The Teapot Dome Scandal

Juggernaut. This 1924 cartoon shows the dimensions of the Teapot Dome scandal.

"Something timeless about the WHITE HOUSE sign."

April 15, 1922
Senate Investigates the "Teapot Dome" Scandal

Ransacked offices, illegal wiretaps, disinformation campaigns, partisan conflict over the conduct of a Senate investigation. Sound familiar?

Teapot Dome, the oil reserve scandal that began during the administration of President Harding. In 1921, by executive order of the President, control of naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyo., and at Elk Hills, Calif., was transferred from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior. The oil reserves had been set aside for the navy by President Wilson. In 1922, Albert B. Fall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, leased, without competitive bidding, the Teapot Dome fields to Harry F. Sinclair, an oil operator, and the field at Elk Hills, Calif., to Edward L. Doheny. These transactions became (1922–23) the subject of a Senate investigation conducted by Sen. Thomas J. Walsh

On April 15, 1922, Wyoming Democratic Senator John Kendrick introduced a resolution that set in motion one of the most significant investigations in Senate history. On the previous day, the Wall Street Journal had reported an unprecedented secret arrangement in which the Secretary of the Interior, without competitive bidding, had leased the U.S. naval petroleum reserve at Wyoming's Teapot Dome to a private oil company. Wisconsin Republican Senator Robert La Follette arranged for the Senate Committee on Public Lands to investigate the matter. His suspicions deepened after someone ransacked his Russell Building office.

The committee's leadership allowed the panel's most junior minority member, Montana Democrat Thomas Walsh, to lead what most expected to be a tedious and probably futile inquiry seeking answers to many questions, including "How did Interior Secretary Albert Fall get so rich so quickly?"

Eventually, the investigation uncovered Secretary Fall's shady dealings and Senator Walsh became a national hero; Fall would end up as the first former cabinet officer to go to prison. This and a subsequent Senate inquiry triggered several court cases testing the extent of the Senate's investigative powers. One of those cases resulted in the landmark 1927 Supreme Court decision McGrain v. Daugherty that, for the first time, explicitly established Congress' right to compel testimony.

Reference Items:

Diner, Hasia. "Teapot Dome, 1924," Included in Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., and Roger Bruns, eds. Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792-1974. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1975.

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