Columnist Drew Pearson Exposes Congressman’s Corruption Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

U.S. representative J. Parnell Thomas, former chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era, was convicted of running a kickback scheme, through which he received the salaries of nonworking members of his staff. Muckraking columnist Drew Pearson was tipped about the corruption by Thomas’s secretary, with whom Thomas had a long-time affair. Pearson wrote a series of columns that broke in The Washington Post.

Summary of Event

The August 4, 1948, muckraking column Washington Merry-Go-Round, written by Drew Pearson and published in The Washington Post, broke the story that U.S. congressman J. Parnell Thomas, the powerful but irascible chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, had been running a kickback scheme involving supposed members of his staff. In one case, he placed on his payroll a clerk named Myra Midiiff at an annual salary of $1,300, with the understanding that she was to kick back her salary to the congressman in exchange for not working. [kw]Pearson Exposes Congressman’s Corruption, Columnist Drew (Aug. 4, 1948) Thomas, J. Parnell Pearson, Drew Congress, U.S.;J. Parnell Thomas[Thomas] Washington Post;and J. Parnell Thomas[Thomas] Washington Merry-Go-Round House Committee on Un-American Activities;and Thomas J. Parnell[Parnell] Thomas, J. Parnell Pearson, Drew Congress, U.S.;J. Parnell Thomas[Thomas] Washington Post;and J. Parnell Thomas[Thomas] Washington Merry-Go-Round House Committee on Un-American Activities;and Thomas J. Parnell[Parnell] [g]United States;Aug. 4, 1948: Columnist Drew Pearson Exposes Congressman’s Corruption[00820] [c]Publishing and journalism;Aug. 4, 1948: Columnist Drew Pearson Exposes Congressman’s Corruption[00820] [c]Corruption;Aug. 4, 1948: Columnist Drew Pearson Exposes Congressman’s Corruption[00820] [c]Government;Aug. 4, 1948: Columnist Drew Pearson Exposes Congressman’s Corruption[00820] [c]Politics;Aug. 4, 1948: Columnist Drew Pearson Exposes Congressman’s Corruption[00820] Campbell, Helen

Drew Pearson.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Thomas was born John Parnell Feeney, Jr., in Jersey City in an era when a clearly Irish name was considered a hindrance to political success. It was in 1920 that Thomas, believing he could achieve greater recognition and business under his mother’s family name, changed his last name. After World War I, Thomas entered conservative New Jersey Republican politics. In 1925, he won a seat on the Allendale borough council. From 1926 to 1930, he served as mayor of Allendale, and in 1935 was elected a representative from Bergen County to the New Jersey state assembly.

Controversy and publicity surrounded Thomas during his brief assembly tenure. In a foreshadowing of later events, opponents questioned his political ethics and accused him of undue profits from the sale of bonds to the state. In the spring of 1936, the Republican state committee picked Thomas to run for the Seventh Congressional District seat. That fall he won the first of six successive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Thomas became a member of the Military Affairs Committee and supported the Lend-Lease Lend-Lease Act of 1941[Lend Lease Act of 1941] Act of 1941, favoring aid to Great Britain during World War II, and then emerged as a leading opponent of civilian control of peacetime atomic energy. He maintained that military control would prevent domination by “subversive” scientists. Shortly after being appointed in 1938 to the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Special Committee on Un-American Activities (called the Dies Committee Dies Committee for its chairman, Dies, Martin Martin Dies) to investigate communism in U.S. politics, Thomas attacked as communist the Works Progress Administration Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater and Writers’ projects. He saw his mission to uncover liberal “fellow travelers” as well.

After the 1946 congressional elections, in which the Republicans gained control of the House, Thomas became chairman of the newly renamed House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1947, where he began using a tactic that ultimately led to a series of contempt-of-Congress citations against uncooperative witnesses. His tactic was to replace an uncooperative witness unwilling to testify with one of the committees own investigators, who in turn disclosed what information it had on the witness. Thomas and his blatant partisanship and dictatorial tactics drew criticism from the Harry S. Truman administration and civil libertarians.

Thomas would claim that his career was ended by scandal because of his low salary ($10,000 per year), which he believed was inadequate for advancing in Washington, D.C. By 1940, to increase his income, Thomas devised what he considered to be a foolproof scheme: to kick back to himself the net salaries of nonworking persons on his staff. In addition, he would pay the taxes on staff salaries at a lower tax bracket. The scheme, which included strangers, a housekeeper, an aunt, and a daughter-in-law, worked until 1948, when his long-time secretary, Helen Campbell, with whom he was involved romantically for decades, revealed Thomas’s secret. Allegedly in love with the married Thomas and knowledgeable about his kickbacks, she turned on him when she discovered that he had been unfaithful to her. She reported his criminal activities to columnist Drew Pearson, who was a staunch critic of Thomas. Pearson’s first column on Thomas’s scheme, “Thomas Held Ignoring Old Adage,” appeared on August 4 in The Washington Post and was the first column in a series. The others were published on August 7 (“Probe of Files Suggested”), August 10 (“Political Donors Expect Favors”), August 13 (“Thomas Makes Insurance Story”), and August 14 (“Truman Has Thomas Trouble”).

