The Law: Oklahoma's Shocking Scandal
Time Magazine, Apr. 16, 1965
Little in U.S. judicial history comes close to matching the scandal now swirling around the Oklahoma State Supreme Court. Last week Oklahoma's senate scheduled proceedings against Justice Napoleon Bonaparte Johnson, 74, on impeachment charges by the state house of representatives. His colleague, Justice Earl Welch, 73, will escape the same fate only because he recently resigned in the wake of charges that he and Johnson took bribes in exchange for favorable decisions. Meanwhile, a state grand jury has indicted the two justices, both of them Oklahoma Indians. The alleged bribery ringleader is former Chief Justice Nelson S. Corn, 80, himself a convicted federal tax evader, as is Justice Welch.
In 1957, then Chief Justice Welch wrote a 6-to-2 opinion reversing a $200,000 state tax claim against a now defunct investment company that allegedly milked millions from trusting shareholders. Whatever the facts, it was only last year that evidence began mounting against the three elderly jurists. For federal tax evasion, Welch received a three-year rap but stayed on the bench pending his appeal. For the same charge, Corn pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) and served six months of an 18-month sentence.
After being released last winter, Corn signed an 84-page statement admitting that in the 1957 tax case he had sold his vote for $150,000, from which he said he paid $7,500 apiece to Justices Welch and Johnson. In 1959, Corn added, he paid his brethren another $2,500 apiece in an oil-lease case.
On Corn's evidence, the State Supreme Court last December voted to disbar Justice Welch. It was a meaningless gesture since the court had previously held that a lawyer leaves the bar when he ascends the benchan opinion that was written by Welch himself. If they are convicted on the bribery charges, however, Welch and Johnson face maximum sentences of ten years' imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. For allegedly lying about his part in the conspiracy, a federal grand jury has also slapped a perjury indictment against Lawyer Otto A. Cargill, 80, former mayor of Oklahoma City.
Shocked, the state bar association recently investigated the State Supreme Court. Though it cleared seven of the nine justices, omitting Welch and Johnson, the court has obviously suffered a crushing loss of prestige.Judges: Oklahoma Impeachment
By a vote of 32 to 15, precisely the two-thirds majority that was needed, the Oklahoma senate last week ousted State Supreme Court Justice Napoleon Bona parte Johnson, 74, on impeachment charges made by the state house of representatives (TIME, April 16). The case hinged on the testimony of former Justice Nelson S. Corn, 81, who was granted immunity after admitting that in 1957 he took a $150,000 bribe to mastermind the 6-2 reversal of a state tax claim against a shady investment company.
To swing that decision, Corn said that he paid $7,500 apiece to Justice Johnson and former Justice Earl Welch, 73, and later paid them another $2,500 apiece in an oil-lease case. Welch recently resigned, thus escaping impeachment. Johnson denied the charges, and when he was tried by Oklahoma's state senators, during one day's testimony, he repeated 56 times: "I don't recall." Johnson cannot appeal his removal from office. He and Welch also face probable criminal charges for bribery.