Speaker of the House Jim Wright Resigns in Ethics Scandal Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Jim Wright served thirty-four years in the U.S. Congress before being forced to resign for ethical violations. A ten-month investigation into his finances showed that he violated his position of power dozens of times by securing various financial deals for himself, his immediate family members, and his friends, in violation of House ethics. His corrupt activities brought an immediate end to his congressional career but did not result in further legal action. Wright was the first Speaker of the House to resign from office because of a political scandal.

Summary of Event

Eleven years after becoming one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. Congress, Representative Jim Wright was at the center of an ethics scandal concerning his financial activities in 1988. Because of the severity of the allegations, the House of Representatives was forced to convene a bipartisan committee in early June of that year to conduct an official inquiry and, later, a full-fledged investigation of the numerous claims of financial misconduct. [kw]Wright Resigns in Ethics Scandal, Speaker of the House Jim (May 31, 1989) Wright, Jim Mallick, Bill Congress, U.S.;Jim Wright[Wright] Congress, U.S.;Jim Wright[Wright] Wright, Jim Mallick, Bill Congress, U.S.;Jim Wright[Wright] Congress, U.S.;Jim Wright[Wright] [g]United States;May 31, 1989: Speaker of the House Jim Wright Resigns in Ethics Scandal[02400] [c]Corruption;May 31, 1989: Speaker of the House Jim Wright Resigns in Ethics Scandal[02400] [c]Politics;May 31, 1989: Speaker of the House Jim Wright Resigns in Ethics Scandal[02400] [c]Ethics;May 31, 1989: Speaker of the House Jim Wright Resigns in Ethics Scandal[02400] [c]Government;May 31, 1989: Speaker of the House Jim Wright Resigns in Ethics Scandal[02400] Wright, Betty

Jim Wright, right, one month before his resignation as Speaker of the House.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Wright had been raised in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area and attended Weatherford College from 1939 to 1940 and the University of Texas from 1940 to 1941. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Wright joined the U.S. Army Air Force and was stationed in the South Pacific. During his World War II military service, he flew countless combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he returned home and entered politics in his home state of Texas.

In 1946, Wright was elected to the Texas house of representatives but was defeated after serving a single term. He then moved to Weatherford, Texas, home of his alma mater, and was elected mayor for a four-year term (1950-1954). In 1954, he ran unopposed for a seat in Congress, representing the Twelfth District, which included Forth Worth and Weatherford. He would be reelected to the House more than one dozen times. In 1977, Wright was named the new majority leader after O’Neill, Tip Tip O’Neill was elected Speaker of the House. He served as majority leader from 1977 through 1987. After O’Neill retired from the speakership in 1987, Wright was elected to replace him. He served until his resignation on May 31, 1989.

At the center of the Wright investigation were four major areas of concern. First, real-estate developer George Mallick gave him the use of a luxury condominium in Fort Worth and, for his wife, Betty Wright, the use of a Cadillac and an annual salary of eighteen thousand dollars for a ghost job with her husband. Mallick’s gifts, however, violated a congressional ban on members receiving gifts valued at more than one hundred dollars from any one person.

The committee also discovered that Mallick had a direct interest in legislation pertaining to savings and loan companies, especially in Texas, that were failing. Wright intervened with federal regulators on behalf of Mallick and two other Texas executives from a Fort Worth savings and loan and successfully lobbied on their behalf in their dealings with the Federal Home Loan Banks board. His efforts ultimately protected their financial interests.

The third concern was Mallick and Wright’s questionable business relationship. In one case, Wright had secured $7.5 million for the restoration of Fort Worth’s historic stockyards, and Mallick was given the contract to oversee the renovation. This relationship opened the door for Wright to receive financial kickbacks and gifts for securing the contract.

Finally, Wright’s book Reflections of a Public Man (Wright) Reflections of a Public Man (1984) was at the center of another ethics violation. The 117-page work was published by long-time friend Moore, Carlos Carlos Moore, whose printing firm had worked for Wright’s campaigns for several years. Ethical concerns arose because of the money Wright made from sales of the book. He was earning 60 percent in royalties, far more than the common 10 to 15 percent in royalties for most authors. The book was purchased in bulk by various supporters of Wright, including business and labor groups. The money he earned from the sales allowed him to avoid the earnings limit placed on Congress members; with book sales, he was able to earn extra income while avoiding that limitation.

In May, 1988, the public citizens’ action group Common Cause Common Cause called upon Congress to inquire into the allegations against Wright. In a matter of days, leading House Republican Gingrich, Newt Newt Gingrich sent a formal letter, cosigned by seventy-two of his Republican colleagues, to the House Committee House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct on Standards of Official Conduct, the panel that oversees the ethical conduct of House members. The letter called for a complete investigation into Wright’s conduct. On February 22, 1989, the chief investigator issued his preliminary 279-page report to the committee. The report alleged that on sixty-nine separate occasions, Wright had broken congressional rules of conduct.

At the conclusion of the full fifty-one-week investigation, the committee, comprising six Democrats and six Republicans, was ready to render its decision. In an 8-4 vote, the committee found that there was “reason to believe” that Wright violated House ethics rules. After dropping more than half of the original charges, the committee was ready to act on four issues of misconduct. Based on the insurmountable evidence, Wright was now set to face an ethics hearing with the power to exact three penalties: a letter of reproach, a formal reprimand, or censure.

Although Democrats dominated the House in numbers, Wright failed to gain his party’s support to retain his position as House Speaker. Facing almost certain criminal indictment and conviction, Wright, now sixty-six years old, opted to resign as speaker on May 31. Less than one month later, on June 30, he resigned from the House altogether, ending a thirty-four-year congressional career.

Impact

Only the fourth House Speaker in U.S. history to step down from office, Wright was the first to leave office because of allegations of unethical conduct. During his resignation speech before members of Congress, he said that his stepping down from his position was a sacrifice for his country because he spared the House and its members further political hardship and negative publicity. He added that he was a victim of an ethical battle between warring political parties. In his final words, he urged both Democrats and Republicans to resolve their differences and hostilities so that they could refocus on more pressing and urgent matters for the American people.

At the same time Wright was leaving office, his own top aide was resigning amid a scandal related to an interview in Washington Post;and Jim Wright[Wright] The Washington Post. In the interview, a woman claimed she had been brutally assaulted by Wright’s aide in the early 1970’s. Another scandal erupted during the time of Wright’s resignation when House Democratic whip Coelho, Tony Tony Coelho was forced from office because of his own alleged financial misconduct. Wright, Jim Mallick, Bill Congress, U.S.;Jim Wright[Wright] Congress, U.S.;Jim Wright[Wright]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barry, John. The Ambition and the Power: Jim Wright and the Will of the House. New York: Viking Press, 1989. A detailed look at the rise and fall of Representative and Speaker Wright, with specific attention to his misconduct and resignation.
  • 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">Thompson, Denis. Ethics in Congress: From Individual to Institutional Corruption. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1995. This report chronicles corruption in the institution of Congress and by individual Congress members, including Wright.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Report of the Special Outside Counsel in the Matter of Speaker James C. Wright, Jr. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1989. The official report of the findings against Wright, highlighting the numerous charges of unethical conduct found by the investigative congressional subcommittee.

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