Senate Denounces Herman E. Talmadge for Money Laundering Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

U.S. senator Herman E. Talmadge was denounced by the Senate for his participation in a scheme to launder public money and campaign funds through a secret bank account and then convert the money for personal use. His censure in the form of a denouncement led to his political downfall and made him one of only nine senators to have been censured since 1789.

Summary of Event

On October 11, 1979, a six-month investigation of U.S. senator Herman E. Talmadge ended when the full U.S. Senate voted to censure, or denounce, him for his “reprehensible” conduct while in office. By a vote of 81-15, the full Senate chamber supported a punishment that was less than the more severe punishment of expulsion. During the investigation, dozens of witnesses, including Talmadge, his former wife Betty Talmadge, and many of his former and current aides testified not only about the senator’s honesty but also about his unusual habits involving money. [kw]Talmadge for Money Laundering, Senate Denounces Herman E. (Oct. 11, 1979) [kw]Money Laundering, Senate Denounces Herman E. Talmadge for (Oct. 11, 1979) Talmadge, Herman E. Congress, U.S.;and Herman E. Talmadge[Talmadge] Money laundering;and Herman E. Talmadge[Talmadge] Campaign contributions;Herman E. Talmadge[Talmadge] Talmadge, Herman E. Congress, U.S.;and Herman E. Talmadge[Talmadge] Money laundering;and Herman E. Talmadge[Talmadge] Campaign contributions;Herman E. Talmadge[Talmadge] [g]United States;Oct. 11, 1979: Senate Denounces Herman E. Talmadge for Money Laundering[01820] [c]Corruption;Oct. 11, 1979: Senate Denounces Herman E. Talmadge for Money Laundering[01820] [c]Government;Oct. 11, 1979: Senate Denounces Herman E. Talmadge for Money Laundering[01820] [c]Politics;Oct. 11, 1979: Senate Denounces Herman E. Talmadge for Money Laundering[01820] [c]Banking and finance;Oct. 11, 1979: Senate Denounces Herman E. Talmadge for Money Laundering[01820] Talmadge, Betty Minchew, Daniel Talmadge, Robert S.

The Talmadge investigation was one of the first following congressional reforms passed after the Watergate Watergate scandal;and later reforms[later reforms] scandal of 1972-1974. The new ethics rules created the Senate Ethics Committee, which was assigned the duty of investigating violations by senators. With scandal having dominated Washington politics through much of the 1970’s, Talmadge became the first example of the U.S. Congress sweeping clean its own house after having forced a president to resign.

In one of the first investigations by the newly created Ethics Committee, six senators heard testimony about a complicated money laundering scheme initiated by Talmadge to hide his misuse of funds. Talmadge, a twenty-two-year veteran of the Senate, was charged with five violations of Senate ethics rules, including filing false expense reports and pocketing excess monies for personal use. The amounts ranged from twenty-eight to thirty-seven thousand dollars, with several thousand more dollars disappearing without a trace.

Talmadge, a conservative Democrat, also was charged with two campaign violations, including filing false disclosure forms in a case in which he failed to list all donations and campaign spending, and laundering campaign money for personal use. Finally, the senator was accused of not reporting gifts given him by supporters, as required by Senate rules, and for filing false tax returns for other gifts, a charge that led to an Internal Internal Revenue Service;and Herman E. Talmadge[Talmadge] Revenue Service investigation of his tax returns.

Senator Talmadge’s legal troubles came at the tail end of a stormy political career. Son of former Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, Herman Talmadge grew up in a segregated society with a father who earned political fame by threatening force to maintain segregation. The young Talmadge would follow in his father’s racist footsteps during the 1940’s, threatening to use a baseball bat against any African American who tried to integrate the state.

Talmadge attempted to seize power after the 1946 election, which his father won (his father died before taking office). The young Talmadge’s grab for the governorship provoked a state constitutional crisis involving the lieutenant governor, the state legislature, the Georgia Supreme Court, and the Georgia National Guard, which tried to seat Talmadge with force. Denied power through an attempted political coup, he engineered an electoral coup instead and won the governor’s seat in 1948. His move to the U.S. Senate proved easier, as he challenged incumbent Walter George in the 1956 Democratic primary. The ailing George, intimidated by Talmadge’s outrageous tactics and reputation, dropped out of the race, opening the way for Talmadge’s easy victory. He would win three more elections before his censure in 1979.

