When the Louisiana voters in 1930 elected Huey Long to the United States Senate, the thirty-seven-year-old dynamo already exercised a tight grip over state politics, built up during his years as governor. Unwilling to relinquish the reins of state power to an unfriendly lieutenant governor, Long delayed claiming his Senate seat until January 1932. The next summer, he employed his charismatic eloquence on behalf of both presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt and his personal choice for the second Louisiana Senate seat, U. S. Representative John H. Overton. Long's strength in Louisiana had no equal, and in the September 13, 1932, primary, John Overton easily defeated incumbent Senator Edwin Broussard for the Democratic nomination, a prelude to an unopposed victory in the general election.
Statement of the Case
On September 21, 1932, soon after his defeat in the primary, Edwin Broussard wrote to the chairman of a Special Committee to Investigate Campaign Expenditures in the 1932 election, which had been established in July 1932, requesting that the Senate investigate instances of corruption in the Louisiana election. He specifically charged that, for several weeks prior to the election, the state administration—under the control of the Long machine—brought in a horde of campaign workers drawn from employees of such state agencies as the highway commission, the board of health, the tax commission, and the insane asylums. State employees were also forced to make financial contributions to Overton's campaign. Broussard further contended that state officials promised the families of penitentiary inmates that their relatives would be freed in return for supporting Overton at the polls. Broussard did not claim that he himself had been elected but charged that there had been so much corruption in the election that Overton should be denied his seat.
Based on Broussard's complaint and others received from Louisiana citizens' groups, the special committee established a subcommittee to look into the matter. Meanwhile, on March 4, 1933, John Overton arrived in the Senate and was seated without challenge.
Response of the Senate Select Committee
Between October 1932 and December 1933, the subcommittee, chaired by Robert B. Howell (R-NE), conducted three lengthy investigations in Louisiana. Although the public assumed that Huey Long's 1930 election represented the true focus of the inquiry, the committee was authorized only to examine elections that took place in 1932. During the period of the investigation, the subcommittee faced a variety of obstacles, as the chairman died in March 1933, one committee member resigned from the Senate, and a shift in party control of the Senate from Republicans to Democrats caused a reorganization of the committee. This change did not help Long, however, because the new chairman, Democrat Tom Connally of Texas, who had chaired the subcommittee through many of the hearings, disliked Huey Long and found Louisiana politics distasteful.
In the course of the hearings, the Long lieutenants who had directed Overton's campaign testified that they had kept no record of either contributions or expenditures, had dealt entirely in cash using no bank accounts, and had no idea how much money had been spent on the primary race. None of this was illegal, for Louisiana had no law limiting or requiring reports of campaign expenditures. While Long's opponents continued to raise charges of corruption, the committee members chided them for producing little hard evidence related to fraud in Overton's primary. The proceedings became increasingly rowdy as the anti-Long forces decided the committee was not seriously pursuing the investigation and turned their efforts to disruption, with shouted harangues and crowds of noisy onlookers at the public hearings.
On January 16, 1934, an exhausted and frustrated special committee reported that, in a "maelstrom of political passion and bitter factional controversy," it had great difficulty unraveling the truth about the events surrounding the 1932 primary. In the course of its lengthy Louisiana investigation, the committee had spent the entire $25,000 allocated to it for examining Senate campaign expenditures in the whole country. Decrying "the deplorable and distressing political conditions" in Louisiana, the committee concluded that Huey Long's organization "in 1932 absolutely dominated the politics of the state" and that Long had used state government employees in the Overton campaign. The committee also deplored the Long organization's "practice of coercing officeholders to contribute to political campaigns." On the other hand, any fraud that occurred had not affected the outcome of the election and there was no indication that Overton himself had been aware of any such fraud.
The committee did express concern about Broussard's charge that Long's operation was able to influence the selection of election commissioners in the precincts by recruiting "dummy candidates" to file for election to local offices. Long's organization paid the filing fees for these candidates, who had no actual intention of running. Since election commissioners were chosen by lot and every local candidate (but not candidates for statewide office) could submit a name for the pool from which the five commissioners for a precinct would be drawn, the committee noted that the use of dummies by one Senate candidate could place so many friendly names in the pool that all the commissioners chosen in a precinct could well turn out to be supporters of that candidate. In New Orleans, for example, there were more than 1,000 Overton commissioners compared to only 60 for Broussard. The committee strongly condemned the use of dummies, which it said had affected about a third of the precincts in the state, because, even though such a situation was not in itself proof of fraud, it provided the opportunity for fraud. The committee, however, found no evidence that John Overton was personally aware of the use of dummies.
Since no contested election was involved, the committee merely submitted its findings without recommendations. Overton therefore promptly declared that he was absolved of any wrongdoing, and Huey Long introduced a resolution demanding an investigation into the sources of the "libel" and "propaganda" used against him. The Senate referred this resolution to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, which took no action on the matter. Long also took the floor on January 30 to defend the practices of Louisiana and his organization, including the use of dummy candidates, which he asserted was common in other states as well.
Meanwhile, the Senate struggled with a continuing stream of petitions from Louisiana citizens calling for Long's expulsion because of irregularities in his 1930 election. In April 1933 Long, upset because the newspapers had published many of the allegations, asked that the Senate refer these papers and petitions to the Judiciary Committee in order to resolve the legal question whether they were privileged from actions for libel and whether they should have been received by the Senate. The committee eventually reported in March 1934 that the petitions were "scurrilous and defamatory . . . and fail to give any detail or facts . . . such as to justify action on the part of the Senate." The committee added that, if the Senate had realized their vague nature, it should probably never have agreed to receive these petitions, but once they had been received they were "clothed with a limited privilege."
Privileges and Elections Committee
In January 1934 the Senate also referred the multitude of petitions seeking the expulsion of both Long and Overton to the Committee on Privileges and Elections to consider the substantive issues raised. After the ruling by the Judiciary Committee, Privileges and Elections held yet another series of public hearings in May 1934. On June 16, 1934, that committee, too, concluded that the evidence did not warrant further Senate action, and the Senate agreed on a voice vote. Huey Long and John Overton thus retained their seats.
Throughout 1934 and 1935, Huey Long moved aggressively into national politics and became an increasingly vehement anti-Roosevelt spokesman. He served in the Senate until his death at the hands of an assassin in the Louisiana state capitol in 1935. John Overton remained in the Senate until his death in 1948.
Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 351-354.