up in the probe. Since U.S. Attorney Aubrey Boyles had accused many of the defendants of trying to bribe him, a special prosecutor had to be brought in. Hugo Black, a Birmingham lawyer who later became a U.S. senator and Supreme Court justice, was selected for the job.

Boykin was first brought to trial in April of 1924. Black argued that Boykin had portrayed himself as someone with influence in President Warren G. Harding's administration, and that bootleggers paid him $5 a shipment for protection. There had been some correspondence between Boykin and Jesse Smith, a friend of Attorney General Harry Daugherty; Boykin had also written to Mel Daugherty, the Attorney General's brother. To gullible rum runners, the alleged influence was enough to justify the expense. However, Black was soon forced to drop the charges after the correspondence was ruled inadmissible.

Black was able to go after Boykin again in February of 1925 after securing new witnesses who could testify to other misbehavior. This time, two whiskey dealers said Boykin had helped import bootleg liquor into the United States. Another witness said Boykin had helped smuggle liquor from Mobile to Chicago inside pine tar barrels. Despite the testimony, a jury acquitted the defendant of violating the Prohibition and tariff laws.

Just one day later, Black brought Boykin up on charges of bribing a federal agent. Boyles was called to the stand and said that Andrew Mellon, an industrialist who had been appointed Secretary of the Treasury, had loaned $2 million to the Republican Party. The money was to be repaid through the protection fees put up by bootleggers, with Jesse Smith assigned to collect these funds from district attorneys and other law enforcement officials. Boyles said Boykin had offered him $100,000 a year for tips on upcoming federal raids against bootleggers, along with a car to make him appear more dignified. Instead, Boyles had informed the federal authorities about the corruption.

Testifying in his own defense, Boykin denied any wrongdoing other than occasionally purchasing liquor from the rum runners. He also said Boyles had been the one who tried to involve him in a protection racket. The jury was not convinced, finding him guilty after 22 hours of deliberation. Though he was sentenced to two years in prison, the conviction was overturned less than a year later by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This court declared the indictment "fatally defective" because it did not give enough information for Boykin to form a proper defense.

Boykin was born in Bladon Springs, Alabama, on February 21, 1885. Five years later, his family of sharecroppers moved to Fairford to change professions. Boykin began working as a clerk in his father's store, which served the railroad and nearby industrial towns; he later became the manager of this establishment. Boykin also dropped out of school at the age of eight to work as a water boy on the railroad, later claiming that he worked his way up to a train dispatcher and conductor.

In 1905, at the age of 20, Boykin became the co-owner of a company that manufactured railroad cross ties and turpentine. Ten years later, he moved to Mobile. His business interests expanded to farming, livestock, timber, real estate, and naval stores in southern Alabama. The revenue from these concerns made Boykin a millionaire. During the First World War, he served as an official in Alabama shipbuilding companies; he later asserted that his companies had been responsible for 52 percent of all vessels produced on the Gulf Coast during the conflict.

Some of Boykin's business deals were less than honest. In one scheme, he and a partner named John Everett hired Choctaw Indians to work shares of the land they had traditionally settled and owned. When these workers ran up debts at commissaries owned by the duo or were unable to pay their property taxes, Boykin and Everett acquired their ownership of the land in exchange for covering the expenses. When Everett died in 1927, Boykin managed to acquire the interest in his estate for only $8,800. The deal was approved by Boykin's brother, who happened to be a probate judge.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, even as Boykin served in elected government, he continued to build up his personal fortune. In 1930, he purchased most of Dauphin Island and organized the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo; in 1953, he sold the rights to this event to the Mobile Chamber of Commerce for almost $1 million. He established businesses such as the Tensaw Land and Timber Company overseeing some 100,000 acres of forest, a company to mine a salt dome found on his property, and a chemical production concern.

In 1934, Boykin ran for the House of Representatives to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of John McDuffie, who had accepted a position on the U.S. District Court. The election had plenty of political maneuvering. McDuffie had been hostile to the New Deal, so President Franklin D. Roosevelt's appointment left room for a supporter to come in. Boykin was chosen by a group of Mobile businessmen and politicians who knew he would advocate for economic interests in the region. Critics pointed out how the candidate had been so apathetic about the electoral process that he hadn't cast a vote since 1920, forcing him to pay 14 back years of poll taxes just to vote for himself.

