Saturday, March 5, 2016

James F. Hastings: skimming off the top


Political gridlock was one of the reasons James Fred Hastings cited for his decision to resign from the House of Representatives at the beginning of 1976. As a moderate Republican from a small city in western New York, he felt that he had not been able to make much of a mark on national politics. Moreover, he didn't believe that Congress had made much meaningful progress toward resolving the most pressing issues of the day.

"I came up to age 49 without having a great deal to show for it," Hastings said. "Taking a look at the next 12 to 14 years of productive life, I decided I couldn't spend it here under the circumstances and frustrations I see in this legislative body."

Another reason for his resignation, Hastings admitted, had to do with his finances. Between maintaining his home in New York and serving in Washington, he said he had run up $19,000 in debt. He would be moving on to a job as president of Associated Industries, an Albany-based lobbying organization representing more than 2,000 businesses in the state. The post came with a higher salary than he was earning as a congressman.

Before the year was over, a federal court would charge Hastings with an entirely different type of financial trouble. He had hardly had difficulty with his accounts while in Congress, prosecutors accused. Rather, he had skimmed money from his employees for personal luxuries.

Hastings was born on April 10, 1926, in Olean, New York. He joined the Navy during World War II, becoming part of flight squadrons between 1943 and 1946. After the war, he worked as a union carpenter from 1947 to 1950, then as a sales representative for Proctor and Gamble for two years. He joined the radio station WHDL as sales manager in 1952, and served as station manager from 1959 to 1966. Hastings also dabbled in real estate as a partner in the firm Hastings & Jewell and held the job of national advertising manager at the Olean Times Herald from 1964 to 1966.

During most of his career in radio, Hastings also held local and state political posts. He was a member of the Allegany Town Board from 1953 to 1962, and served as a village justice during the same period. He was then elected to the New York state assembly, serving from 1963 to 1965, before transferring to the state senate and serving through 1968.

Hastings' move to national politics was prompted by the death of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. At the time of his death, Kennedy was running for the Democratic nomination for President. Following his victory in the California primary on June 5, 1968, Kennedy was shot three times by an assassin; he died the next day. Governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed Representative Charles Goodell, a Republican, to fill Kennedy's vacant Senate seat. Hastings was chosen as the Republican nominee for the open House of Representatives seat left by Goodell's appointment, and defeated Democratic candidate Wilbur White in the year's general election.

The district was happy enough with Hastings' service that it sent him back to Washington in the next three elections. However, as he mentioned in his remarks about his decision to resign, he never truly distinguished himself. The Milwaukee Journal commented that he had established himself as "a hard worker and an expert on such important - if unglamorous - issues as health, transportation, and the environment." One of his more noticeable actions involved the co-sponsorship of a bill to repeal the earnings limitation on the Social Security Act.

Following his resignation, the remainder of Hastings' term was put to a special election. Stanley Ludine, the mayor of the nearby city of Jamestown, earned 54,743 votes to GOP candidate John T. Calkins' total of 34,491. Ludine was the first Democrat from the Olean area to be sent to Congress in 106 years. He would go on to serve 10 years in the House before becoming lieutenant governor to Mario Cuomo.

Hastings quickly began to weigh in on state proposals. One month after his resignation, he announced Associated Industries' opposition to an attempt to increase New York unemployment benefits. The proposal was unrealistic, Hastings charged, and would cause businesses to leave the state. The Empire State Chamber of Commerce, Council of Merchants, and New York Chamber of Commerce and Industry joined him in opposition.

Only a few months later, the news broke that Hastings was under investigation. In June, a Justice Department source confirmed that it was looking into payroll records related to four people who had worked for Hastings while he was in Congress. Since the investigation was taking place at the same time that Wayne Hays was under scrutiny for accusations that his secretary was essentially paid to be his mistress, the source assured the press that Hastings' case did "not involve girls."

On September 21, Hastings was indicted on 26 counts of of mail fraud and nine counts of making false statements to the House Finance office. Hastings was accused of manipulating the salaries of three employees while in Congress, giving them salary increases but ordering them to transfer this extra cash to his own account. The case went to trial in December.

