Whiskey Ring was a group of distillers and public officials who defrauded the federal government of liquor taxes. Soon after the Civil War these taxes were raised very high, in some cases to eight times the price of the liquor. Large distillers, chiefly in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Chicago, bribed government officials in order to retain the tax proceeds. The Whiskey Ring was a public scandal, but it was considered impregnable because of its strong political connections. U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin H. Bristow resolved to break the conspiracy. To avoid warning the suspects, he assigned secret investigators from outside the Treasury Dept. to collect evidence. Striking suddenly in May, 1875, he arrested the persons and seized the distilleries involved. Over $3 million in taxes was recovered, and of 238 persons indicted 110 were convicted. Although President Grant’s secretary, Orville E. Babcock, was acquitted through the personal intervention of the President, many persons believed that the Whiskey Ring was part of a plot to finance the Republican party by fraud.
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In the early part of the 20th century large oil reserves were discovered at Elk Hills, California and Teapot Dome, Wyoming. In 1912 President William Taft decided that this government owned land and its oil reserves should be set aside for the use of the United States Navy.
On 4th June, 1920, Congress passed a bill that stated that the Secretary of the Navy would have the power “to conserve, develop, use and operate the same in his discretion, directly or by contract, lease, or otherwise, and to use, store, exchange, or sell the oil and gas products thereof, and those from all royalty oil from lands in the naval reserves, for the benefit of the United States.”
In March 1921 President Warren Harding appointed Albert Fall as Secretary of the Interior. Soon afterwards he persuaded Edwin Denby, the Secretary of the Navy, that he should take over responsibility for the Naval Reserves at Elk Hills and Teapot Dome. Later that year Fall decided that two of his friends, Harry F. Sinclair (Mammoth Oil Corporation) and Edward L. Doheny (Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company), should be allowed to lease part of these Naval Reserves.
Attempts were made to keep this deal secret but rumours began to circulate when it became known that Albert Fall was spending large sums of money. On 14th April, 1922, the Wall Street Journal reported that Fall had leased Teapot Dome to Harry F. Sinclair. President Warren Harding defended Fall by claiming that “the policy which has been adopted by the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Interior in dealing with these matters was submitted to me prior to the adoption thereof, and the policy decided upon and the subsequent acts have at all times had my entire approval.”
Robert La Follette and John B. Kendrick called for a Senate investigation into Albert Fall and the Naval Reserves. President Warren Harding died suddenly on 2nd August, 1923 and was replaced by his vice-president, Calvin Coolidge.
Hearings on the Teapot Dome oil lease began on October 15, 1923 before the Senate Committee on Public Lands and Surveys. Senator Thomas J. Walsh, a Democrat from Montana, led the committee’s investigation. Over the next few months, dozens of witnesses testified before the committee. On January 24, 1924, Edward Doheny admitted that he had lent Fall $100,000.
Seven days later the Senate passed a resolution stating that the leases to the Mammoth Oil Company and the Pan American Petroleum Company “were executed under circumstances indicating fraud and corruption”. Albert Fall and Edwin Denby were now both forced to resign from office.
On 17th October, 1927, Harry F. Sinclair appeared on trial charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. The trial ended prematurely two weeks later when the government presented evidence that Sinclair had hired a detective agency to shadow the jury. The judge declared a mistrial. Sinclair was tried for criminal contempt of court. Found guilty and he was sentenced to six months in prison.
Albert Fall was now charged accepting a bribe from Doheny. On October 7, 1928 the trial began in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Even though the trial concerned Fall accepting money from Doheny, the judge allowed M. T. Everhart’s testimony showing the financial relationship between Sinclair and Fall. That testimony was used to show that Fall had lied to the Senate committee when he declared that he had not accepted any money from Sinclair. Fall was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.