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Tempest Over Teapot
When the wheeling and dealing of some of President Harding’s closest friends was revealed, the mud spattered Cabinet members, the heads of oil companies, the chairman of the Republican party, and eventually the President himself
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
Nothing could be more characteristic of the sickly moral atmosphere of the times than what happened when the three chief figures in the oil scandals were brought into court. Fall and Doheny were tried jointly for conspiracy, and were acquitted. The Washington jury, composed of average middle-class Americans, had no intention of sending a multimillionaire and a fine gentleman like Doheny to jail. Then Fall and Sinclair were also tried jointly for conspiracy, since the two crimes were substantially identical. They were also acquitted. Doheny was tried alone for giving the satchelful of money to Fall, and acquitted. Fall was tried for accepting the satchelful of money, but he was not a multimillionaire or a fine gentleman: he was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison.
When Sinclair came back from Europe he had refused to answer questions by the Senate, but he made the bad mistake of failing to take refuge behind the Fifth Amendment, saying only that he intended to reserve his testimony until later. He was judged to be in contempt of the Senate.
There were other charges against him. During his trial for conspiracy, it was discovered that one juror had been bribed to vote for acquittal. This man indiscreetly told a friend that he had been promised, in a phrase that became famous, “a car as long as this block.” He also hinted darkly that he was to get some cash. The friend knew a reporter on one of the Washington newspapers, told him about it, and arranged a meeting between the juror and the reporter. They met in a saloon, the reporter’s occupation being concealed, and the juror repeated the substance of the story. The reporter promptly informed a representative of the prosecution.
Roberts and Pomerene also learned that at the beginning of the trial a horde of private detectives had been sent down from New York and assigned to shadow each member of the jury to learn all that could be learned about them. These agents, employees of the Burns Detective Agency, assumed new identities and worked with military precision, turning in daily reports that were co-ordinated at a central headquarters in a Washington hotel room.
One of the detectives, William J. McMuIHn, was ordered to assist in a frame-up that would involve Norman Glasscock, one of the jurors, and Horace Lamb, a lawyer in the Department of Justice. The spies knew the license numbers of the automobiles of Glasscock and Lamb; McMullin was to swear that he had seen these two cars parked side by side on a given day at the Potomac Flying Field, and the occupants conferring. This was of course entirely false. The plan was that if the trial seemed likely to produce a verdict of guilty, McMullin was to come forward with the charge of improper contact between a juror and a Department of Justice lawyer, which would force a mistrial.
But Sinclair’s forces had picked a poor choice for skulduggery in McMullin. A former New Jersey state trooper, he was sickened by what he had been asked to do. He made contact with former Governor Gifford Pinchot of Pennsylvania, his home state, and told him the story. Pinchot took it to representatives of the prosecution, who promptly made McMullin a double agent. He was to do everything that Sinclair’s representatives told him to do, but he was to make a secret daily report to the prosecution of what was going on.
Armed with this information, representatives of Roberts and Pomerene raided the headquarters of Sinclair’s detectives and seized carbon copies of a mass of field agents’ reports. As a result, they were able to subpoena scores of individuals who had knowledge of, or who had participated in, the spying on the jurors.
Under orders from the prosecution, McMullin executed the false affidavit about Glasscock and Lamb. Before it could be used, however, the government men told the judge about the bribery of the juror. There was indeed a mistrial, though not under the circumstances Sinclair had anticipated.
The oilman’s attorneys, seeking to turn public opinion against Roberts and Pomerene, produced McMuIlin’s affidavit. The prosecution promptly revealed that he had been a double agent and released the evidence showing that the affidavit was false. Sinclair’s attorneys now tried desperately to smear McMullin, digging up and publishing every unfavorable fact they could find about his past, but with little success. Fearing for his safety, the government gave him a bodyguard.
Some time later Sinclair was tried again, and found guilty of contempt of court. He was given six months in jail, in addition to the $500 fine and three months in jail he had received for contempt of the Senate.
But this was not the end of the tale of the Liberty Bonds, the profits from the only business deal ever made by the fabulous Continental Trading Company.
Will Hays, a smiling chipmunk of a man, had been Republican National Chairman in 1920, and had rashly promised that campaign contributions would be limited to $1,000 from any individual; the result was a deficit of $1,200,000. After he had made his deal with Fall, but before it was exposed, Sinclair felt it would be politic for him to make a substantial contribution toward erasing the deficit. Yet it was obviously undesirable for a single individual to give a large sum, especially an oilman who was in a position to get favors from Republican government officials.