Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Back When Michigan Republicans Played for Keeps

Bruce A. Rubenstein and Lawrence E. Ziewacz. Three Bullets Sealed His Lips. Lansing, Mi.: Michigan State University, 1987.

In 1943, a grand jury investigation into Michigan state government corruption resulted in 130 arrests and 60 convictions, including the Lt. Governor, 12 State Senators, and 11 State Representatives. It was discovered that legislative votes were open to sale from lobbyists and special interests.

Attorney General Herbert Ruston, a former State Senator, had refused to create a grand jury even when the Detroit Citizen’s League provided evidence of corruption. State Rep. William Stenson publicly declared that someone unknown to him put $1,350 and a note on how to vote on legislature concerning banks into his coat pocket. The Attorney General then felt obligated to create a grand jury. Judge Leland Carr was a one person grand juror.

The press attacked Republican State Party leader Frank McKay. He has been State Treasurer until resigning during a previous grand jury. McKay, though, was a political king maker who chose nominees for Governor and state offices. The press believed McKay and his political associates allowed illegal gambling operations to exist in Michigan. Futher, the press discovered McKay obtained state contacts for his own company. Three grand juries looked into charges McKay engaged in various influence peddling schemes. McKay was acquitted.

Judge Carr discovered over half of legislators brought before him stated they took bribes. Over a third of the entire legislature was eventually indicted.

At first, 20 legislators (some no longer in office) and six finance company employees were indicted on $25,000 in bribes on automobile financing legislation. The employees pled guilty are received immunity. Sen. Miles Callaghan became an informant.

The legislature considered holding up $150,000 in funds for the grand jury. Some legislators were concerned that the grand jury’s investigator Charles Spare was a Klansman who previously incited wartime factory strikes among white workers. Spare was released from the investigation yet was later secretly hired under the name “Mary Duke”.

The law did not allow for paying witnesses more than $2 a day plus meals. Yet a key lobbyist who turned witness, Charles Hemans, was provided funds and expenses that included prostitutes and replacing a mattress. Hemans then refused to testify against friends. He served 1 ½ years for unlawfully fleeing Michigan het he received a high salary from a bank that he had refused to testify against.

Sen. Warren Hooper admitted to the grand jury he received a salary from McKay in return for keeping a horse racing bill from moving out of his committee. Hooper also told of McKay bribing other legislators. Hooper was promised immunity for agreeing to testify against McKay.

Senator Hooper was shot to death. The legislature quickly acted to approve funding the grand jury.

Muri Aton, a local prosecutor, found a witness who indicated there could have been a woman with a man in the vicinity of Hooper’s murder. Kim Sigler, who was prosecuting the grand jury, and Aton kept their silence on this information. When Sigler was nominated for Governor, the little known Aton was picked to run for, and was elected, Auditor General. Sigler had decided to use the murder investigation to further his career and he wanted to bring down McKay to do so.

Rumors emerged that Hooper had affairs. The State Police found suspicion that Hooper had been threatened to be killed by Harry Rosenberg, a mobster in a group known as the Purple Gang because Hooper supposedly had an affair with Rosenberg’s wife. Sigler considered this a possible tie to McKay since McKay’s bodyguard Charles Leiter had belonged to the Purple Gang.

Sigler, before becoming grand jury prosecutor, was an attorney for Rep. Bill Green, who was under indictment. Green had explained to Sigler a lot about legislative graft. Green was upset when Sigler left as his attorney and used what Green had told Sigler before the grand jury.

Sam Abramowitz, a Purple Gang associate, was found, through questioning as confirmed by a polygraph test, to have been involved in the Hooper murder along with Henry Luks. Luks failed the polygraph when denying his involvement.

Sigler speculated that McKay had ordered and financed Hooper’s murder. Meanwhile, the grand juror Judge Carr charged McKay, Charles Leiter, and other Purple Gang members for liquor law violations. Abramowitz and Luks testified against some associated who were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder.

Sen. Ivan Johnson criticized Sigler’s spending, especially funds spent on Charles Hemans. The current Grand Juror, Judge Louis Coash (who had replaced Carr when he was made a Supreme Court Justice) dismissed Sigler. Sigler, realizing his career faced oblivion, attacked Coash and claimed he sought only to punish criminals. A week later, Signer announced he was running for Governor. A week before the primary, a Sigler ally indicted Sen. Johnston for bribery. This created a boost for Sigler’s campaign and helped him win the primary. Sigler was later elected Governor.

State Police Commissioner Donald Leonard investigated the Hooper murder. He took all the records when he resigned of Commissioner in 1952. McKay supported Leonard in his unsuccessful campaign for Governor.

In 1985, grand jury files was discovered. Sigler had brought Hooper to testify in front of McKay. Hooper testified McKay gave him a $500 bribe.
The Purple Gang was offered $25,000 to kill Hooper if it was done before Hooper next testified. McKay was presented, as a sign of good faith that the money would be paid. Abramowitz tried to blackmail Governor Sigler, claiming Sigler knew his testimony was false. Abramowitz vanished and was never seen again.

KcKay lead a successful campaign to defeat Sigler’s reelection as Governor in 1948.


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