Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Howser Hit by Kefauver Committee, Loses Libel Action Against Drew Pearson
By ROGER M. GRACE
Fifty-Seventh in a Series
FRED N. HOWSER—district attorney of Los Angeles County from February, 1943 to December, 1946, and state attorney general from January, 1947 to January, 1951—did not step out of the furnace when he left office. Rather, it got hotter as new developments pointed to misfeasance by him while serving in his prosecutorial posts.
That’s not to say Howser had been free of scorn or scrutiny during the time he was in office. To the contrary...
•On Sept. 12, 1948, influential national commentator/columnist Drew Pearson, in his weekly radio broadcast from the District of Columbia, accused Howser of having “accepted 12 $100 bills passed on to him from a well-known Long Beach gambler” which was “was nothing less than protection money—in other words, a bribe.” (The broadcast was heard locally on both KFI, the NBC affiliate, at 6 p.m., and KNX, the CBS-owned station, at 11:15 p.m.) Howser caused recurring recitations of that allegation by suing Pearson for libel, with the progress of the suit being reported on in the nation’s newspapers.
•Concerns over Howser’s alleged ties to gambling interests long predated Pearson’s report. In light of those concerns, as noted Monday, the California Republican Assembly, a powerhorse volunteer organization, declined to endorse the Republican Howser’s bid for reelection as attorney general…instead backing former GOP state chairman Ed Shattuck. (The Los Angeles County Bar Assn.’s Shattuck-Price Award is named after him and Ira Price, the two LACBA presidents who died while in office.) In the Republican primary, Shattuck came in first; San Francisco District Attorney Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, a Democrat, was second (these were the days of cross-filing), and the incumbent, Howser, was in third place. The Democrats overwhelmingly supported Brown; Howser came next, then Shattuck.
Having failed to gain the confidence of his own party after four years in office, with scuttlebutt being that he was corrupt, Howser left government service in disgrace.
It got worse.
On Feb. 28, 1951, the U.S. Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce—known as the “Kefauver Committee”—issued a report saying:
“Striking evidence concerning direct payments of protection money to high State officials is the shocking story revealed by the California Commission on Organized Crime and repeated by Warren Olney, its former counsel, before this committee. Representatives of the attorney general’s office, with the apparent blessing of Fred Howser, then attorney general, attempted to organize a State-wide system of protection for slot-machine operations and for the distribution of punch boards.”
It did say that the graft had the apparent blessing of Howser. Hard evidence was never adduced.
For example, the AG’s Office, under Howser, had seized slot machines in San Bernardino County. Issuing orders for the seizure was a Howser lieutenant, Wiley Cadell. Olney told the Kefauver Committee (chaired by U.S. Sen. Kefauver, D-Tenn., who would be the Democrats’ 1956 vice presidential nominee) that testimony before the California crime commission showed that a particular truck went “from Mendocino County down into Los Angeles and then over to San Bernardino and then back up to Mendocino County.” That truck “showed up with some slot machines,” Olney said. However, Olney (who was later to serve as assistant U.S. attorney general) acknowledged that “as to whether or not the machines that then appeared in Mendocino County were the same ones that were seized in San Bernardino County, we never knew for sure. We never could prove it.”
Yet, any suspicion that these were the same slot machines were not only reasonable, but a contrary supposition would appear to be naive. Cadell, who ordered the seizure of the devices in San Bernardino, had, since then, been convicted of attempting to bribe the sheriff of Mendocino in the course of trying to set-up protection for the operation of slot machines in that county. Howser had, according to Olney’s testimony, sought to deter the investigation leading to that conviction.
Howser’s one hope for rescuing his plummeting reputation was to win his $350,000 libel action against Pearson.
