Personal use of campaign funds; standards of conduct for senators.
The Thomas J. Dodd (Democrat-CT) censure case represents the first modern-era Senate ethics case. Its conduct reflected a growing impetus for reform in the wake of other congressional scandals of the post-World War II era, particularly the Bobby Baker scandal of the 1960s.
Bobby Baker was a senior Senate aide accused of personally profiting from his public position. The Senate Rules and Administration Committee's investigation of his case produced an extraordinary level of partisan rancor. In response to the Baker investigation, the Senate in 1964 established the bipartisan Select Committee on Standards and Conduct but rejected a proposal providing for routine disclosure of members' income. The committee was charged with developing a Senate code of ethics but set this work aside to pursue its investigation of Dodd.
Statement of the Case
Journalists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson published a series of syndicated newspaper columns in January 1966 describing Thomas Dodd's association with Julius Klein, a public relations consultant for several West German clients. Additional articles appeared detailing alleged fundraising improprieties and other financial wrongdoing by the senator.
In the authorizing resolution creating the select committee, the Senate outlined only a set of mandated tasks, allowing the new committee to design its specific procedures. Well aware of the precedent-setting nature of its work, the committee carefully reviewed its authority to conduct investigations of misconduct and in April 1966 retained former Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Whittaker as consulting counsel. Because there were no procedures for misconduct proceedings, the committee began by adopting rules prior to its first hearings.
The committee divided its work into two parts. Part One addressed Dodd's relationship with Julius Klein, and Part Two investigated such allegations of financial misconduct as the conversion of campaign funds to personal use. The second part of the investigation, which the committee considered more serious, ultimately resulted in the recommendation for censure. Separate hearings were held for each part, although the committee issued only one report.
Investigation: Part One
On February 2, 1966, the committee's staff began looking into the revelations about the senator's relationship with publicist Julius Klein that were made in the first Pearson and Anderson articles. On February 23, 1966, after the staff prepared a preliminary report, Thomas Dodd requested a full inquiry by the committee. In late June 1966 the committee held both public and closed hearings.
The committee did not issue a report at the time but included its report on part one of the investigation in the final report filed on April 27, 1967. In that report, the committee noted that, after Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings in 1963 had criticized Julius Klein's activities, he had lost some of his West German clients. Klein then pressed Dodd, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, to travel to West Germany and meet with officials there on his behalf. Dodd did indeed go to West Germany in April 1964, ostensibly on Senate Judiciary Committee business, but it appeared that his purpose was influenced by Klein's requests. The committee did not pursue its concern that the senator had directly intervened with the West German government because it had difficulty in obtaining evidence from a sovereign foreign government. Although the committee failed to find enough evidence of wrongdoing to warrant further Senate action, it noted that Dodd's behavior towards Klein was "indiscreet" and "beyond the responsibilities of a Senator to any citizen." Although the committee heard allegations that Dodd had received a number of favors from Klein, the only firm evidence indicated that Dodd had repeatedly used the lobbyist's suite in the Essex House hotel in Manhattan.
Investigation: Part Two
While the committee was investigating the senator's relationship with publicist Klein, additional newspaper coverage raised questions about his political and official financial ties to contributors and businessmen. In response to these articles, the committee formally began an investigation in April 1966, which uncovered additional evidence. The committee then requested a complete financial report from Thomas Dodd. When Dodd refused, the committee advised him on June 15, 1966, that it would hold public hearings. Because of several legal challenges brought by the senator's attorney, as well as the need to reassemble complex, detailed financial data, the hearings were not held until mid-March 1967.
Thomas Dodd's legal challenges to the committee's Part Two inquiry began almost immediately. His attorneys argued that the committee had no jurisdiction over the senator's finances and that these financial matters were essentially tax related. The committee responded that it had a responsibility to examine the ethical implications of his conduct. Later challenges claimed that the hearings would prejudice future determinations by the Internal Revenue Service, which was conducting an investigation of income Dodd had derived from political events. The senator's attorneys formally raised these arguments several times, and eventually the committee granted a special hearing for Dodd's lawyers. When hearings on the full case were completed, the committee met a final time on the issue of jurisdiction and determined that the evidence "related directly to Senator Dodd's conduct as a sitting Senator and was within the jurisdiction of the Committee." On three separate occasions, the committee formally ruled that it had jurisdiction.
