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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Scandals, Scandals, Scandals

Here in Wisconsin we've sometimes enjoyed looking down on the corruption of governments elsewhere in the nation. Recently, of course, we've had to trim our sails a bit, as the news media have revealed a series of allegations about lawmakers and subsequent convictions. From county boards to the capitol dome, a critical mass of officials appear to have forgotten what public service means. A quick glance at earlier scandals in our state, however, reveals that these are just the latest manifestations of a long tradition.

Government might even be said to have been born corrupt in Wisconsin. When the territory was created in 1836, the most important decision for lawmakers to make was where to locate the capital, and several cities were competing for the honor. Territorial council delegate James Doty bought up the land where downtown Madison stands today and at the first meeting of the legislature, according to one participant, "Madison town lots in large numbers were freely distributed among members, their friends, and others who were supposed to possess influence with them." Doty's tactics worked, so government scandals happen today on the isthmus in Madison rather than anywhere else in the state.

Once Wisconsin became a state, her elected officials seemed possessed by the urge to line their own pockets at the expense of taxpayers. An investigation of Democratic governor William Barstow's administration (1853-1856) discovered scandals connected with printing contracts, running the state's insane asylum, and other government operations. Investigators found a shortage in the state treasury of nearly $40,000 which was never explained; Barstow was later found guilty of election fraud, too.

In those days the federal government gave the state tens of thousands of acres to sell as a way to raise money for schools. When in 1856 a committee checked on this school fund, "almost hopeless confusion was discovered in the books of the treasurer and land commissioners, …the state treasurer was a defaulter to the general fund in the sum of $31,318.54, and school and university funds had been recklessly loaned on insufficient security to friends of the state officers — in short that thousands of dollars belonging to those funds had been squandered by the officials."

And that was nothing compared to the great railroad scandal of the 1850s. Early railroad companies eager to expand across the state needed grants of land to finance their operations. In order to get land grants, railroad promoter Byron Kilbourn and his associates used $900,000 in corporate bonds to bribe 13 state senators, 59 members of the assembly, the state bank comptroller, the lieutenant governor, the private secretary of the governor, three officers of the assembly, 23 persons engaged in lobbying, a justice of the supreme court, and the governor himself -- a truly spectactular version of "pay-to-play" that dwarfs anything we read about in the papers today.

Despite the exposure of these outrages, for forty more years officials played fast and loose with the taxpayers' money. For decades the state treasurer kept a ledger called the "Doodle Book" in which he filed I.O.U.s from state employees who were borrowing from the public treasury in advance of their wages. When Governor Edward Scofield discovered this in 1898, he demanded that all state employees repay their debts within 24 hours. Some had to scramble to come up with the cash, but thereafter no employee could draw a dollar of salary until pay day. After reforming various other unprofessional practices, Scofield washed his hands of government and returned to the business world.

None of the preceding tales should be taken as an attempt to minimize or excuse any modern wrongdoing. They're simply meant to prove the time-honored adage that power corrupts. And to remind us that in a democracy, citizens must always keep a watchful eye over the public servants whom they hire to temporarily run their government.

:: Posted in Curiosities on January 29, 2006
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