He testified on Jan. 15, 1951 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that there was no truth to the account of his having taken a bribe. The next day’s issue of the Times says:
“Close to tears, as he described his feelings when a member of his staff told him of the broadcast, Howser said the Pearson charges would ‘haunt me to my grave.’ ”
The jury’s verdict came on Jan. 22, and was unanimous. As Pearson crows in his “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column on Jan. 27, 1951:
“The jury, as is now known, ruled that Defendant Pearson told the truth, that Defendant Pearson acted without malice, and even volunteered the information that, even untrue, the Defendant Pearson’s broadcast did not injure Howser’s reputation.”
(Pearson had an annoying proclivity for referring to himself in the third person.)
Howser’s son, retired Newport Beach attorney Fred Allen Howser, says the verdict might “very possibly” have gone the other way had the action been tried here, rather than in Pearson’s bailiwick.
“Juries in Washington, D.C., at that time were very much comprised of public service employees”—that is, ones who worked for the federal government, the son remarks, explaining:
“They were very, very afraid of Drew Pearson from the standpoint of what he could do to their careers, from the janitor on up.”
The most severe of the accusations against Howser—including complicity in soliciting false testimony, perjury, and arranging a beating—did not come to light until 1974 when a 592-page book titled “Drew Pearson Diaries 1949-1959” was published, five years after Pearson died.
By then, Howser had long been out of the public’s eye and the revelations eluded press attention. Howser did not sue Pearson’s estate or the publisher, or anyone else for that matter, for libel in connection with the book.
His son tells me:
“I never heard him mention that diary and I think there’s a good chance he didn’t know about it. I’ve never seen it. I don’t know what’s in it.”
Here is some of what’s in it.
It tells of purported efforts to discourage a key witness from testifying. The witness was James Mulloy, a bookmaker, who claimed that he had handed Howser the bribe money. These entries are from 1949:
“June 22: George Arnold [Pearson’s son-in-law and one of his attorneys] has gotten in touch with Mulloy in Fresno and finds that Mulloy has gone over to Howser. We don’t know why.”
“June 24: George went to Fresno and finally got the truth out of Mulloy. He says he was approached by the Howser crowd, who in the end offered him $18,000 plus a trip to Canada if he would retract all that he had testified to in his deposition for me. Ex-Congressman Bud Gearhart and [Walter] Lentz, who acted for Howser in dealing with Mulloy, told him that the Justice Department would never extradite him from Canada to face a perjury charge because Truman hated me.”
“June 25: George has persuaded Mulloy to stand with us. Mulloy is weak but I am convinced honest at heart. George stood in the lobby of the Fresno Hotel and watched the Fresno DA, who works for Howser, hand Mulloy some money.”
“July 20: Jim Carter, the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, finally cracked down on the Howser crowd. They arrested Howser’s DA in Fresno this morning. An hour or two later they arrested Walter Lentz, who used to be Howser’s right-hand man and head of his secret service. They held Lentz on the charge of bribing a witness—namely, Mulloy.”
“September 24: Lentz and Franklin, the two Howser stooges in Fresno who tried to bribe Malloy, were indicted yesterday on a charge of tampering with a federal witness.”
“October 3: George Arnold called me from Los Angeles to say that he had moved in federal court to postpone Mulloy’s deposition. The judge granted the motion without even listening to his argument; told him to ‘Sit down young man, and don’t argue when the court is with you.’ In preparing his motion, George got affidavits from the district attorney in Fresno and one other city official stating under oath that Howser had approached them last May asking them to get Mulloy drunk in order to give the police an excuse to arrest and jail him for the purpose of getting him to change his testimony.
“The significant thing to me is that the FBI must have had exactly this same information at the time Howser was up for possible indictment. Nevertheless the Justice Department sidestepped indicting Howser.”
Among the diary entries for 1950 is a recitation of meeting with criminal defense attorney Gladys Towles Root on Jan. 23. Pearson tells of her offer to supply him with Dictaphone recordings and with photos of Howser in houses of prostitution. Her price was $20,000, to go to her clients. His answer: no.
