On July 20, 1931, Albert Bacon Fall entered the New Mexico state penitentiary, the first American Cabinet member ever to go to jail. Now, 46 years later, prison doors shortly will close behind John Newton Mitchell, who will have the dubious distinction of being the second such disgraced Cabinet member.
One of the oddities of the two scandals - Teapot Dome in the Harding administration and Watergate in the Nixon administration - was the reversed roles played by The Washington Post. In the case of Teapot Dome it was The Post's publisher who at first covered up for Fall until a probing senator caught him in a lie; in the case of Watergate The Post was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its public service in tracking down and exposing the wrong-doing.
Fall was a senator from New Mexico when Warren Harding named him Secretary of the Interior. In 1922 Fall secretly leased the government's Wyoming oil reserve, known as Teapot Dome, to Harry F. Sinclair's Mammoth Oil and then the California reserve, Elk Hills, to Edward F. Doheny's Pan-American Oil. By the time Montana Sen. Thomas J. Walsh began his probe in late 1923, Fall had resigned and Harding was dead. Both Harding and Fall had been friends of Edward Beale (Ned) McLean, The Post's publisher, and had frequently been at his "country" estate, Friendship, out Wisconsin Avenue, now the site of McLean Gardens. Harding played golf there; Fall favored poker.
On the witness stand, Fall denied receiving, and Doheny and Sinclair giving, any compenstion for the oil leases. But Fall's affluence in retirement - he even paid up his ranch taxes as much as 10 years past due - was too conspicuous. An Albuquerque editor, Carl Magee, both wrote about it and passed on tips to Sen. Walsh.
In time Fall began to feel the approaching heat. He took to drink and wandering around the country, finally asking McLean to come see him in Atlantic City. To cover his tracks, Fall asked McLean to say that he had lent Fall $100,000. McLean agreed to say so and he did just that to Walsh's committee. Fall denied ay wrongdoing and McLean's story appeared to be an adequate explanation since the publisher was widely known as a millionaire friend of the ex-Cabinet member.
But not to Tom Walsh. McLean hid out in Palm Beach, claiming his sinus trouble was too severe to allow him to come to Washington to testify publicly. So Walsh went to Florida. With a perjury rap staring him in the face, the publisher admitted to Walsh that he really hadn't lent Fall the $100,000. Historian Mark Sullivan, who covered Teapot Dome for the New York Herald Tribune, later wrote that McLean's admission was "the first climactic sensation of the oil scandal."
One reason for Walsh's suspicions about McLean was the senator's discovery that the publisher had a private wire from his office at The Post, then on E Street at Pennsylvania Avenue opposite the District Building, to his Palm Beach cottage. Furthermore, McLean was sending and receiving messages in code and one of the codes used was that of the Justice Department. Access to that code was one of the favors McLean had received - along with a starred badge - as a dollar-a-year special agent. Walsh subpoenaed the hundreds of McLean's telegrams and quickly had them decoded. One showed that when Walsh had taken the night train to Palm Beach McLean's secretary had wired his boss: "Jaguar baptismal stowage beadle 1235 huff pulsator commercial fitful. Lambert conation fecund hyberdize." Decoded: "Walsh leaves Coast Line 12:35 tonight instead of Seaboard. Lambert [one of McLean's attorneys] on same train."
Finally, back in Washington, Mclean publicly confessed he was not the source of Fall's $100,000: "Senator, I was trying to go down the line as far as I could for a friend." Oilman Doheny then admitted he had been the source. In fact, it had been Doheny who suggested to Fall that he get McLean to say he had lent the money.
Teapot Dome gushed into the biggest national scandal since the Grant administration, when Secretary of War William W. Belknap was inpeached for malfeasance in office and only escaped a Senate trial by resigning. Teapot Dome had many odd turns: Archibald Roosevelt, one of TR's sons, who worked for Sinclair, testified that the oilman's secretary had told him something about a $68,000 payment to a foreman of Fall's ranch. But on the stand the secretary said he ahd been talking about "six or eight cows" and not "sixty-eight thous." President Coolidge finally named two "special counsels," the precedetn for the Watergate "special prosecutor." One was Owen J. Roberts, who did such an admirable job that President Hoover appointed him to the Supreme Court.
Walsh thought some of McLean's coded messages indicated that Coolidge had somehow been in on the Teapot Dome affair. McLean's embarrassing ties to the White House of both Harding and Coolidge had included friendship not only with the President but also with many others, from the head doorman to Secret Service agents, including a telegrapher wo moonlighted at night sending the publisher's coded telegrams from the Post building. But there was no evidence of Coolidge's involvement in the scandal - or, for that matter, that Harding had himself gained anything but trouble from the money grubbers of his "Ohio gang" and other scoundrels in his administration such as Fall. Both the Grant and Harding scandals centered on lust for money, in contrast to Watergate, where the only cash involved, other than bush money, has come from after-the-fact "inside" books and television appearances of its chief actors.
For Ned McLean, the public exposure, including his many appearances before the Senate committee and at various trials, made him something of a lauhgingstock. The Washington Post had been severely damaged by its publisher, and it began sliding downhill until its sale at bankruptcy in 1933. For Albert Fall, there were four trials in the District of Columbia Supreme Court. In December 1926 he and Doheny were acquitted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government. The following November, during a trial of Fall and Sinclair on similar charges, a mistrial was ordered after it was disclosed that Sinclair had detectives shadowing jurors. Both were acquitted in a 1928 retrial. Finally, in October 1929 Fall was tried on the charge of having accepted a bribe, and the jury, after deliberating a day and a night, found him guilty but with a recommendation of mercy. The former Cabinet member was sentenced to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine.
In March 1930 Doheny was acquitted on the charge of bribing Fall - the very bribe that another jury already had found he had accepted. Sinclair twice went to jail for contempt, once of the Senate and a second time for his jury tampering. Fall's case wound up Teapot Dome when he was released from the penitentiary in May 1932 after serving nine months and 19 days of his year's term. It had been 10 years and a month since the Cabinet member had granted the first secret oil leases.
The political fallout of Teapot Dome, unlike that of Watergate, was minimal: Coolidge swept to an overwhelming victory in 1924 and Hoover in 1928. Only the Great Depression brought the Democrats back to the White House. In 1933 Sen. Tom Walsh was named Attorney General by President-elect Roosevelt, only to die two days before FDR's first inauguration. Albert Fall died in obscurity in Santa Fe in 1944.