During the Democratic primary, Boykin faced two other opponents. No one earned a majority in the election, but the nomination went to Boykin when the candidate with the second highest vote count decided to drop out. There were suspicions that Boykin had paid him, off, but they were never investigated. He easily won the general election, since the Republicans did not field a candidate. When Representative Sam Hobbs died in 1952, Boykin became the longest serving member of the Alabama delegation.

Boykin was re-elected to the House 13 times, only seeking another office in 1946 when he unsuccessfully ran for a vacancy in the Senate caused by the death of John Bankhead II. He focused on promoting his district's attractions, securing federal monies for economic development projects, and inviting industries to set up shop in Alabama. Among the efforts he supported were the Bankhead Tunnel under the Mobile River, an expansion of the port of Mobile, and the establishment of an Air Force base which later became the Mobile airport. He opposed pro-labor legislation and took an isolationist stance in foreign affairs.

Many of Boykin's constituents recalled that he personally stood up for the people in his district. When a colorblind lawyer was rebuffed in his attempt to join the Navy during World War II, he traveled to the nation's capital to visit Boykin about the issue; the congressman took the lawyer to meet a Navy admiral the next day to persuade him to let the man join up.

As the civil rights activists became more vocal across the South, Boykin joined those opposing their efforts. He signed the Southern Manifesto, a declaration supported by 101 Southern congressmen to protest the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling. However, Boykin never formally joined the conservative Dixiecrat movement and advocated for black constituents as well as white ones. A black community in Alabama was even named for him after he secured federal funding for it to supplement his own personal contributions.

Above all, Boykin was known for his folksy optimism. He suggested that a lighted cross could be placed at the rostrum of the Speaker of the House so that congressmen could remember the teachings of Jesus Christ and bicker less often. He occasionally hosted "harmony suppers" to promote cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. Boykin seemed to live by the motto "Everything is made for love," a phrase he frequently spoke or sang.

Despite his amiable nature, Boykin drew some criticism for his lackluster commitment to the duties of the office. He often missed votes, enough that he had the poorest attendance of the entire state delegation in the 1947-1948 congressional session. He sometimes pushed measures from which he stood to personally benefit, such as funding for a bridge to Dauphin Island. While other representatives or senators crafted bills designed to improve rural schools or secure better funding for public schools, Boykin never created legislation that would have a nationwide benefit. In almost 30 years of service in Congress, his only chairmanship was on the Committee on Patents between 1943 and 1947; this committee was deemed inconsequential enough that it was scrapped in a reorganization of the House in 1947.

Suspicions that Boykin's behavior may have passed into the realm of criminal malfeasance likely helped derail his chances at re-election in 1962. Three years earlier, a Miami-based savings and loan official named J. Kenneth Edlin had been indicted on mail fraud charges. Edlin pleaded no contest to the crime in December of 1961. He had previously been convicted of mail and securities fraud in 1944 and served four years in prison; this time, he spent five months behind bars. Soon after Edlin's new conviction, Boykin and another Democratic representative, Thomas F. Johnson of Maryland, were facing accusations that they had tried to get the Justice Department to delay Edlin's trial in exchange for special favors from him.

In an interview in January of 1962, Boykin said he had not acted unethically. He said he had suggested to President John F. Kennedy that Alan Shepard Jr., an astronaut who had become the first American to fly into space in May of 1961, should be granted a house in a Maryland development where both he and Edlin had an interest. Boykin said he had asked both Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Governor J. Millard Tawes of Maryland to delay Edlin's trial, but claimed he had only done so in hopes of concluding a business deal with Edlin.

The accusations came at a point when Boykin was particularly vulnerable at the ballot box. As a result of the 1960 census, Alabama had lost one of its seats in the House of Representatives. Since the state legislature couldn't agree how to redraw the new boundaries for the districts, a "9-8 plan" emerged. Under this plan, primaries were to be held in all districts for the 1962 election and a second race would be held for the nine winning candidates to compete for the eight available seats.

