Wednesday, April 30, 2014

History Lesson: The Sharpstown scandal of 1971

“As a partridge that broods but does not hatch,
So is he who gets riches, but not by right;
It will leave him in the midst of his days,
And at his end he will be a fool.”
Jeremiah 17:11

With the Wallace Hall impeachment fiasco falling to new depths of lunacy, it's worth revisiting another scandal that shook Texas government to the core in the early 1970's:
SHARPSTOWN STOCK-FRAUD SCANDAL. Texas went through one of its traditional and periodic governmental scandals in 1971–72, when federal accusations and then a series of state charges were leveled against nearly two dozen state officials and former state officials. Before normalcy returned, Texas politics had taken a slight shift to the left and had undergone a thorough housecleaning: the incumbent governor was labeled an unindicted coconspirator in a bribery case and lost his bid for reelection; the incumbent speaker of the House of Representatives and two associates were convicted felons; a popular three-term attorney general lost his job; an aggressive lieutenant governor's career was shattered; and half of the legislature was either intimidated out or voted out of office. The scandal centered, initially, on charges that state officials had made profitable quick-turnover bank-financed stock purchases in return for the passage of legislation desired by the financier, Houston businessman Frank W. Sharp. By the time the stock fraud scandal died down, state officials also had been charged with numerous other offenses-including nepotism and use of state-owned stamps to buy a pickup truck.


The political tumult that was to become known as the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal started out meekly, though symbolically, on the day Texas Democrats were gathering in Austin to celebrate their 1970 election victories and inaugurate their top officials. Attorneys for the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, late in the afternoon of January 18, 1971, filed a lawsuit in Dallas federal court alleging stock fraud against former Democratic state attorney general Waggoner Carr, former state insurance commissioner John Osorio, Frank Sharp, and a number of other defendants. The civil suit also was filed against Sharp's corporations, including the Sharpstown State Bank and National Bankers Life Insurance Corporation. But it was deep down in the supporting material of the suit that the SEC lawyers hid the political bombshells. There it was alleged that Governor Preston Smith, state Democratic chairman and state banking board member Elmer Baum, House Speaker Gus Mutscher, Jr., Representative Tommy Shannon of Fort Worth, Rush McGinty (an aide to Mutscher), and others-none of them charged in the SEC's suit-had, in effect, been bribed. The plot, according to the SEC, was hatched by Sharp himself, who wanted passage of new state bank deposit insurance legislation that would benefit his own financial empire. The SEC said the scheme was for Sharp to grant more than $600,000 in loans from Sharpstown State Bank to the state officials, with the money then used to buy National Bankers Life stock, which would later be resold at huge profits as Sharp artificially inflated the value of his insurance company's stock. The quarter-of-a-million-dollar profits were, in fact, made. But they weren't arranged by Sharp, the SEC said, until after Governor Smith made it possible for Sharp's bank bills to be considered at a special legislative session in September 1969, and Mutscher and Shannon then hurriedly pushed the bills through the legislature. (Smith later vetoed the bills on the advice of the state's top bank law experts, but not until he and Baum had made their profits on the bank loan-stock purchase deal.)


The conviction of the Abilene Three dramatically advanced the momentum of the "reform" movement, coming less than three months before primary elections, at which more legislative seats were contested than in any year since World War II. (Redistricting decisions by the federal courts added to the high percentage of electoral challenges, but the Sharpstown scandal generally was credited as the main factor.) In statewide races "reform" candidates also dominated. The Democratic governor's race saw two newcomers-liberal legislator Frances (Sissy) Farenthold of Corpus Christi and conservative rancher-banker Dolph Briscoe of Uvalde-run far ahead of Governor Smith, who was seeking a third term as governor, and Lieutenant Governor Barnes, whose seemingly inexorable rise to political prominence was ended when his reputation was tainted by the scandal. Briscoe defeated Farenthold in the runoff and later was elected governor; but Republican candidate Henry Grover of Houston and Raza Unida Party candidate Ramsey Muñiz of Waco drew enough votes to make Briscoe Texas's first "minority" governor. For the state's second top executive branch job, voters chose moderate Houston newspaper executive William P. Hobby, Jr., over seven other Democratic candidates as lieutenant governor-also on a "reform" theme. Reform-minded moderate Democrat John Luke Hill of Houston, a former secretary of state, left a successful private law practice to defeat the popular three-term attorney general, Crawford C. Martin, who had been criticized for his handling of the stock fraud scandal and for his own relationship with Frank Sharp. The Democratic primary and the general election of 1972 also produced a striking change in the legislature's membership, including a half-new House roster and a higher-than-normal turnover in the Senate. Most of the newcomers were committed to "reform" in some fashion, regardless of their ideological persuasion.
 Read the whole thing here; read an old Houston Chronicle report here; read the Wikipedia entry here.

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