100 years ago, on October 25, 1923, the U.S. Senate Committee on Public Lands published its first report on the Teapot Dome scandal. The scandal stands as one of the most notorious episodes of political corruption in American history. Centered around the illicit leasing of federal oil reserves, the scandal exposed a web of bribery, cronyism, and abuse of power that reached the highest echelons of government.
The Mammoth Oil Company, headed by Harry F. Sinclair, was at the center of the scandal, defending its actions and facing public scrutiny. One prominent figure in the events was Wyoming’s U.S. Senator John B. Kendrick.
A successful rancher turned politician, Kendrick played a crucial role in shedding light on the corruption surrounding the scandal. As a member of the Senate Committee on Public Lands, Kendrick recognized the significance of the suspicious leases.
On April 14, 1922, the Wall Street Journal broke the story, announcing that the Teapot Dome reserve had indeed been leased.
This revelation led to a surge of public pressure for further information. Senator Kendrick found himself inundated with telegrams from Wyoming oil operators and associations demanding answers. B. B. Brooks, president of the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Producers Association and former Wyoming governor, sent a telegram arguing against private negotiations without competitive bidding. Other protests from the business community and the oil industry called for greater transparency in the leasing process.
The next day, Senator Kendrick and Wyoming U.S. Representative Frank W. Mondell took action within Congress. Kendrick requested the Senate consider a resolution calling upon Secretaries Fall and Denby to clarify whether negotiations were underway for the leasing of Teapot Dome and if competitive bidding was being followed. The concerns expressed by the oil interests prompted further scrutiny of Secretary Fall’s methods.
Not everyone was eager for an investigation. The petroleum industry, already facing multiple investigations, expressed reluctance and presented various arguments against further inquiries. Some viewed investigations as burdensome, hampering business operations and producing futile results. They argued that big business had always been fair, honest, and satisfied with reasonable profits, rendering investigations unnecessary.
The path to investigating the Teapot Dome scandal was fraught with delays and diversions. Various factors contributed to the slow initiation of the investigation. The fatiguing summer weather in Washington and the pressure of other Senate business, often referred to as “political fence mending,” hindered the efforts of Senator Reed Smoot, who had yet to call a meeting of his committee. Additionally, Senator Kendrick and Senator Robert LaFollette, the chief instigators, had to campaign for re-election as the congressional elections loomed on the horizon.
The Teapot Dome scandal gradually came to public attention through investigative efforts and critical testimonies. Kendrick’s role in the events surrounding the scandal was not limited to the committee hearings but also involved his close association with B. B. Brooks and Leslie Miller, an oil operator and later state governor. Brooks and Miller, concerned about the suspicious leases and potential corruption, alerted Kendrick to the situation. As the congressional investigations unfolded, Kendrick played an active role in interrogating witnesses and examining evidence to expose the depths of the corruption. Working alongside Senator Thomas J. Walsh, the lead investigator, Kendrick collaborated to maintain focus and drive the inquiry forward. While he was not without criticism and faced political pressures, Kendrick’s commitment to the process remained steadfast.
The Teapot Dome scandal elicited a range of attitudes within the business community and shaped public sentiment. Small oil operators in Wyoming, who felt betrayed by the government’s actions, expressed their outrage at the favoritism shown to large corporations. Kendrick, with his close ties to the Wyoming community, understood their concerns and actively worked to address them. The scandal also heightened public disillusionment with political corruption and served as a catalyst for reform.
As public sentiment shifted, demands for transparency and integrity in governance grew louder. Kendrick’s role in shedding light on the corruption and advocating for accountability contributed to this change in public sentiment.
If you are interested in learning more about John B. Kendrick and his role in the Teapot Dome scandal, you can explore his papers at the American Heritage Center.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.