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Investigations: The Silent Witness

24 minute read

(See Cover) With the exaggerated gestures of a man who feels the eyes of scrutiny, the short, fox-faced witness removed his serious blue fedora, took off the velvet-collared overcoat with the laven der silk lining, and with well-manicured hands smoothed back a wisp of brown hair. His bright eyes stole briefly across the gathered crowd and looked away again. Then, clutching a black attache case imprinted with his silver initials, Robert Gene Baker, 36, the whizbang from Pickens, S.C., hurried into a hearing room in the old Senate Office Building.

Hot-eyed TV lights glared down at the overflow of spectators lining the marble walls. Photographers jostled and cursed as they tried to get close to Baker, who himself had some difficulty squeezing through to the witness table. Bobby Baker grinned, waved to familiar faces, and, for the moment at least, appeared to be enjoying himself hugely. Finally seated, he extracted a pack of Salems from his coat pocket, laid it carefully alongside the Bible upon which he would soon be sworn in. Next he produced a typewritten sheet of paper and positioned it on the table just so.

Call It Off? His props in place, Baker nodded to some of his old employers—members of the Senate Rules Committee—who sat facing him. He also had a little joke with reporters, whom he had been assiduously avoiding. “Why don’t you fellows call this whole thing off,” he stage-whispered to the nearby press table, “so we can all get a rest?”

Bobby Baker was not the only one who would have liked to see the whole thing called off. His presence was a source of intense embarrassment to Democratic Senators. Up to five months ago, when he became the central figure in the gamiest Washington scandal in years, Baker was secretary to the Senate’s Democratic majority.

As such, he was beyond question the U.S. Senate’s most influential employee. He had been a particular protege of the Senate’s two most powerful Democrats —Oklahoma’s late Senator Robert Kerr and longtime Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Baker made it his unending business to know things—and what he didn’t know about the Senate and its members probably was not worth the trouble. He knew who was against what bill and why. He knew who was drunk. He knew who was out of town. He knew who was sleeping with whom. He influenced committee assignments. He influenced legislation. He came to be known as “the 101st Senator.” And he indulged in some vast moonlighting schemes that helped him parlay his $19,612-a-year Government salary into a fortune of up to $2,000,000.

It was the public disclosure of one of those schemes that led last October to Baker’s forced resignation as Senate majority secretary. Ever since, the Rules Committee, chaired by North Carolina’s colorless, cautious Senator B. Everett Jordan, has been investigating the Baker case.

His Word Was His Bond. Finally, last week, came Bobby Baker’s time to testify. It was plain that he did not intend to be helpful. Now smirking, now looking serious, he sat silently as his attorney, famed Trial Lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, argued successfully to have television cameras removed from the room. A fascinated TV audience watched as the cameras withdrew and then focused on the closed door. When questions started coming his way, Bobby steadfastly refused to answer them, invoking not only the familiar Fifth Amendment, but the First, Fourth and Sixth as well. Reading from the typewritten statement that he had placed in front of him, he insisted that the hearing had no “true legislative purpose,” and was “an unconstitutional invasion by the legislative branch into the proper function of the judiciary.”

Seldom did Baker deviate from his prepared statement. One time was when Committee Counsel Lennox Polk McLendon, 74, a self-described “country lawyer” from North Carolina, noted that Baker had previously refused to turn his records over to the committee, hopefully suggested that by now Baker might have changed his mind. “You don’t know me,” snapped Baker. “Whatever reputation I made in the Senate, my word was my bond. When I told you I was not going to testify, that ended it.” Again, Rhode Island’s Democratic Senator Claiborne Pell asked if Baker, who had begun his career as a Senate pageboy, had any ideas about improving pageboy hiring practices. To a fatuous question, came a gratuitous answer. Advised Bobby: “There are many fine orphan boys in the District.

It would be fine if you tried to utilize these young men.”

Aside from those occasions, Baker remained obdurate during 2½ hours and 125 questions. Still, the questions themselves gave some indication of the extent of Baker’s wheeling-dealing activities. And in many instances those questions had already been answered or partly answered by previous committee witnesses or by other evidence uncovered during the Baker investigation.

Had he used his Capitol office to transact private business, such as dispensing large amounts of cash?