The prosecution's case rested chiefly on the testimony of Claire Bradley, who had worked as Hastings' executive secretary during his time in the House. Bradley said that Hastings had increased her salary by $360 a month, starting in May 1969. At the same time, however, he wanted Bradley to give back this amount so he could pay into a New York state retirement fund. Bradley testified that the congressman told her this kind of arrangement was common between members of Congress and their employees. She complied for more than a year, considering it to be a loan, but eventually realized that Hastings was running a kickback scheme. She stopped deferring part of her salary to Hastings after August 1971, although she agreed to make a $1,736 tuition payment for his sons' college education in August 1972.

After Hastings announced he was resigning, Bradley sought to get her money back. She outlined the payments she had made to her boss over the years and calculated that he owed her about $12,000. When Hastings did not respond, she consulted with an attorney. Bradley said that Hastings apologized to her on January 19, his second to last day in office, but told her that he would not be giving back any of the money he had taken from her. He also allegedly threatened to ruin her employment prospects if she sought legal action against him, saying, "I can fix all this tomorrow by not recommending you for any other job."

Investigators had also determined that Hastings had received personal benefits from Leonard Jones, an auto dealer and part-time district representative for Hastings, as well as a chauffeur named David Walden. Jones had returned more than $6,000 in payments Hastings made on cars purchased at his dealership. Walden said he used the approximately $9,000 in extra payments received from Hastings to pay the congressman's bills at a marina on Rushford Lake in New York. Joseph Hirsch, manager of RK Marina, said Hastings had purchased three boats and two snowmobiles from him.

During the trial, Hastings' defense argued that the payments to Hastings had been loans rather than kickbacks. They also called five character witnesses, including Republican Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut.

The jury was not convinced. On December 17, they found Hastings guilty of 20 counts of mail fraud and eight counts of making false statements. He declined to appeal the verdict and resigned from Associated Industries.

At his sentencing on January 31, 1977, Hastings asked that the court take his productive life into consideration. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kotelly asked the court to disregard this consideration, saying Hastings should not get special treatment simply because of his position. "We feel a double standard should not exist where a person who commits a street crime gets a heavy sentence while a person who commits a white collar crime gets a light sentence," said Kotelly.

U.S. District Court Judge June L. Green said she had received several letters from constituents who praised Hastings' work. However, he was also irked by those who believed kickback schemes were a common practice among congressmen, and that Hastings should not be punished harshly. She said such justifications were an affront to all honest officials, and that Hastings' sentence should "put on notice" anyone who was engaged in similar behavior. "You were elected to a position with grave national responsibilities," said Green. "The conduct for which you have been found guilty constituted a violation of that public trust."

Hastings was ordered to serve between 20 months and five years in prison. He was released after 14 months, and retired to Belleair Beach, Florida. After living there for 21 years, Hastings returned to New York to be closer to his family. He died on October 24, 2014, in Allegany.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Hastings Nominated" in the Evening News on Sep. 23 1968, "Accent on the News" in the Milwaukee Journal on Jan. 7 1976, "Worker Benefits Plan Criticized" in the Evening News on Feb. 24 1976, "Defeat" in the Lakeland Ledger on Mar. 3 1976, "Former Congressman's Records To Be Released" in the Spokesman-Review on Jun. 10 1976, "Jurors Indict Former Legislator" in the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 22 1976, "Prosecution of Hastings is Completed" in the Observer-Reporter on Dec. 16 1976, "Secretary to Hastings Testifies To A Kickback" in the New York Times on Dec. 16 1976, "Deliberations Begin at Kickbacks Trial" in the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 17 1976, "Former N.Y. Congressman is Convicted by Jury" in the Bryan Times on Dec. 18 1976, "Ex-Solon May Face Jail Time" in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on Dec. 18 1976, "Hastings Convicted, Quits Post" in the Observer-Reporter on Dec. 20 1976, "Ex-Congressman Sentenced for Taking Kickbacks" in the Observer-Reporter on Feb. 1 1977, "James F. Hastings Obituary" in the Olean Times Herald on Oct. 27 2014, "Former Rep. James F. Hastings Remembered as Good Public Servant" in the Olean Times Herald on Oct. 28 2014