Friday, May 17, 2013

Scandals of Yesteryear: Billie Sol Estes, RIP

This has been a week of scandals, or at least supposed scandal.  But they don't do scandals like they used to.  These modern people just have no idea of how to make a scandal and how to cover it.  Let me tell you how it was in my day.

Billie Sol Estes was a real piece of work.  He died the other day, and the Times ran an obit which only touched the surface.  Bloomberg had this piece on him. Robert Caro had a whole chapter on him in his LBJ bio. And he was a cat man.

Who was he?  A wheeler dealer equal to Mark Twain's imagination (remember the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn?). He's called "the king of Texas wheeler-dealers", which isn't wrong.

He could call the vasty deep, and they might answer.  (Just so happens the town where he died, Granbury/deCordoba, Texas was just devastated by a tornado. He didn't go quietly into that good night.)

When I arrived at ASCS in 1968, I started to hear of Billie Sol, even though his downfall was 6 years earlier.  Old records were stored in the attic of the South Building,  Most of the records were in old metal file cabinets and accessible to anyone willing to walk up a flight of stairs from the 6th floor and brave the dust and gloom.  But some of the records were under lock and key in the vault; these were sensitive records, probably personnel stuff and perhaps some civil defense material.  The crown jewel, or at least the records which got talked about, were the Billie Sol Estes records. 

There's mention in the wikipedia entry of his buying cotton allotments, though not in the Times obit.  As was explained to me, part of his scheme was to buy cotton allotments in one area of Texas where the yield was low, and transfer them to a county where the yield was high.  So a 100 acre allotment in county A would equate to 300 pounds per acre, where if it was transferred to county B the same 100 acres could grow 600 pounds, and consequently be worth a lot more. My impression was that this was a loophole in the ASCS regs governing allotment transfers, which got plugged later by a rule change (so in my example the county B allotment would be just 50 acres).

When the Billie Sol scandal broke, USDA and ASCS were very much in the limelight, because he had ties to some of the officials (Texas state office, I think, but not sure) and some had to resign.   As I understood, third or fourth hand, in 1962 ASCS had no records system, or at least not an adequate one.  So as investigators tried to piece together what happened they gathered together all the records they could find, which were the ones which ended in the vault.

Now Congress, even though under the control of the Dems, had fun investigating because the blowhards and good government types (not always mutually exclusive types) love the publicity and the feeling of cleaning the Augean stables.  (ed: going overboard here on literary references.)  I'm not sure whether their staff actually saw all the records in the vault, or whether the agency was maybe hiding some.  

I did hear they were very efficient:  the Administrative Services division had two men with somewhat similar last names, one was a GS-9 dealing with property, the other a GS-12 who dealt with records. The Congressional committee hauled the poor property man into their hearing and pestered him with questions about records until they finally figured out they had the wrong man.

Anyhow, one result of the scandal was a very formalized system of recordkeeping for communications with the field, official record copies and finder copies, and a centralized depositary for the records.  Over the years of my career, that system was gradually eroded away, as people lost awareness of the original problem it was created to solve.  And, perhaps even more important, new  new equipment (office copiers and word processing which replaced carbon sets) and new people with new ideas on how to communicate proposals and make decisions took the place of the old hands.

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