On January 24, 1904, a federal grand jury in Missouri indicted Senator Joseph R. Burton (R-KS) on charges that he had received five checks for $500 each from the Rialto Grain and Securities Company of St. Louis in return for interceding with the United States postmaster general and the chief post office inspector on a mail fraud investigation. Such activity violated an 1864 law prohibiting members of Congress from receiving compensation for services performed before a federal agency. The law also provided that anyone found guilty would be "rendered forever thereafter incapable of holding any office . . . under the Government of the United States." Burton's indictment came about during a general investigation of corruption in the Post Office.
Burton denied any wrongdoing and explained that he had accepted the fees to become general counsel to Rialto because he had lost heavily in the recent financial panic and needed the $500 monthly salary. Burton had accompanied the president of Rialto, Hugh Dennison, to a meeting with the chief post office inspector to determine whether or not the Post Office had issued a mail fraud order against the company. Burton claimed to have told the inspector that "other Senators and Representatives had built up large private practices during their terms of office, and that I in a small way desired to emulate them. I told him that I was general counsel for the Rialto Company of St. Louis and asked him as a general matter of friendship to tell me if at any time I did wrong." Burton added that both he and the chief post office inspector were from Kansas.
Statement of the Case
When Joseph Burton was convicted on March 28, 1904, he appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in January 1905 that Missouri did not have jurisdiction to try Burton for checks that he had received in Washington and cashed at the Riggs Bank there. In July of that year, Burton was again indicted by a federal grand jury in St. Louis on more limited charges. He was convicted once more, in November 1905 and sentenced to six months in prison and a $2,500 fine. Again, he appealed to the Supreme Court.
After each of his convictions while his appeals were pending, Burton remained a member of the Senate and continued to draw his salary. He did not, however, enter the Senate chamber to participate in Senate business. According to press accounts, other senators let it be known they would not act to expel him until after he had exhausted his appeals in the courts but that if he appeared on the Senate floor he would forfeit his claim to their sympathy. On May 21, 1906, the Supreme Court upheld Burton's second conviction. In its opinion the Court indicated that conviction in the case "did not operate, ipso facto, to vacate the seat of the convicted Senator nor compel the Senate to expel him or to regard him as expelled by force alone of the judgment" (Burman v. United States, 202 U.S. 344). The Court also declared that the law's prohibition of anyone convicted under it from serving again in the U.S. government did not apply to U.S. senators, who were selected by the states. It was therefore up to the Senate to take its own action against Burton.
In response to this ruling, the Senate the next day directed the Committee on Privileges and Elections to examine the legal effect of the Supreme Court's decision and make a recommendation, but on June 4, before the committee could issue a report, Burton resigned from the Senate.
Joseph Burton served five months of his six-month sentence in the Iron County Jail, Ironton, Missouri. He claimed to have rejected a presidential pardon, although the United States attorney insisted that no pardon was ever offered. When Burton left prison in March 1907, he was met by a delegation of prominent lawyers and political leaders who escorted him back to Abilene where he was given a triumphant reception. Burton charged that President Theodore Roosevelt had instigated the government's prosecution of him because he had broken with the president on the issue of Cuban trade reciprocity. "Roosevelt never forgave me," said Burton, and for that reason he was "hounded for years for a crime I never committed." Burton died in 1923.
Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 275-276.