Even with all the turmoil in Talmadge’s political past, the Senate investigation would be the most difficult test of his career. Talmadge testified before the Ethics Committee and rejected the charges against him. He sought to undermine the credibility of those testifying against him, then provided a series of explanations for his behavior. During the investigation, he admitted to having a drinking problem, delaying the committee hearings as he attended a month-long alcohol treatment program. After leaving the program, Talmadge went before the committee and asked the senators to end the investigation, but they refused to do so. When asked about the large sums of cash he had in his possession, Talmadge explained that the money came from small donations, five to ten dollars, from his Georgia supporters. Talmadge said that he had lived on these small donations for more than five years, not having to rely on his Senate salary to pay for housing and food.

Talmadge’s next defense was his hard work on the Senate Agriculture Committee, his past service, and his close relationship with colleagues. The senators on the Ethics Committee were not swayed by his arguments, noting that it was his past conduct that they were investigating. For Talmadge, it would be his personal rather than his professional past that would haunt him throughout the hearings. The bitter divorce from his wife of thirty-seven years included her claim of considerable compensation for their years of married life. The terms of the settlement alerted the media to the senator’s financial misdeeds and eventually to the Senate investigation. Betty Talmadge would also strike another blow at her former husband’s defense when she testified before the committee.

Although Betty was not expected to have personal knowledge of her husband’s money laundering scheme, she was expected to reveal details of his spending and unusual money-collection techniques. Married to the senator for more than three decades, she had little interest in hiding his dirty dealings and described in detail how he kept large sums of money throughout the house.

According to Betty, her husband kept rolls of hundred-dollar bills in his pockets and distributed those bills to her and others. Talmadge also stored envelopes full of money in his dresser drawers, in amounts totaling more than fifteen thousand dollars. According to Betty, her husband transported large sums of cash from Washington, D.C., to his Georgia home, then left the money in his coat pockets. She had seen and used the money, taking several thousand dollars out on one occasion for her personal expenses. Betty then gave the committee more than seven thousand dollars in one-hundred-dollar bills she said she had taken from her husband’s coat, providing an element of proof to her accusations.

The most damaging witness, other than his wife, against the senator was one of his top aides, Daniel Minchew, who served in Talmadge’s Senate office and his reelection campaign. Minchew had created a secret bank account at the behest of Talmadge, who used the account as a slush fund. Because the account was not in the senator’s name, it allowed him to deny knowledge of it or how the money reached the account, denials that came the moment the account was discovered.

According to Minchew, the secret account included monies from false reimbursements and excess campaign funds that the senator then used for personal expenses. Minchew claimed that he had given large sums to Robert S. Talmadge, the senator’s son (Robert drowned in 1975). Minchew admitted to withdrawing money from the account for expenses.

Talmadge had his defenders, including several of his then-current and former aides. They disputed Minchew’s claims about Talmadge’s knowledge of excessive expenditures. These aides claimed that because the senator signed expense reports without reading them, his staff had overcharged without Talmadge being aware. However, another aide testified he had witnessed Talmadge transferring eighty thousand dollars from an office bank account to the senator’s personal account, supporting Minchew’s testimony that Talmadge was mixing personal and government money.

Impact

Given the conflicting testimony, the Ethics Committee, composed of three Democrats and three Republicans, recommended that the full Senate censure Talmadge through denouncement rather than expel him from Congress. His Senate colleagues recognized that he violated ethics rules by improperly signing expense reports.

While it appeared Talmadge had escaped any long-term consequences that normally would have followed expulsion, the Senate vote undermined his influence among his colleagues, forcing him from his chairship of the Senate Agriculture Committee and weakening his hold over the Georgia electorate. In the 1980 general election, Talmadge faced the head of Georgia’s Republican Party, Mack Mattingly, who made the senator’s legal troubles one of the core issues in the campaign. Mattingly barely defeated Talmadge, winning by a few thousand votes, and became the first Republican senator from Georgia since the 1870’s. Talmadge, Herman E. Congress, U.S.;and Herman E. Talmadge[Talmadge] Money laundering;and Herman E. Talmadge[Talmadge] Campaign contributions;Herman E. Talmadge[Talmadge]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Adam. “Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge, Integration Opponent, Dies at 88.” The Washington Post, March 22, 2002. A Talmadge obituary that examines his early career in state politics and his move into the national limelight at the time of segregation. Also addresses, briefly, his censure by the U.S. Senate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, James F. The Governors of Georgia, 1754-2004. 3d ed. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2005. An encyclopedia covering Georgia governors since the time of the British colonies through 2004. Includes an entry on Herman Talmadge that explores his brief career as governor and his subsequent career in the U.S. Senate.
  • 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. Includes discussion of the Talmadge hearing and the criminal acts he was accused of perpetrating.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Robert North. Ethics in U.S. Government: An Encyclopedia of Investigations, Scandals, Reforms, and Legislation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. A comprehensive encyclopedia documenting American political scandals, ethical controversies, and investigations from 1775 to 2000.

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