Albert B. Fall- The First U.S. Cabinet Secretary Convicted of Corruption

Albert B. Fall (1861-1944)

Here is a look at the life and political scandal of Albert B. Fall, a US senator from New Mexico and later 28th Secretary of the Interior under President Warren G. Harding.

Fast Facts: Albert B. Fall

Full name: Albert Bacon Fall

Birth date: November 26, 1861

Birth place: Frankfort, Kentucky, U.S.

Death date: November 30, 1944; El Paso, Texas, U.S.

Father: William R. Fall

Mother:  Edmonia Taylor Fall

Education: Self-educated

Marriage: Emma Garland Morgan

Children: 4

Political Party: Republican

Positions held: 28th U.S. Secretary of the Interior (1921-1923); U.S. Senator from New Mexico (1912-1921); Territorial Council Member in New Mexico (1892-1893 and 1902-1904); New Mexico House of Representative (1891-1892)

  1. Albert B. Fall was born on November 26, 1861 in Frankfort, Kentucky and gained his formative education in schools in Nashville, Tennessee. He was the son of William R. Fall and Edmonia Taylor Fall.
  2. Aside from the few years he got as a child in school, Fall basically tutored himself in his teen years.
  3. He started working around the age of eleven – at a cotton factory. Owing to the poor working conditions at the factory, Fall would be plagued by breathing problems all his life.
  4. Upon attaining the age of maturity, Albert Fall relocated to Oklahoma, then Texas, and later New Mexico Territory. It was in the latter state that he began practicing law. Fall also spent about two years (1879-1881) working as a teacher in New Mexico.
  5. In 1891, Fall was admitted to the bar. He followed this up by serving as a representative to the New Mexico House for about a year or so (from 1891 to 1892).
  6. Prior to becoming associate justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court in 1893, Fall worked as a judge of the third judicial district.
  7. Fall and Emma Garland Morgan married on May 7, 1883 in Clarksville, Texas. The couple went on to have four children – Jack, Caroline, Jouett Elliot, and Alexina Chase.
  8. In 1897, he was the attorney general of New Mexico Territory.
  9. He served as a U.S. captain in the Spanish-American War (1898).
  1. Fall was known for defending dodgy businessmen and criminals. Fall offered his legal services to a business associate of his known as Oliver M. Lee. His client was accused of rustling cattle from his neighbors’ ranches. Lee was also known for his shady business practices in the area. Upon the disappearance of one of Lee’s business rival and rancher – Albert Jennings Fountain – Fall put up a strong defense of Lee during the trial. He was able to get Lee and his associates walk free even though many investigators back then believed that Lee was indeed responsible for the death of Fountain and his son.
  2.  In another murder trial, Fall was able to defend Jesse Wayne Brazel accused of killing local Sheriff Pat Garrett.
  3. In 1912, he was elected to the U.S. Senate to represent New Mexico. He served in the Senate from 1912 to 1921. He was the chairman of the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of Commerce and Labor.
  4. While in the Senate, Fall was a big supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. A staunch opponent of President Woodrow Wilson, he was also against the U.S. entering World War I.
  5. Fall was infamously part of the Ohio Gang, a group of alleged corrupt Capitol Hill politicians that would later tarnish the presidency of President Warren G. Harding.
  6. On November 30, 1944, Albert B. Fall died at his El Paso, Texas home. Aged 83, he was laid to rest at the Evergreen Cemetery in El Paso.

28th U.S. Secretary of the Interior

Presidential scandals

Albert B. Fall being sworn in as Secretary of the Interior

The actions of Albert B. Fall and some other cabinet members are probably the reasons why Warren G. Harding is today considered one of the worst presidents in our nation’s history. In by no means does this absolve Warren of his lackadaisical attitude in the White House. President Warren has been described by many historians as indecisive and visionless; he was a commander in chief who took a laissez faire approach to steering the White House.

Hence it was not surprising that President picked a man like Albert Fall for the Secretary of the Interior. Under his campaign theme of a “return to normalcy”, Warren tasked his cabinet to adopt very progressive policies which involved the reduction of regulations and other forms of federal bureaucracies. While all that occurred, President Warren turned his White House job into a ceremonial one.

Albert B. Falls’ Involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal

Albert B. Fall shared the President Warren’s initiative to bring the country back to “business as usual”. This involved reorganizing government and the various departments. The goal was to remove the bureaucratic systems that characterized World War I era. With those bureaucracies gone, Harding hoped that the country would move into its greatness without the need for Washington to intervene.

The movement of the US Navy’s oil reserves (at Elk Hills, Buena Vista and Teapot Dome) from the Navy to the interior department was just one of the tools Harding and his cabinet tried to use. The executive order (Order 3474) signed by Harding on May 31, 1921 helped facilitate this movement.

In March, 1922, reports from reputable news outlets revealed that Secretary Albert Fall was in cohort with his associates – Harry F. Sinclair of Mammoth Oil and Edward L. Doheny of Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company – to gain unfair advantage during the bidding process. The three men were accused of not going through an open bid system for the leases to those oil reserves.

And so the oil reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming was leased to Harry Sinclair’s Mammoth Oil Company; while the one at Elks Hill in California went to Edward Doheny’s Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company. The deals were shrouded in mystery and secrecy. It was also alleged that the Albert Fall took about $100,000 as bribes, an allegation all three men denied.

Investigations and Conviction

In his defense, Doheny claimed that the money in question was not a bribe; rather it was a loan. During his second appearance before congressional hearings, he pleaded the Fifth Amendment.

Albert B. Fall was convicted of bribery and conspiracy and sentenced to one year in prison. Doheny and Sinclair did not get prison sentences in relation to the scandal. However, their leases were cancelled. Ultimately, the businessmen lost quite a lot of money due to the cancellation.

Conclusion

Albert B. Fall was one of the corrupt friends and cabinet members that damaged Harding’s legacy. However, some historians beg to differ, claiming that Harding’s hands-off approach to steering the nation was what earned him a spot on America’s worst president list. The president’s lack of vision and an overarching message were just some of the reasons why the likes of Albert B. Fall were able to go rogue and corrupt.

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