Pearson explored all elements of Thomas’s office payroll practices and investigated his kickback schemes. In October, a federal grand jury began investigating the accusations. Thomas denied all of the charges against him, claiming that they were the dirty tricks of his political enemies, who, he claimed, faked the bank accounts that detailed his kickbacks. To get the U.S. Department of Justice to drop the charges and to prove his innocence, he appealed to the American Legion and to other congressional leaders. However, their attempts failed. Thomas was able to secure five trial postponements by faking illnesses, including unnecessary surgery to finagle a hospital stay, but a sixth attempted postponement failed when Walter Reed Walter Reed Army Hospital Army Medical Center refused to admit him.

Thomas finally went to trial in late 1949, to great dramatic effect. He disrupted the proceedings by suddenly pleading no contest and throwing himself at the mercy of the court, amid a great display of crying. He was fined $10,000 for the crime of embezzling $8,000 and was sentenced to prison for a period not to exceed eighteen months. He resigned from the House on January 2, 1950, and served nearly nine months in federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, before he was pardoned by President Truman. Ironically, one of his fellow inmates was Ring Lardner, Jr., one of the Hollywood Ten, who appeared before HUAC.

In 1954, Thomas tried to reclaim his old seat but he failed, and his political career was over. He moved to Florida in 1956 and lived there until his death in 1970.

Impact

The Thomas scandal undoubtedly delighted those who had appeared before HUAC during Thomas’s tenure, but it also uncovered the Congress member as a coward who used tears and other dramatic effects during his trial to get the court to show mercy for him. The devious methods he employed and the blunders he committed eventually caught up with him, when his corruption and public immorality caused his total banishment from the political scene.

Thomas represented the all-too common American story of the small timer who went to Washington, D.C., and found he could not handle the temptation. Thomas’s case was especially ironic because in his early political career, he straddled the fine line of sometimes questionable dealings against an attempt to stay away from any activity that might be considered illegal and would blemish his transit from the mayoralty of a New Jersey town to his election in 1937 to Congress. Along the way there even was a name change.

The Thomas scandal, along with the attention HUAC generated during his time as chairman, focused attention on the kind of person whom members of Congress and party leaders appointed to lead such a committee. Thomas’s ultimate disgrace was not seen by those who allowed him membership on the Dies Committee in 1938, but it was seen in subsequent years. He gradually unveiled evidence of his questionable characteristics. The shameful manner in which he ended his career was, in a sense, another perverse irony as he faced the same scrutiny in court that he inflicted on HUAC witnesses during the scandalous McCarthy era. Thomas, J. Parnell Pearson, Drew Congress, U.S.;J. Parnell Thomas[Thomas] Washington Post;and J. Parnell Thomas[Thomas] Washington Merry-Go-Round House Committee on Un-American Activities;and Thomas J. Parnell[Parnell]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, Robert K. The House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1945-1950. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1952. Critical history of HUAC during the period when Parnell was chairman, with discussion of Thomas’s difficult personality and blatant unfairness toward witnesses he considered un-American or communist or both.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodman, Walter. The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968. Absorbing story of HUAC. Chapter 7, “The Thomas Committee,” describes in detail the hearings, the witnesses, and the hostile, even illegal, methods that Thomas and his staff employed against unfavorable witnesses. Most important, the book demonstrates why HUAC was such a shameful period in U.S. history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Long, Kim. The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals, and Dirty Politics. New York: Delacorte Press, 2007. A wide-ranging book detailing the various scandals and corrupt practices that have plagued U.S. politics. A good general study of political scandals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearson, Drew, and Jack Anderson. The Case Against Congress: A Compelling Indictment of Corruption on Capitol Hill. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968. An account of Capitol Hill corruption by journalist Drew Pearson and his fellow columnist of Washington Merry-Go-Round.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stripling, Robert E. The Red Plot Against America. New York: Arno Press, 1977. Stripling was a long-time member of HUAC, who was appointed the committee’s chief investigator in 1947, the same year that Thomas became chairman. The book, which appeared serially early in 1949, describes Stripling’s work with HUAC, including many of the hearings with which he was involved.

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