Though Boykin won his primary, he finished last among the nine other winners. His long career in Congress had come to an end. Though observers noted that the suspicions about his dealings with Edlin may have affected the race, they also pointed out that Boykin was the only incumbent who had faced a serious challenge for his primary.

In October of 1962, Boykin and Johnson were indicted on conspiracy and conflict of interest charges. Edlin and his attorney, William L. Robinson, were also indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government. The charges were handed down just two days before "Frank Boykin Day," a celebration scheduled by Mobile businessmen to honor Boykin's contributions to the local economy. In a sign of how little the accusations affected his popularity, the event took place as scheduled.

The basic allegation was that Edlin had made illegal payments to Boykin and Johnson in exchange for their efforts to get the Justice Department to dismiss Edlin's mail fraud charges. The money had been paid through four concerns controlled by Edlin: the First Colony Savings and Loan, First Continental Savings and Loan, Charles County Land Company, and Leisure City Land Company.

Boykin and Johnson both said the payments had been compensation for above board work. Boykin had received a $250,000 cashier's check, which his lawyers contended was a down payment for a mortgage on land owned by Boykin in Maryland and Virginia. Boykin had purchased 8,000 acres in Maryland and 5,000 acres in Virginia during the 1950s, selling the Maryland land to a development firm in 1958 for $6 million. When this firm began to struggle to make payments on the land, Johnson introduced Edlin to Boykin. Edlin offered to pay $9 million, with the $250,000 deposit made on two land tracts.

Johnson told investigators that Edlin had promised him $25,000 for services related to the land purchase, such as legal services for Edlin's savings and loan companies and title searches for his land companies. He said he had only received $14,000 for this work, though the indictment charged that he had actually been paid $17,550. Prosecutors said that the funds were not only meant to be compensation for Johnson's efforts to intercede with the Justice Department, but also to make a speech on the floor of the House defending savings and loan firms. Edlin had run off 50,000 copies of the speech.

The trial began on April 1, 1963. Boykin, Edlin, Johnson, and Robinson were all tried together and the proceedings would drag on for 11 weeks. The prosecution charged that Boykin and Johnson had personally visited the Justice Department on 11 separate occasions, with another 52 entreaties made by phone or mail. In one letter to Robert F. Kennedy, Boykin included 100 pounds of pecans for the Attorney General's children.

Louis D. Goldman, a Miami lawyer under indictment in a separate case who had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, testified about incriminating statements he heard Boykin make. On one occasion, he said that Boykin told Edlin, "You get through this deal and don't worry about your personal problem. I'll take care of it." Goldman also claimed that Boykin had boasted about his personal connections with the Kennedys, declaring, "If Bobby is not going to do anything, I'll get Joe to talk to him."

RFK himself took the stand in what was thought to be the first courtroom appearance by an Attorney General since Levi Lincoln appeared in the arguments for the famous Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court case. RFK recalled that during a meeting with Boykin and Johnson in March of 1961, Johnson said the failure of the planned development would harm the Maryland economy and asked that the charges against Edlin be dropped.

Johnson himself conducted the cross-examination of the Attorney General. RFK admitted that congressmen often visited him to make requests on various matters. He drew a laugh from the court when he pointed out that few members of Congress had been in to see him since the indictments. Though he admitted that there had been nothing overtly improper about the requests by Boykin and Johnson, RFK maintained that they had been trying to pressure him to drop the case. "Congressman, can you tell my why you were so anxious to come and discuss it if you did not want us to dismiss it?" he asked.

Boykin took the stand in his own defense, claiming he had only gone to see the Attorney General to review the circumstances of Edlin's indictment. He also suggested that he wanted to help prosecutors get information on labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, who would be convicted of charges related to organized crime in 1964 and famously disappear in 1975. On several occasions, the 78-year-old Boykin complained that he was having trouble hearing the questions directed at him. One prosecutor later recalled that the deafness seemed to be selective, as Boykin raced from across the courtroom to congratulate him after he announced that his wife had just given birth.

