In 1912, New Mexico is admitted to the union and its first two senators are Republicans Thomas B. Catron and Albert Bacon Fall (1861-1944). Both men had been staunch advocates of statehood, with Catron advocating early for it and Fall playing a major role in drafting New Mexico’s first constitution. Although Catron was quite the figure in New Mexico’s history, Fall made a greater mark nationally.
The Early Years
Fall started his political career as a Democrat, and in 1888 he ran for the New Mexico Territorial Legislature, losing by less than fifty votes. The following year, he had his first success, winning the race for Irrigation Commissioner of Dona Ana County, and in 1891 he won a seat in the legislature in a rematch. Two years later, he was appointed Associate Judge of the Third District Court of New Mexico Territory. However, his time there was cut short. In a possible early indication of future behavior, he was accused of deliberately miscounting election returns to favor the Democratic candidate.
Fall, either out of opportunism or finding that he agreed more with the Republican Party, switched in 1904. He aligned himself with Thomas B. Catron, a powerful leader in the Santa Fe Ring of land speculators, who used means fair and foul to acquire and profit off valuable land in the territory. Catron and Fall were strong supporters of the private sector developing land. Fall was, however, also considerably less conservative than the ultra-conservative Catron. In 1916, Catron lost renomination to Frank A. Hubbell, who lost the election to Democrat Andrieus Jones. That year, Fall supported the American invasion of Mexico in retaliation for Pancho Villa’s raid of Columbus, New Mexico, which had resulted in the killing of eight soldiers and ten civilians. He would also support wartime restrictions on speech, voting against the France Amendment to the Sedition Act protecting telling the truth with good motives and intentions. In 1918, he faced a strong challenge from Democratic Congressman William Walton, and he ran a lackluster campaign, not even delivering a single campaign speech, but was able to narrowly win reelection in part due to sympathy as the influenza pandemic took two of his children. Fall despised President Wilson, but after his stroke, he visited him, during which he said to him, “I hope you will consider me sincere – I have been praying for you sir”, to which Wilson reportedly responded, “Which way, Senator?” (Stratton, 172)
After his reelection, Fall became one of the sixteen members of the Senate to oppose the Versailles Treaty in any form. This intransigent group succeeded in sinking both President Wilson’s version with no reservations and Senator Lodge’s version with strong reservations. Fall supported both the 18th (Prohibition) and 19th (women’s suffrage) Amendments. On the MC-Index, he scores a 72%, indicating moderate conservatism. Fall also was popular among his fellow senators, including Warren G. Harding of Ohio.
As Interior Secretary, it was Fall’s policy to subject public lands for private use for resource extraction, and this would be the source of his fall. He attempted to gain control of the Forest Service from the Department of Agriculture, but Secretary Henry C. Wallace thwarted him. In May 1921, Fall persuaded Navy Secretary Edwin Denby to transfer the Teapot Dome oil reserve and the Elk Hills and Buena Vista oil fields in Kern County, California, to the Interior Department, and President Harding agreed, signing Executive Order 3474 to that effect (Levin Center). After this, Fall’s standard of living went up markedly, purchasing $120,000 more in land on a $12,000 government salary. He had also suddenly paid all the taxes on his run-down ranch that had been overdue for ten years (Rapp). In 1922, Fall leased the oil field in Elk Hills, California to Edward L. Doheny’s Pan American Petroleum & Transport Company and the Teapot Dome Field in Wyoming to Harry F. Sinclair’s Sinclair Consolidated Oil Corporation. This sudden change and the timing of these oil leases did not escape notice.
The Investigation Begins
In April 1922, Wyoming’s Democratic Senator John B. Kendrick received a letter protesting the uncompetitive bidding from a Wyoming oilman, and he responded by introducing a resolution for an investigation on April 13th. This investigation was set up the legendary progressive Republican Senator Robert La Follette (R-Wis.), who at first thought that Fall was not guilty. His mind changed after his Senate office was ransacked, but the Republican leadership assigned the task to Senator Thomas J. Walsh (D-Mont.), the lowest ranking member of the committee, in the belief this investigation would not bear fruit.
Indeed, Walsh initially had difficulty finding proof of wrongdoing on Fall’s part. President Harding died on August 2, 1923 believing that this investigation would turn up nothing. The first witness called to hearings was Fall himself on October 24th, and he defended the transfers, holding that they were necessary to prepare the United States for the possibility of war with Japan (Levin Center). Then Edwin Denby testified, reaffirming Fall’s account. Next up was Edward McLean, owner of the Washington Post, who stated that he had loaned Fall $100,000 but this check had been returned, with Fall confirming the account (Levin Center). The next witness, however, was oilman Edward L. Doheny, and his testimony would blow up the whole matter.
It turned out that in November 1921, Fall was given a $100,000 (approximately $1.52 million today) no interest loan from Doheny, to which the latter claimed was completely unrelated to the Elk Hills lease. On January 26, 1924, Walsh proposed a resolution to request President Coolidge to cancel the leases. Coolidge responded with forming a special counsel to investigate, and for these purposes he selected prominent Republican attorney Owen Roberts of Philadelphia and former Democratic Senator Atlee Pomerene of Ohio.
These investigations revealed that not only was Doheny’s loan a bribe, it turns out that Sinclair had gifted Fall $304,000 worth of valuables in the forms of government bonds, cash, and livestock, totaling the equivalent of over $6 million in today’s currency. In return, Doheny and Sinclair got the leases at a discount and with no competitive bidding. The granting of the lease without competitive bidding itself was legal but the bribes, of course, were not.
In 1927, the Supreme Court unanimously ordered the leases voided for fraud and corruption, costing Doheny and Sinclair millions in 1927 dollars. On October 25, 1929, Fall was convicted of accepting bribes from Doheny and Sinclair. He would be sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of $100,000, which he never paid. Oddly enough, Doheny would be twice acquitted while Sinclair would be convicted not of bribery, rather of jury tampering, for which he would be sentenced to six months imprisonment. Fall, who had the dishonorable distinction of being the first cabinet officer convicted of a felony, would continue to insist on his innocence right up to his death in 1944.
Albert B. Fall. Ohio History Central.
Fall, Albert (1861-1944). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.
Portraits in Oversight: Thomas Walsh and the Teapot Dome Investigation. Levin Center.
Rapp, D. Before Watergate, There Was the Teapot Dome Scandal. American Heritage.
Roberts, C.M. (1977, June 9). Uncovering a Coverup on Teapot Dome. Washington Post.
Senate Investigates the “Teapot Dome” Scandal. United States Senate.
Stratton, D.H. (1998). Tempest over Teapot Dome. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.