Theodore Roosevelt's presidency was marked by a strong commitment to the conservation of public lands. To promote this goal, he surrounded himself with like-minded men, such as Secretary of the Interior James R. Garfield and Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot. Working under Secretary Garfield were Richard A. Ballinger, who was the General Land Office Commissioner and Louis R. Glavis who was chief of the Portland Field Division.
In 1906, Congress passed a law restricting the ownership of Alaskan land in an effort to protect them from commercial exploitation. The law stated that no more land would be given away; however, claims filed before 1906 would be honored once their legitimacy had been established.
Clarence Cunningham had filed 33 claims for land on behalf of various parties. In July 1907 the Morgan-Guggenheim syndicate purchased a 50% interest of the Cunningham claims in the belief that the land was rich in coal. This agreement was illegal, and if it had been discovered, would have been grounds for invalidating the claims.
Glavis heard rumors of the syndicate's involvement of the claims and secured Ballinger's approval to investigate the matter. A short while later, however, Ballinger was visited by Miles C. Moore, a Washington state politician who was one of the Cunningham claimants and a friend of Ballinger. Ballinger then ordered the claims to be "clear-listed" (which was the first step towards granting the deed to the land) without notifying Glavis of his actions. Glavis got wind of it anyway and talked Ballinger into rescinding the order.
Ballinger later resigned from the Department of the Interior and moved back to Seattle. While there he acted as legal counsel to the Cunningham claimants.
After Taft became President in 1909, he replaced Garfield as Secretary of the Interior with Ballinger. While claiming to transfer responsibility of the Cunningham claims to First Assistant Secretary Frank Pierce, Ballinger pressed for a hearing to resolve the matter. When Glavis complained that he could not finish his investigation before the hearing, he was replaced by James M. Sheridan, an inexperienced lawyer.
Glavis appealed to Pinchot for help in delaying the hearing. At Pinchot's suggestion, Glavis presented charges to President Taft, accusing Ballinger of negligence and endangering public lands. Ballinger responded with a 730-page report that defended his actions. Taft claimed to have spent a week studying the facts with Attorney General George W. Wickersham. On August 22 1909, Taft wrote a letter (supposedly based on a report drafted by Wickersham) exonerating Ballinger and authorizing Glavis' dismissal for insubordination. Pinchot was later fired as well.
On November 13, Collier's Magazine published Glavis' account of the incident. The article caused such a sensation that in the following January, Congress created a joint investigative committee to look into the incident.
When rumors reached Collier's that the committee was going to exonerate Ballinger, who was then going to sue the magazine for a million dollars, Collier's decided to hire Brandeis to represent them and Glavis.
The hearings convened on January 26, 1910. The committee was made up of eight Republicans (one of whom was hostile to the Taft administration) and four Democrats. Because of its political make up, the committee was largely hostile towards Collier's and Glavis, and nearly every motion brought forward by Brandeis was defeated by a 7-5 vote.
Despite the lack of cooperation by the committee members, Brandeis persevered and was able to make a number of key points:
Brandeis proved that the memo written by the Attorney General, the one that Taft supposedly based his letter from, was actually written a month after Taft's letter and was back- dated.
Frederick Kerby, a stenographer from the Department of the Interior, testified that a large part of Taft's letter was actually written by Oscar Lawler, a lawyer on Ballinger's staff.
Before Kerby's testimony, Brandeis had repeatedly tried to get the Department of the Interior to submit any memos prepared by Lawler, but the Department always denied that any such documents existed. After Kerby's testimony, the Attorney General's office suddenly produced the documents. However, they forgot to inform Taft that they were doing so, and on the same day, he insisted to the press that they did not exist. The next day, he had to make an embarrassing about face.
On May 20, 1910, nearly four months after the hearings started, Brandeis and the other lawyers made their closing arguments. No one was surprised when the committee voted 7-5 to exonerate Ballinger.
The damage had been done, however. Between the attempted cover up of the circumstances surrounding Taft's letter and Ballinger's performance under cross-examination, public opinion became set against the Taft administration. There was never a libel case. Ballinger ended up resigning in March 1911, and Roosevelt was so disgusted with the way Taft handled the situation that he ran for President against Taft, thereby ensuring Woodrow Wilson's success in the election.
The incident was seen as a vindication for the conservation movement. (Ironically, surveys of the Cunningham lands later showed that the lands had little coal.) And an obscure Boston lawyer suddenly gained national recognition as a champion of people's rights.
The above information was cribbed from Alpheus Mason's Bureaucracy Convicts Itself, Viking Press, 1941. Anyone wanting further information can find the book in many libraries under the call number HD 171 .E10 1941.