Prosecutors grilled Boykin on the circumstances of his land deal with Edlin, particularly the differences between his grand jury testimony and trial testimony. In one letter, Edlin said he would be willing to give 15 percent of sales proceeds to Boykin; the congressman stood to make a huge profit on the deal. Boykin's lawyers maintained that it was a simple business transaction, with no special treatment expected in return for a sale. The prosecution countered a defense assertion that the land had been appraised at $11.3 million with testimony from another appraiser, who said the land was only worth $4 million. The insinuation was that Edlin was offering Boykin a generous deal in exchange for his help in making the criminal charges disappear.

After only three-and-a-half hours of deliberation, the jury found all four men guilty. They were sentenced in October of 1963, with Boykin receiving a suspended six-month sentence, six months of probation, and a $40,000 fine. Edlin was ordered to spend a year in prison and pay a $16,000 fine, while Robinson was given six months of imprisonment.

Johnson had been indicted just three weeks before the 1962 election, and the charges no doubt contributed to his loss to Republican candidate Rogers C.B. Morton. In his correspondence, an angered Boykin accused U.S. Attorney Joseph Tydings of trying to sabotage Johnson's campaign and said his own conviction was a result of vindictive black members of the grand jury and trial jury (though 10 of the jurors in the trial were white). Johnson appealed his sentence of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine and had it reversed on the argument that the speech he gave in the House could not be used as grounds for his indictment. However, he was convicted on retrial in 1968 and ultimately served three-and-a-half months of his sentence.

Following the trial, Boykin returned to his business activities. He remained a popular figure, and 37 members of Congress (mostly from the South) soon petitioned President Lyndon B. Johnson asking him to pardon Boykin. Johnson granted the request on December 17, 1965, issuing a full pardon for the former congressmen.

Curiously, RFK also supported a pardon for Boykin. In fact, this action was one of three favors he requested from the White House following his resignation as Attorney General in 1964. It may have been because Boykin had been a strong supporter of JFK's 1960 presidential bid, or because the former congressman was good friends with RFK's father.

Boykin died on congestive heart failure in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1969.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Encyclopedia of Alabama, "Sheriff, Chief and Lawmakers Among Arrests" in the Miami News-Metropolis on Dec. 23 1923, "Says Mellon Was Paid By Rum Men" in the Lewiston Daily Sun on Apr. 29 1926, "Police Chief Hoover Commands Respect of American People" in the St. Petersburg Times on May 28 1949, "A Salute to Justice Black" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jun. 6 1952, "Publicity Surprises Rep. Frank Boykin" in the Tuscaloosa News on Jan. 16 1962, "Rep. Boykin is Defeated For Re-Election" in the Free Lance-Star on May 31 1962, "Reps. Johnson, Boykin Indicted by U.S. Jury" in the Palm Beach Post on Oct. 17 1962, "Heard Boykin Promise Help, Miamian Says" in the Tuscaloosa News on Apr. 16 1963, "Robert Kennedy Testifies Against Former Congressmen" in the Toledo Blade on Apr. 18 1963, "Edlin Named as Figure in Payments" in the Times Daily on May 24 1963, "Boykin Denies Miami Fraud Case Payoff" in the Sarasota Journal on Jun. 5 1963, "Boykin-Johnson Case Gets Closer to Jury" in the Tuscaloosa News on Jun. 6 1963, "Two Former Congressmen Found Guilty" in the Toledo Blade on Jun. 14 1963, "Arguments Set for Monday in Boykin Trial" in the Tuscaloosa News on Jun. 8 1963, "Ex-Congressmen Sentenced" in the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 8 1963, "Bills Proposed to Repay Former Rep. Frank Boykin" in the St. Petersburg Times on May 19 1967, "Ex-Lawmaker Found Guilty" in the Toledo Blade on Jan. 27 1968, "Frank Boykin Dead at Age 84" in the Tuscaloosa News on Mar. 12 1969, "Legislator Can't Be Prosecuted For Actions" in The Dispatch on Oct. 10 1970, "Thomas Johnson, 78; Lost Post in Congress" in the New York Times on Feb. 3 1988, "Frank Boykin: The Politician" in the Huntsville Times on Dec. 17 2001, "Teflon Tycoon" in the Huntsville Times on Dec. 19 2001