A major problem arose concerning the nature of the committee's initial evidence. The revelations that appeared in the Pearson and Anderson articles were based on approximately 4,000 documents that staff members had stolen from Dodd's office. To maintain the integrity of the case, the committee decided to use none of these documents but instead painstakingly reassembled back records and other materials.
The committee's final report, issued on April 27, 1967, concluded that Dodd and his staff had organized seven fundraising events between 1961 and 1965. These events were represented to the public as testimonials or campaign fundraisers, but Dodd had used a significant portion of the monies raised for his own benefit. Dodd contended that the contributors knew the purpose of these occasions was to raise money for his personal expenses, and he obtained 400 affidavits stating that the donations were gifts rather than political contributions. The select committee considered the affidavits but did not accept them as testimony, because the events' invitations and press coverage demonstrated that they had been represented to the public as political fundraisers or testimonials. The committee members believed that, since the senator and his staff were directly involved in planning these events, he must have been aware that they were essentially political. Contributions received totaled at least $203,983. In addition, Dodd received at least $246,290 in support of his 1964 campaign, for a combined total of $450,273. Of this amount, according to the committee report, Dodd had used $116,083 for personal purposes, such as income taxes, home improvements, and payments to family members. He also received $8,000 in cash from the International Latex Corporation, allegedly in exchange for an ambassadorship.
The funds raised from one of the events had been placed in Thomas Dodd's personal bank account and used to pay his personal expenses. The proceeds of the other gatherings were deposited in a "testimonial for Senator Dodd" account and comingled with campaign contributions. Nearly $95,000 was later transferred from this account to Dodd's personal bank account and used for personal purposes. The remaining money in the testimonial account was used by Dodd for both personal and political expenses, according to the committee's findings.
The committee also determined that on seven occasions Dodd had accepted reimbursement for the same travel from both the Senate and private groups. In addition, he had accepted gifts of automobiles that he used for both political and personal travel between 1964 and 1965.
In conclusion, the committee declared that the senator had used the power of his office to raise campaign funds and that he spent a portion of these funds, as well as money from the 1964 campaign, for personal purposes. Also, he had accepted double reimbursement. It was on these grounds that the select committee recommended censuring Dodd. The committee also referred its findings on some of the improprieties to the U.S. attorney general as possible violations of law.
Response of the Senate
The full Senate began discussing the Dodd censure resolution on June 13, 1967, and the issue dominated Senate business until the final vote on June 23. The committee had proved that a bipartisan group could conduct a dignified investigation, but the floor debate at times degenerated into a turbulent display of anger and frustration. Senators discussed in great detail the fundamental concepts of the emerging reforms in governmental ethics, such as the need for written standards of behavior and standards for evaluating evidence, as well as the nature of the process used to investigate and discipline members. Since Thomas Dodd's lawyers were not permitted to speak on the Senate floor, Russell B. Long (Democrat-LA) assumed the role of Dodd's chief advocate. He and Dodd presented evidence in the form of charts, documents, and briefs. Select Committee Chairman John C. Stennis (Democrat-MS) struggled valiantly to restrict the debate to the committee's work and the draft resolution. He cogently identified the real issue, "If we pass up this matter, then sometime, somewhere, in some way, something big will slip out of this Chamber, and a lesser standard or lesser role or lesser conduct will have to be accepted."
