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The Teapot Dome Trials: 1926-30

"everything Points To Sinclair"

Called before the committee, Fall relied on the Fifth Amendment's right to not incriminate himself. President Calvin Coolidge appointed Republican Owen J. Roberts and Democrat Atlee W. Pomerene as special counsel to prosecute the oil cases. "Everything about Fall's sudden wealth points to Sinclair as the source," said Roberts.

Investigation disclosed that Fall, who had earned $12,000 a year in the Senate, had recently spent $140,000 improving his ranch and that $230,500 in Liberty Bonds deposited in his accounts bore the serial numbers of bonds distributed earlier to Sinclair and to Colonel Robert W. Stewart, chairman of the Standard Oil Company of Indiana. Indictments followed.

In 1924, Roberts brought civil suits to cancel the government's leasing contracts with Doheny and Sinclair because they were obtained fraudulently. He won against Doheny, then lost against Sinclair but won on appeal as three U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges agreed that:

A trail of deceit, falsehood, subterfuge, bad faith, and corruption, at times indistinct but nevertheless discernible, runs through the transaction incident to and surrounding the making of this lease.

With the contracts proved fraudulent, Roberts tried Fall and Doheny in November 1926 for criminal conspiracy to defraud the government. Defense lawyer Frank J. Hogan dramatically compared his clients' situation to the Crucifixion and invoked the ghost of President Harding "from his sacred tomb in Marion [Ohio]" as a character witness. Debating all night, the jury acquitted both men.

In March 1927, a one-ay trial found Sinclair guilty of contempt of the Senate for refusing to answer committee questions. He was sentenced to three months in jail.

Now Fall and Sinclair were tried for conspiracy to defraud the government with the Teapot Dome lease. Sinclair brazenly put 12 William J. Burns detectives to work shadowing the 12 jurors, one of whom boasted that he expected to make $150,000 to $200,000 for deadlocking the case. Judge Frederick L. Siddons declared a mistrial, then put Sinclair, his export official, Henry Mason Day, and two Burnses (father and son) on trial for criminal contempt. All were found guilty. Sinclair's six-month sentence was the stiffest.

At the fourth trial—Fall and Sinclair for conspiracy to defraud the government—in April 1928, Fall was excused, as his doctors reported him dying. Sinclair admitted giving Liberty Bonds and cash to Fall. The jury confounded the prosecution by acquitting the oil baron.

Trial five, in May, charged Colonel Robert W. Stewart with contempt of the Senate. He had told its committee he did not know where the Liberty Bonds had come from and had not profited from the deal when he helped pass them on to Fall. But he had changed his story when he made a second committee appearance, recounting the bonds' history and revealing his share in the profits. The jury said, "Not guilty."

That trial produced trial six, charging Stewart with perjury as a result of his changed story in his second Senate testimony. The jury acquitted him. Meantime, in June 1929, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Sinclair's conviction for jury tampering, sending him to prison.

October 1929 brought Fall to trial for accepting a bribe from Doheny. In a wheelchair, frail and gasping, he heard his defense lawyer, Frank Hogan, tell the judge he should be vindicated "before he passes into the Great Beyond." The jury said, "guilty," but recommended mercy. Judge William Hitz sentenced him to one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

When Judge Hitz held Doheny's trial in March 1930 for giving Fall the bribe, a different jury heard the same basic evidence. But Hogan dramatized Doheny's patriotism in building Navy tanks and the elderly Fall's innocent backing of a longtime friend. The jury said, "Not guilty."

Fall appealed for a year. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld his bribery conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. President Herbert Hoover turned down several petitions for a pardon. On July 18, 1931, Fall went by ambulance to prison in Santa Fe, New Mexico—the first cabinet officer ever convicted of a felony and imprisoned. Parole was denied in November, but he was released in May 1932. His $100,000 fine—unpaid—remained as a judgment against him (in case he acquired the money) until he "passed into the Great Beyond" 12 years later at age 83.

As a result of cancellation of the Teapot Dome lease, the Navy recovered more than $12 million from Sinclair. The Doheny cancellation brought back nearly $35 million. The Naval Petroleum Reserves were utilized extensively in World War II and have continued to generate money, through limited exploitation, for the government.

Edward Doheny died at 79 in 1935, Harry Sinclair at age 80 in 1956. Owen J. Roberts, who persisted in the Teapot Dome prosecutions through 6&/2 years (much of that time without remuneration), was appointed a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by President Hoover in 1930 and retired in 1945 after a distinguished career. He died at the age of 80 in 1955.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Daniels, Jonathan. The Time Between the lVars: Armistice to Pear/Harbor. Garden City N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1966.

Henry, Laurin L. Presidential Transitions. Washington: Brookings Institution, 1960.

Morrison, Samuel Eliot. The Oxford History of the American People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Russell, Francis. The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968.

Werner, M.R., and John Starr. Teapot Dome. New York: Viking Press, 1959.

Wish, Harvey. Contemporary America: The National Scene Since 1900. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940The Teapot Dome Trials: 1926-30 - Fall Owed Eight Years' Back Taxes, "sluice-way For Ninety Percent Of The Corruption"