A Return to Perfidy

On this day in 1923 US Interior Secretary Albert Fall resigns from President Warren G. Harding’s cabinet in response to public outrage over the Teapot Dome scandal. Fall’s resignation illuminated a deeply corrupt relationship between Western developers and the federal government.
What Harding had described as a “return to normalcy (sic)” simply turned out to be a return to perfidy on an order not seen since the worst days of Uly Grant’s checkered tenure.

The blatant bribery incident took place from 1921 to 1922, in an administration already rocked by scandal. Fall, culled for the Interior post from “private industry” as a Western land speculator himself, was deeply in personal debt. Accepting $400,000 in “loans” from two fellow speculators, Edward Doheny and Harry F. Sinclair (yeah, the dinosaur gas guy), Fall had leased US Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming and two other locations in California to the two oily gents. These leases were pornographically lucrative, were let at obscenely low rates, and without competitive bidding. In 1922 and 1923, the leases became the subject of a sensational investigation by Sen. Thomas J. Walsh (D-WI).

Swiftly, Congress directed President Harding to cancel the leases, and the Supreme Court declared the them fraudulent, ruling Harding’s transfer of authority to Fall invalid. Fall was later convicted of accepting bribes from the oil companies and became the first Cabinet member to go to prison. While the Sinclair Dino guy served over six months for contempt of court and Congress, no one was ever convicted of paying the bribes.

As for the hapless Harding, disillusioned and exhausted, he suffered a heart attack and died before the full extent of the wrongdoing had been determined, never to see his beloved mistress(es) again. Unlike a particular and contemporary POTUS, however, Harding does get an “E” for effort at some self-awareness; prior to his last illness, remarking on his presidency, Harding once blurted “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”

And here, as certain folks take heed, the familiar and topical story of greed and self-dealing endeth, for now. Cy Vance, if you’re listening . . . .

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.