The lack of formal standards for senatorial behavior caused difficulty in the Dodd case. At that time, there was not yet a federal ethics law, and the key legislation regulating campaign financing was the 1925 Corrupt Practices Act. The committee was therefore in the awkward position of first articulating a set of standards and then evaluating Dodd's past actions against them. Dodd argued that this approach subjected him to ex post facto justice and that the committee's procedures had denied him due process. Nevertheless, a consensus emerged that, while Thomas Dodd's conversion of campaign funds to personal use did not break any laws, the Senate had to decide whether this activity should be condoned. Stephen M. Young (Democrat-OH) transcended these arguments over standards with a simple clarity: "In my considered judgment, honesty is easy to define. Surely, it is not difficult to define. Neither is dishonesty difficult to define."
The debate reflected a lack of agreement about the nature of the censure process. In defending Dodd, Russell Long argued that the senators were being asked to function as prosecutors. Others, like committee member Eugene J. McCarthy (Democrat-MN), stated that the Senate was simply applying certain broad standards of conduct. Others raised the question that, if the Senate was conducting a judicial trial proceeding, then what type of standard should be applied to the evidence, criminal or civil?
By the second week of the debate, tempers were short, Thomas Dodd felt shaken and exhausted, and the press coverage had become increasingly negative. The Senate was aware that the nation was watching and, in Norris H. Cotton's (Republican-NH) words, "entitled to some affirmative action." As the debate inched towards closure, senators began raising concerns about the use of the word "censure" in the resolution. Eugene McCarthy said that the dictionary contained seven or eight definitions among which members should choose. Long offered an alternative resolution that essentially eviscerated the censure motion, which the Senate rejected by a vote of 92 to 2. John Tower (Republican-TX) proposed the term "reprimand," but John Stennis stood firm, pointing out that the word "censure" had been used in all previous Senate cases. "The facts are all in," he declared. "The case is known. And anything short of the word ‘censure’ will not meet the situation."
Stating that he did not wish to embarrass his colleagues, Dodd requested and obtained permission to be absent during the vote. Allen J. Ellender (Democrat) of Louisiana, unconvinced that an adequate case had been made against Dodd on the charge of double-billing for travel expenses, moved to delete that point from the resolution. The Ellender amendment passed by a roll call vote of 51 to 45. Immediately afterward, the Senate voted 92 to 5 to adopt the revised resolution censuring Thomas Dodd for converting campaign funds to personal use. The resolution stated that Dodd had used his office as a United States senator "to obtain and use for his personal benefit, funds from the public through political testimonials and a political campaign." It further stated that this conduct was "contrary to accepted morals, derogates from the public trust expected of a Senator, and tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute." In the final minutes of the session, Thomas Dodd rose and stated, "I believe now, I shall continue to believe, that history will justify my conduct and my character."
In handling its first censure case, the newly created Select Committee on Standards and Conduct demonstrated an awareness of the precedent-setting nature of its work and sought to operate in a nonpartisan manner in order to ensure a fair hearing based on federal judicial procedure. In a substantial change from the previous practice in which the full Senate had referred allegations of corruption to a committee, the Standards and Conduct Committee had the power to initiate its own inquiries without referral by the Senate.
When the Democratic Party denied Thomas Dodd the nomination for a third term in 1970, he left the party and ran as an Independent, seeking vindication from the voters of Connecticut. The voters did not comply, and Dodd finished third in the race that elected Republican Lowell P. Weicker to the Senate. Less than a year later, Dodd died suddenly from a heart attack. Newspaper obituaries mentioned the impact of the Senate censure vote on his career while noting that both throughout the proceedings and until his death the senator had steadfastly claimed that he was innocent.
The Senate's censure of Thomas Dodd was only the seventh time in almost 200 years that the body had censured one of its members. It was the first such case that focused solely on a senator's finances, reflecting changing mores within both society and the Senate. Media attention devoted to the Dodd case led the public to demand more accountability from its elected officials. For the Senate, the case demonstrated the need to adopt formal rules of conduct and to enforce its standards of behavior. In 1968, prompted by concerns over ethical problems, the Senate adopted four new rules of ethical conduct, including a form of financial disclosure. The 1970s would bring additional significant reforms.
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.