“We have the greatest opportunity the world has ever seen, as long as we remain honest -- which will be as long as we can keep the attention of our people alive. If they once become inattentive to public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors would all become wolves.”
I know few things with certainty, but first among the truths I do know is that greed makes you stupid. And as Oklahoma's path reached the middle of the twentieth century, the ruling class had become so insatiable and idiotic they used the “dangerous cliff” warning signs as a ramp to get more altitude. And as they gained height, their lies even took flight.. Some would even believe that all would have been well if the old man had just not gotten sick. Except - old men always get sick. And if the judges hadn't been so venal – but venality rarely recognizes limitations. And if the prosecutors just hadn't pursued the old man so diligently - but there is a Javert driving the soul of every prosecutor in the world. It is their nature.
But the first fault belongs to the citizens of Oklahoma, who treated their public servants with suspicion and disrespect. Law makers in the state legislature met only once every other year, and received a stipend of only $15 a day while in session. And to discourage them from being too dutiful, that generous endowment expired after 75 days, when it was reduced to a mere $3 a day. It was a Tea Party small-government paradise, in which even the veteran justices of the state Supreme Court did not receive a pension. And at least one state employee, Nelson Smith Corn, starting thinking about his retirement at the age of fifty, just when he was elected to the Oklahoma State Supreme Court.
Nelson Corn had been born on March 25, 1884 in tiny Tahlequah, Oklahoma, which was also capital of the Cherokee Nation. He became a lawyer, married at twenty, and began raising three sons and one daughter. And beginning in 1931, the Great Depression had squeezed his hard-fought for middle class world between a collapsed economy and a decade of unrelenting drought. Over the next decade half a million Okies abandoned the Dust Bowl state. So the 50 year old was receptive in 1934, when, almost immediately after taking his oath as a justice of the State Supreme Court, he was approached by senior Justice Otto “O.A.” Cargill, one time mayor of Oklahoma City, a Baptist deacon and a religious author, with a way to hold onto at least the veneer of his pride.
The deal Justice Cargill offered seemed almost too good to be true for a poorly paid Justice. In return for voting as the “sixth man” (meaning, not the deciding vote) on any cases as requested, Nelson Corn would receive a small weekly stipend and during election years, campaign funds. And for the next 23 years, week after week, and bribe after bribe, Justice Nelson Corn took the money, eventually even dropping the requirement that his vote not be the deciding one. It was part of a system of graft which permeated every political fiber in Oklahoma.
Corn disguised his bribes by using the cash to buy cashiers checks, which he then left in a safety deposit box until he needed the money to make home repairs or pay for his childrens' education. Like the crooked politicians who played the same game in the legislature, Justice Corn was a most pedestrian criminal, except he and his fellow conspirators were the arbitrators of justices in the state of Oklahoma. And eventually it was inevitable that a man like Nelson Corn would encounter a real crook like Hugh Carroll.
Carroll had been president of the Security National Bank of Norman, Oklahoma in December of 1930, when he formed Selected Investments Corporation and its sister trust fund. He and his wife Julia,owned 85% of the stock in both. By 1950 Selected was a successful investment company and had investor assets of almost $29 million. But in reality, Hugh Carroll had used the corporation as a personal piggy bank, with inflated salaries to himself, family and friends, and excessive bonuses, and loans that were never paid back. In 1956 this financial house of cards was threatened when the Oklahoma Tax Commission ruled that Selected owed almost $500,000 in back taxes because the trust fund, set up to be tax exempt, did not meet the requirements. A district court had agreed, and Selected had appealed, which is how the case ended up on the docket of the State Supreme Court, and how Carroll came to have a conversation with his old friend, Justice Corn
Carroll told his friend that if the the ruling stood the firm would go bankrupt. Justice Corn asked how much it was worth to avoid that, and Carroll offered $150,000. Corn then offered fellow Justices Napoleon "Nap" Bonaparte Johnson and Earl Welch $7,500 apiece for deciding the case in Selected's favor. They both agreed. The godfather of the system, Justice Cargill, received $2,500 for his part. On March 2, 1957, the day before the court's decision was to be announced, Justice Corn drove to Carroll's office. “He got in my car and put $25, 000 in my glove compartment,” Corn said. “I drove around a block or two and then let him out.” Corn then went to Johnson's office and gave him his cut, asking him to count it. “He counted it out. That's all there was to it. I stood there while he counted it.” Corn repeated this with Justice Welch, and Cargill. The next day, by a vote of 6 to 3, the Supreme Court overturned the district court, and Selected continued defrauding its investors. Ten days later Carroll delivered the remaining $125,000 to Justice Corn. And the deal was done.
