Thursday, December 11, 2008

In the old days, buying a Senate seat was not unusual

By David G. Savage

Reporting from Washington -- Reforms to end the buying of Senate seats by giving governors the power to fill vacant posts set the stage for the scandal involving Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

The reforms nearly a century ago were sparked by another Illinois scandal and led to a change in the U.S. Constitution.

The "blond boss" of Chicago, William Lorimer, was ousted from the Senate in 1912 after it was found that bribes had been paid to Illinois state legislators to get him the seat.

In the late 19th century, it was commonly said that wealthy men could buy a seat in the Senate by spreading money among the state legislators, who, under the nation's Constitution, had the task of choosing U.S. senators. The idea had been that elected lawmakers, rather than ordinary people, could be trusted to make a wise selection.

The Chicago case played a prominent role in the nation's decision to amend the Constitution and allow the state's voters to elect their senators. It was a solution that seems to have worked for 95 years.

Lorimer, an immigrant from England and a dapper and popular politician, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1895 when he was 33. In 1909, after a long deadlock in the Illinois Legislature, Lorimer was chosen to represent the state in the U.S. Senate.

But a year later, the Chicago Tribune reported on allegations that bribes had been paid to secure Lorimer's seat, including an admission by a state assemblyman that he had received $1,000.

Lorimer vehemently denied the charges and called for a Senate investigation. He was cleared, but a year later the Progressive Movement picked up the cause and the Senate reversed itself. Lorimer was ousted from the Senate by a 55-28 vote.

"The Lorimer case was the poster child for what was wrong with the old system," Donald Ritchie, a Senate historian, said Tuesday. "The senators were bombarded with newspaper editorials, and the feeling at the time was the best solution was to turn this over to the people."

This sentiment had been building for decades. Between 1866 and 1906, six bribery cases were brought before the Senate.

In the Western states, miners who achieved instant wealth sometimes aspired to higher office. In 1899, two rival mining company owners -- W.G. Conrad and William Clark --paid more than $1 million in bribes in hopes of obtaining a U.S. Senate seat representing Montana, according to Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University.

The contest lasted through 17 ballots before a winner could be decided, and the two candidates had to pay up before each day's ballot to prevent their supporters from switching sides, she said.

Clark eventually won, but the U.S. Senate refused to seat him and the spot was vacant for two years.

Lorimer, however, was the last senator removed for corruption involving a state legislature. In 1913, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, saying that the two senators from each state shall "be elected by the people."

This power-to-the-people amendment was a triumph for the Progressives, but its second clause said, "When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies."

Since then, governors have filled Senate seats "when vacancies happen" by making appointments or by calling for special elections. Legal experts said Tuesday that they were not aware of previous allegations that governors had sought bribes in exchange for such an appointment.

"We are not aware of anything that resembles this," Ritchie said.

In recent decades, there have been occasional allegations that money and promised favors may have prompted some candidates for the Senate to drop out of the race. In 1986, Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Calif.) and an aide were accused of trying to lure state Sen. Ed Davis to drop his bid for the Senate by offering to help pay off his campaign debts. Those charges were dismissed before the matter went to trial.

A Boston College expert who studies public corruption said it is not unusual for public officials to choose friends or associates when making appointments. "We expect our public officials to appoint people who are close to them. We expect people to give them campaign contributions," said George Brown, a law professor. "It is normally a gray area.

"The two things that are unusual about this case," he said, referring to Blagojevich, "are one, the high level of the official, and two, the apparent brazenness and openness of the alleged incident."

Schiller of Brown University recalled the Montana mining operator who paid lavish bribes to win a Senate seat. "If William Clark woke this morning and saw the newspaper, he would have said, 'Of course, that's how it works'," she said.

David Savage is a writer in our Washington bureau.

Contributing to this article were Laura E. Olson and Cynthia Dizikes, reporting from Washington.

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