Pearson’s March 6, 1950 column says that a “federal witness, Ralph Allen, was almost beaten to death in Long Beach, Calif.,” adding: “Allen had been a witness before a federal grand jury against Attorney General Howser, and shortly thereafter was pistol-whipped to within an inch of his life.” The column hints, at most, of Howser having personally directed the beating. But a Jan. 26 entry in the diary is explicit. It says that Howser had Allen “nearly beaten to death in Long Beach.”
The diary relates that in a deposition that day, “Howser denied knowing Ralph Allen,” with Pearson scoffing that the attorney general “knew all about Allen” and, aside from having commissioned his beating, “had detectives following him at the Lankershim Hotel only two nights ago.”
Howser attempted a political comeback in 1954, entering the Republican and Democratic primaries for attorney general (under cross-filing). Then-incumbent Brown bagged not only the Democratic Party nod for reelection, but that of the Republican Party. Brown went on to become governor in 1959. Howser’s career in politics had ended.
On Oct. 6, 1955, according to a United Press dispatch from Sacramento, the state director of Alcohol Beverage Control denied a liquor license to Howser. In his application, the ex-AG represented himself to be the owner of the Gardena establishment seeking the license…but the director said he was “suspicious” of that, it appearing that Howser was fronting for undisclosed parties.
On Jan. 23, 1958, Howser’s client H.J. Caruso, an automobile dealer, was sentenced on four counts of forgery and grand theft—disproving his advertising slogan, “He’s the Greatest.” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge H. Burton Noble placed him on 10 years probation, conditioned on paying a $10,000 fine and serving a year in jail.
Howser unsuccessfully renewed his motion that Caruso be allowed to change his plea. As recounted in the next morning’s issue of the Times, Howser insisted that his client had pled guilty, though he wasn’t, because of pressures placed on him. District Attorney William B. McKesson, whom the ex-DA Howser identified as “the second most powerful legal figure in the state,” had brought “pressure to bear,” he insisted. McKesson was present.
The newspaper reports:
“Howser said that he hadn’t seen a District Attorney lend his presence to such a case in 25 years of practice, but at this point Judge Noble interrupted testily to point out that McKesson had many times visited his court.”
Caruso appealed, contending that his guilty plea was the result of importuning by Howser. The Oct. 21, 1959 opinion upholding the judgment quotes Caruso as saying:
“After pleading guilty upon the advice of Mr. Howser, I learned for the first time that he had not read the transcripts nor studied the mass of records, but that he had relied upon the statements made to him about my case by his former deputies in the District Attorney’s office, in whom he reposed great faith, who told him they had more than enough evidence to convict the seventeen defendants in the case.”
The opinion alludes to a $50,000 “contingency fee” which Howser would have received had Caruso been spared any incarceration.
Caruso began serving his jail term on March 21, 1960. But on April 11, the former car dealer was again before Noble, seeking a new trial on the basis of his having pled guilty based on bad advice from Howser—who, he asserted, had told him that he could bribe the judge. Caruso said he put $50,000 into escrow, with $25,000 earmarked for the judge, and the other half to go to Howser. The money was later returned.
Howser testified, denying the allegation, and insisting the $50,000 was a contingency fee. The Times’ account on April 12 mentions:
“Obviously distraught, Howser wiped away tears at one point in his testimony following reference to possible Bar action for acceptance of contingency fees in criminal cases.”
Noble, on April 13, denied relief.
Caruso subsequently testified against his former lawyer at a State Bar proceeding. In the end, no public discipline was imposed.
Howser died April 26, 1987, at the age of 82. A May 1 obituary carried by the Associated Press identifies him as “a fiery District Attorney of Los Angeles and Attorney General of California who sparred with politicians, journalists and celebrities in the 1940’s.”
Fiery? That’s not how his son recalls him.
“He was jovial, mellow, hale,” the retired attorney says.
“He enjoyed people.”
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company