Rod Blagojevich and the other Illinois governors jailed for corruption are not alone. They’ve dominated the headlines lately, but 20th and 21st Century American history is rife with similarly sordid examples of top-of-the-ticket, out-of-bounds state officials elsewhere. They got caught abusing their power, engaging in obviously corrupt practices and violating the public trust. Here, in no particular order, is a non-comprehensive look at other intriguing stories from the governors’ hall of shame.
Bad bet on the bayou: Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards
During his fourth term as governor, the colorful, gambling-addicted Governor Edwards was ratted out by a for-profit-prison entrepreneur, who allegedly gave him $845,000 in conjunction with a scheme to locate a private juvenile prison in Jena. Edwards was indicted in 1998 by the federal government. The prosecution released transcripts of audio conversations, as well as excerpts of video surveillance that seemed to indicate dubious financial transactions regarding riverboat casino licenses for political cronies. The Edwards investigation also tarnished the reputation of San Francisco 49ers owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., who admitted to paying Edwards $400,000 in exchange for Edwards’s assistance in securing a casino license. Edwards was found guilty on 17 of 26 counts, including racketeering, extortion, money laundering, mail fraud and wire fraud. In October 2002, he began a 10-year prison term.
Wheel dealer: Louisiana’s Richard Leche
After Huey Long’s assassination, Leche ascended to the leadership of the “Long faction” in the state and served as governor from 1936-1939. One of his early statements offers an insight into his later-revealed corrupt activities: “When I took the oath of office,” he said, “I didn’t take any vow of poverty.” He and other state officials developed a scheme to sell trucks to the state highway department. Under federal law, this activity constituted mail fraud. In 1940, Leche was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. He served five and, in 1953, was pardoned by outgoing President Harry Truman. He later became a lawyer and a lobbyist.
Charisma in cell block 11: Connecticut’s John Rowland
When he took office in 1995, Rowland was a charismatic, rising Republican star and was the youngest governor in the state’s history. A year after being sworn in for his third term, he was accused of influence peddling and admitted that he had received free work from state contractors on his summer cottage. He eventually resigned, pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge, and served ten months in federal prison. Asked a few years later to explain what happened, he said, “The sense of entitlement is the beginning. Before you know it, you’re doing things you never thought you’d do in the past. Then you send that message to others.” Rowland is also quoted as describing his downfall this way: “It seems like just yesterday I was at the White House staying in the Lincoln bedroom and everything was wonderful. And then almost overnight I’m standing in line for toilet paper at a prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania.”
Liquor is quicker: Tennessee’s Ray Blanton
Elected in 1975, Blanton first got in hot water when a fired parole-board chairman accused him of taking bribes in exchange for clemency for prisoners. According to Downfall Dictionary, federal investigators raided the state capitol as they looked into those charges, but didn’t indict him. However, during the investigation, an undercover agent asked a Blanton bodyguard how much it would cost to pardon James Earl Ray—the convicted murderer of Dr. Martin Luther King. The bodyguard reportedly said that, while King’s assassin was too high-profile for clemency, for the right price, he could probably be allowed to escape. Later, Blanton was convicted of granting 12 licenses to liquor stores run by political allies in exchange for a kickback of a portion of their income. Those charges stuck, and in 1981, he was convicted of conspiracy, extortion and mail fraud. He was sentenced to three years in prison and an $11,000 fine. He was released after 22 months. He later worked as a radio commentator and used-car salesman.
Guilty. I mean, not guilty: West Virginia’s Arch A. Moore
Moore, a three-term Republican governor [1968, 1972 & 1984] in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, had a long history of shady dealings. Most recently, in 1990, he was convicted for extorting a $573,000 kickback from a local coal company, while he was governor, to help it get $2 million from the state’s black lung fund. He was also charged with failing to report, on his income tax returns, tens of thousands of dollars in payments from various companies and lobbyists, taking illegal payments for one of his reelection campaigns, falsifying documents and trying to persuade witnesses to lie. He pleaded guilty to that last charge when federal prosecutors informed him that they had taped him conspiring with his former campaign manager to obstruct the investigation. Shortly thereafter, he tried to retract his guilty plea, but the courts denied his request. He served more than two years in jail.
Dad takes the fall: Rhode Island’s Edward DiPrete
In December 1998, long after the end of his third term as Rhode Island’s governor, Edward DiPrete pleaded guilty to 18 charges of corruption, admitting that he accepted bribes and extorted money from contractors while in office. He pled guilty in exchange for leniency for his son, a co-defendant in the case. DiPrete was the first Rhode Island governor to go to jail for corruption. His downfall was precipitous: In 1987, a public-opinion poll reported that he had an 89 percent approval rating, the highest of any American governor in a decade. ”The pressures of raising money for campaign spending obviously clouded my perspective,” he said.’
Not included in the preceding rogues’ gallery are several governors for whom wrongdoings were investigated and/or alleged without resulting in indictments or convictions. They include:
- Every Kentucky governor between 1971 and 2002, whose alleged misdeeds ranged from insurance scams, conflicts of interest, kickbacks, gambling, gun-and-cocaine smuggling, receiving illegal gifts—such as a grand piano and a tanning bed, tax fraud, arson and sexual harassment.
- Nevada’s Jim Gibbons, who, in 2006, was investigated for sexual harassment and for a shady-looking financial relationship with a defense contractor.
- Kentucky’s Ernie Fletcher, who was indicted in 2006 for improperly giving state jobs to his political allies. The charges were later dropped, when a judge ruled that a governor could not be prosecuted while in office.
Another special case is that of Alabama’s Don Siegelmann. In 2006, Sieglemann was convicted and sentenced to jail for appointing a political donor to an all-volunteer state board—an act that, he has said, has never before been considered a crime in America. Many of his supporters, plus a large contingent of state prosecutors who have called for an investigation of the case, allege that his crime actually was to defeat a Republican opponent and that the move against him was led by conservative politico Karl Rove.
And then there’s Harold Hoffman, New Jersey’s popular, “boy-wonder” governor from 1934 to 1938. Known to all as a big-spending, free-wheeling, highly entertaining politician, he managed to hide his more than $300,000 theft of public money until after his death, when he revealed it all in a posthumous letter to his daughter. In today’s Google-powered, politically vindictive, schadenfreude world, he probably wouldn’t be able to keep that secret, and that’s a lesson that contemporary, bad-behaving governors should probably heed.