Having come so close to capture, it was Carroll's nature to be emboldened to expand his schemes, and just a year later, and in spectacular fashion, both Selected Investments and Selected Trust Company collapsed under $40 million in debts, and sought the protections of chapter ten bankruptcy. Justice Corn felt so sorry for Carroll, that he returned $35,000 of his bribe. But the bankruptcy court found “gross misconduct...for the personal benefit of Carroll and other Selected Officers.” In March of 1959 the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission convicted Hugh Carroll of obtaining money under false pretenses. And once the prosecutors smelled blood in the water, they followed it, slowly and methodically, until, in the early spring of 1964 they indicted Hugh Carroll and his wife, their son-in-law and Selected's chief salesman, all for tax evasion and perjury. On April 6, Carroll again appeared before a Federal grand jury, this time with partial immunity, and spilled his guts. Justice Corn was quickly indicted as well as Justices Johnson, Welch and Cargill.
The grand jury had also investigated the legislature, but failed to indict any politicians. However their final public report was blunt. “In many segments of our business community the payment of money to secure the passage or defeat of legislation apparently has come to be considered a normal business expense.” Republican Governor Harry Bellmon, presaging more recent Supreme Court rulings, called the report irresponsible. But 71 year old Democratic Chief Justice Harry Halley, who had not been indicted, chose this moment to retire. In July, 80 year old still serving Justice Nelson Corn, pleaded 'nolo contendere' (not contested) to similar charges as his old friend Carroll was fighting.
It was while serving his 18 month sentence in the prison ward of a Federal hospital in Springfield, Missouri, on December 9, 1964, that the old man gave into his guilty conscious and pressure and dictated a “voluntary” statement of the entire Selected Investments affair. Federal prosecutors already knew that on 19 separate occasions Corn had paid debts in cash, immediately after visiting his safety deposit box. Now they had proof of where the money in that box had come from. And still the conspirators expected to keep their secret. The powerful three term Democratic Speaker of the Oklahoma House, J.D. “King” McCarthy, convened an investigation into “rumors” of a scandal on the state Supreme Court. And despite the released grand jury report, and the indictment of four Justices, his investigators were unable to find any evidence of wrong doing. Which is when one of the few Republicans in the House called for a point of order and read out the details of Justice Corn's confession. Speaker McCarthy admitted later he felt like a telephone pole had just been shoved up his rear end.
Justice Welch resigned just before he was impeached. But even while the impeachment trial of Justice “Nap” Johnson was being held in the legislature, the conspirators still assumed they could contain the scandal. The now 81 year old Corn was called as a witness, and grilled by the conspirators. The turning point may have come when Republican Senator Dewey Bartlett demanded of Justice Corn, “Why didn't you divide up the $150,000 equally?”. Corn paused before replying, “I didn't quite get the question”, and the crooks in the chamber exploded in laughter.
After 3 hours of closed door debate, the legislators public vote to impeach Justice Nelson Corn was 90 to 5, and 88 – 8 against Johnson. And then the prosecutors moved in to dispose of the wreckage. Justice Cargill was sentenced to five years for perjury. Justice Earl Welch was sentenced to three years for tax evasion and perjury. Hugh Carroll, and his wife were convicted of 108 counts of fraud. At the next election, Speaker J.D. McCarthy was defeated, appropriately enough, by an undertaker. He even did six months of a 3 year sentence for tax fraud. But, on leaving jail, he could still boast, “I got a cow herd, but they convicted me for stealing a calf.”
In April of 1965 the Oklahoma legislature created a special court to remove corrupt judges. But that May the voters rejected a one penny sales tax for new roads and building construction. They were still trying to run government on the cheap. At least, in 1968, the legislature became an annual affair, which it remains. By then former Justice Nelson Smith Corn had died in his Oklahoma City home, at the age of 83, disgraced, and still a public pariah, barely mentioned in Oklahoma history.
“Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief -- resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”