The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A century before Jan. 6, bombshell hearings on another assault on democracy

A cartoon shows Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall sitting on a rock in the desert, surrounded by tiny oil wells, holding a teacup. Behind him looms the Teapot Dome mountain. The cartoon alludes to the scandal when Fall was convicted of taking a bribe to sell the rich oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyo., to a company represented by businessman Harry F. Sinclair. (Rollin Kirby, Library of Congress)
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One inquiry was triggered by a violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol, the other by corrupt selling of federal oil leases. But both acts were assaults on democracy that led to some of the most anticipated and politically charged congressional hearings in U.S. history.

Nearly a century before a House committee’s planned hearings on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, a Senate panel launched hearings on a secret lease to allow private drilling in the Teapot Dome naval oil reserve field in Wyoming. The probe revealed another type of attack on democracy: the greasing of the wheels of government to benefit rich and powerful interests. The hearings uncovered brazen bribery in arguably the country’s biggest political scandal until Watergate, resulting in the first imprisonment of a former Cabinet member.

What bombshells will be unearthed in the current investigation remains to be seen. The House select committee plans to hold hearings beginning in the coming weeks or months “setting out for the American people in vivid color exactly what happened, every minute of the day on January 6th, here at the Capitol and at the White House, and what led to that violent attack,” Republican Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the panel’s vice chairwoman, has promised.

“I think this is one of the single most important congressional investigations in history,” Cheney said.

That label certainly applies to the Teapot Dome probe. The saga began on April 14, 1922, when the Wall Street Journal reported that officials in the administration of Republican President Warren G. Harding had secretly leased drilling rights at Teapot Dome, named for a nearby teapot-shaped rock, to the oil magnate Harry Sinclair.

The lease was issued without competitive bidding by Interior Secretary Albert Bacon Fall, a former U.S. senator from New Mexico. It was later revealed that Fall also had leased two California naval oil reserve fields to the oil baron Edward Doheny. Combined, the three leases were valued at about $200 million, equal to more than $3 billion now.

The Senate immediately voted to investigate the Teapot Dome lease. The probe focused on the 60-year-old Fall, who “mildly resembles a Western bandit with his black hat and his sunburnt face” and “smokes the worst cigars in Washington,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported.

The Senate investigation got bogged down as Fall inundated the committee with more than 5,000 documents — similar to the 6,000 emails and documents provided to the Jan. 6 panel by former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, before he stopped cooperating. In early 1923, Fall resigned to return to private business at his ranch in Three Rivers, N.M.

Target of the first congressional probe in U.S. history? George Washington, of course.

Republicans, who controlled the Senate, were wary about pressing too hard against one of their own, and they didn’t mind giving the hearings the appearance of partisanship, so they let Democratic Sen. Thomas Walsh (Mont.) take the lead. Senate GOP leaders — like House Republican leaders now — then tried to derail the investigation. Harding’s attorney general, Harry Daugherty, even sent federal agents to Montana to try to dig up dirt on Walsh, who suspected his phone was tapped.

Harding supported Fall and said he had approved the oil lease. The story faded by the summer of 1923, when the president and his wife left on a trip to the Alaska Territory. On Aug. 2, Harding suffered what was reported to be a fatal stroke at the San Francisco Palace Hotel. (Since then, most historians have surmised that it was actually a heart attack.) Vice President Calvin Coolidge became president.

Senate hearings finally began on Oct. 23, 1923, in the same Senate caucus room where the Watergate hearings would take place 50 years later. (The journalist Richard Strout, who covered both Teapot Dome and Watergate, wasn’t far off the mark when he coined “Strout’s Law” stipulating that “every 50 years we have a great scandal, and watch out for 2023.”) Fall testified that the Wyoming lease was perfectly legal and good for the nation. With no new revelations, a popular syndicated newspaper column raised the inevitable question: “And is that Teapot Dome oil row a tempest in a teapot?”

Walsh, a former prosecutor, kept digging. In December, he discovered startling information about mysterious payments to Fall. “The hearings suddenly were the hottest ticket in Washington,” Laton McCartney wrote in his book “The Teapot Dome Scandal.”

On Jan. 21, 1924, “the thrill of the hearing exceeded anything the Capitol has staged in years,” the Baltimore Sun reported. The surprise star witness was Archibald Roosevelt, a son of the late President Theodore Roosevelt and the younger brother of Assistant Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

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“Archie” Roosevelt testified that he had just resigned as a vice president of Harry Sinclair’s oil company after Sinclair’s confidential secretary told him about “a $68,000 check paid to the foreman of Secretary Fall’s ranch.” That is equal to $1.1 million now. The secretary then testified as well, denying Roosevelt’s claim and saying that he had told Roosevelt that Fall had merely been given “six or eight cows.” Walsh immediately called Roosevelt back up to testify again, and Roosevelt said he was “dead sure” what he had heard. (The secretary later conceded that Roosevelt was right.)

Three days later, the committee heard from Doheny, the owner of the California oil leases. Doheny admitted to making an interest-free “loan” (it was widely interpreted as a bribe) of $100,000 — or $1.7 million now — to Fall for improvements on his ranch. The multimillionaire said that $100,000 “was a bagatelle to me” and that the loan was simply “a personal transaction based on old-time friendship.” He said his son Edward “Ned” Doheny Jr. and Ned’s assistant delivered the money in cash in a black satchel to Fall in Washington in late 1921.

“The Teapot Dome scandal which for a long time was ‘just’ another Senate investigation… has become almost overnight a throbbing drama of politics, high finance and intrigue,” United Press International reported. Coolidge, who had been silent on the controversy, appointed two special prosecutors, a Republican and a Democrat.

In March, Sinclair was called back to testify, but this time, like Meadows and other figures in the current inquiry, he refused to answer questions and was charged with contempt of Congress.

Coolidge managed to distance himself from the scandal, and that November, he was elected on the slogan “Keep Cool With Coolidge.”

Walsh led one final round of highly publicized hearings in early 1928. Fall’s son-in-law testified that he had delivered $233,000 in World War I Liberty Bonds and $36,000 in cash from Sinclair to Fall after the Teapot Dome lease was concluded. The $269,000 total would be $4.5 million today.

The Teapot Dome inquiries had lasting impact. In 1927, the Supreme Court voided the private leases. The court also for the first time upheld Congress’s right to compel witnesses to testify, in a case where former Attorney General Daugherty’s brother declined to appear before a committee probing Daugherty’s failure to prosecute Teapot Dome cases. In 1929, the court also upheld Sinclair’s conviction that year for contempt of Congress; he was sentenced to 10 months in prison for contempt and for jury tampering in a related trial.

Fall, bankrupt and reliant on a wheelchair, was convicted of taking bribes and sentenced to one year in prison. But Sinclair and Edward Doheny were acquitted of bribery. In early 1929, Ned Doheny and his assistant, who were to testify at Fall’s trial, were found shot to death at Greystone Mansion, Ned’s Beverly Hills estate. Police ruled it a murder-suicide by the assistant.

The scandal became part of Harding’s legacy. In their book “The Teapot Dome Scandal,” M.R. Werner and John Starr wrote that when a committee picked a design for Harding’s tomb in Marion, Ohio, one member exclaimed, “My God, gentlemen, you aren’t going to take this?” Asked why not, the man responded: “Stick a handle on here, and what have you got? A teapot.”

Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal.