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The Election Case of William A. Clark of Montana (1900)

Image of William Clark

Electoral misconduct: bribery.

Petition received: Dec. 4, 1899
Referred to committee: Dec. 4, 1899
Committee report: April 23, 1900
No Senate action.

Result: Clark resigned but later was again elected.

In 1890 Montana copper mining czar William A. Clark failed in his first effort to become a United States senator. Undaunted, Clark continued to devote the full measure of his extensive economic and political power to achieving that goal. Enormous sums of money changed hands in Montana as Clark and his chief rival, Anaconda Company copper magnate Marcus Daly, sought to influence the economic structure of the state, the location of the capital, the direction of Democratic politics, and the selection of a United States senator. The blatant business and political competition between the Clark and Daly factions was but a continuation of the turmoil that had marred Montana politics since the organization of the state government in 1889.

Statement of the Case
Nine years after his initial disappointment in 1890, William Clark won the Senate seat he so avidly desired, presenting his credentials on December 4, 1899. The Senate admitted him immediately, although on the same day his opponents filed a petition charging that Clark had secured his election through bribery. The memorial asserted that Clark had spent far more on his election than the $2,000 permitted by an 1895 Montana law aimed at controlling political corruption. The Senate referred the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, which quickly asked for and received authorization to conduct a full investigation into Clark's election.

Response of the Senate
On April 23, 1900, after hearing extensive testimony from ninety-six witnesses, the committee returned a report unanimously concluding that William Clark was not entitled to his seat. The testimony detailed a dazzling list of bribes ranging from $240 to $100,000. In a high-pressure, well-organized scheme coordinated by Clark's son, Clark's agents had paid mortgages, purchased ranches, paid debts, financed banks, and blatantly presented envelopes of cash to legislators. In addition, the winning margin in Clark's election had been secured by the votes of eleven Republican legislators under suspicious circumstances. Clark did not enhance his position when he admitted that he had destroyed all his personal checks that dealt with campaign transactions. The committee cited a number of previous bribery cases, especially that of Samuel C. Pomeroy and Alexander Caldwell in 1872-1873, as precedents for declaring an election void if bribery on behalf of the winner could be proved even if no proof was found that the candidate knew of the actions. The report also noted the precedent from the Pomeroy case that, if the winner "clearly participated in any one act of bribery or attempted bribery, he should be deprived of his office," even if "the result of the election was not thereby changed." While concurring in the committee's conclusion, two members tried to reduce the impact of the anti-Clark testimony by pointing to the unlimited sums that his rival, Marcus Daly, had invested in an effort to block Clark's election. That observation, however, did little more than confirm the way in which corruption totally pervaded Montana politics without exonerating Clark.

On May 15, 1900, as the Senate prepared to vote on Clark's right to retain his seat, the beleaguered senator rose to speak. Predictably, Clark complained about the procedures of the committee, the admissions and omissions of evidence, and the machinations of Marcus Daly. He contended that the Senate had lost sight of the principle of presumption of innocence and concluded that the committee had not shown that bribery sufficient to alter the election results had occurred. At the conclusion of his remarks, Clark, clearly aware that he did not have the necessary votes to keep his seat, resigned.

This did not conclude the Montana case, for on May 15 the acting governor of Montana immediately appointed Clark to fill the Senate vacancy. When the governor learned of this action on his return to the state three days later, he telegraphed the Senate that Martin Maginnis would fill the Clark vacancy. Credentials for both Clark and Maginnis were presented to the Senate, which ordered them to lie on the table.

In January 1901 a newly elected Montana legislature—in which most of the winning candidates had received financial support from William Clark—elected him to the Senate for the same term he had filled earlier. Marcus Daly had died in November 1900, and this time no charges of corruption were raised. On March 4, 1901, Clark appeared and was seated without objection.

In this case, the Privileges and Elections Committee stressed that the Senate had a duty to itself and to the country to demonstrate by its action that senators cannot retain seats procured by corruption. It also saw an equal duty to Montana because the state had adopted the 1895 law in an effort to end corruption in its elections.

William Clark, having finally achieved his great ambition, served one term as United States senator. He retired from the Senate in 1907 and returned to his far-flung business ventures. While remaining notorious for the corruption of his 1899 election, Clark continued to add to his vast fortune. He died in 1925.

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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