Gertrude Novak, a Senate clerk who, with her late husband, was a partner in Baker-inspired motel and stock ventures, testified that she frequently went to Baker’s office to pick up sums ranging from $1,000 to $13,300, always in cash. She said that the money was for operating expenses at the Carousel Motel in Ocean City, Md. Baker and the Novak family built the $1,200,000 motel in 1962, later sold it to Serv-U Corp., a vending-machine firm in which Baker is a major stockholder.

Had he identified his secretary, Carole Tyler, as a “cousin” for purposes of buying a Washington townhouse?

To get around a stipulation that houses in the development be occupied by the owner or his family, Baker said his “cousin, N. C. Tyler,” would live there. “N. C. Tyler” was Nancy Carole Tyler, 24, a sultry, shapely brunette who, whatever her relationship to Baker may be, is certainly no kin.

Had he received monthly payments from Ralph Hill, president of Capitol Vending Co., in return for getting Capitol a contract with Melpar, Inc., a Virginia aerospace subcontractor?

Last September Hill filed a $300,000 damage suit against Baker, Ernest C. Tucker, Baker’s Washington law office associate, and Fred Black Jr., a Baker buddy who, like Baker, is a big Serv-U stockholder. Hill’s suit, with the publicity it generated, was the pin that popped Baker’s soaring balloon. In the suit Hill charged that Baker negotiated to get Capitol’s machines into Melpar, then demanded a monthly kickback. Hill said he paid Baker $5,600 over 16 months. He also charged that when Baker wanted Hill to sell out to Serv-U and he refused, Baker talked Melpar into dropping its Capitol contract.

Had Baker used his position as majority secretary to get Serv-U into North American Aviation plants?

Hill’s suit further contended that Baker told North American Lobbyist Black he could help North American get Government contracts through his Senate post. This, Hill claimed, led Black to assist Serv-U in getting North American’s business. North American President John L. Atwood told the committee that Serv-U vending machines did $2,500,000 worth of business annually in North American installations.

Had Baker played any role in trying to set up gambling concessions outside the U.S.?

John B. Gates, board chairman of Pan American World Airways’ Intercontinental Hotels Corp., testified that Baker last summer introduced him to one Edward Levinson, a Las Vegas casino operator, Serv-U stockholder and sometime Baker business partner. Levinson wanted “to become associated with the casinos” at two of Intercontinental’s Caribbean hotels, Gates said. Levinson withdrew after Gates told him that any deal involving Levinson’s brother Louis, a shady character with a police record, would be “unacceptable.”

Had Baker given Lyndon Johnson a stereo phonograph?

President Johnson told a January news conference that he had received a $588 stereo as a personal gift from Baker. However, Don Reynolds, owner of a Silver Spring, Md., insurance agency in which Baker occasionally shared the profits, insisted before the committee that he was the donor. Reynolds said that the gift had been suggested by Baker as an appropriate gesture on Reynolds’ part for writing a $100,000 policy on Johnson’s life.

Had Baker had any part in Reynolds’ purchase of $1,200 in advertising time on Lady Bird Johnson’s Austin, Texas, TV station?

Reynolds told the committee that during negotiations for Johnson’s policy, Johnson Aide Walter Jenkins “suggested” that Reynolds buy the time, and Reynolds did so “because it was expected of me.” Jenkins denied the allegation in a sworn affidavit to the committee.

Had Baker received a $4,000 kickback on a commission earned by Reynolds in connection with the building of the District of Columbia stadium?

Reynolds testified that he paid that sum to Baker out of an approximate $10,000 commission he had earned for writing a performance bond on Philadelphia Contractor Matthew McCloskey, successful bidder on the stadium project. McCloskey, who recently resigned as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, is a longtime Democratic Party moneybags. Reynolds said that Baker arranged for him to meet McCloskey in Baker’s Capitol office. Reynolds also testified that he paid $1,500 from the same commission to William N. McLeod Jr., then clerk of the House of Representatives’ District of Columbia Committee.

Had Baker received money from meat import-export transactions, and “wasn’t this part of a device whereby the Murchison interests could reimburse you for past and future legislative favors granted?”

Thomas Webb, a Washington representative for the Murchison family of Texas, told the committee that in 1961 Baker was responsible for finding a buyer for meat for the Murchison-bankrolled Haitian-American Meat & Provisions Co. (Hampco) of Port-au-Prince. For this, Webb said, Baker earned a ¼¢-a-lb. “finder’s fee.” Later, when a Chicago firm, Packers Provision Co., bought Hampco’s output, Baker began receiving a ⅛-a-lb. commission, though he had no part in getting Packers and Hampco together. Packers President William Kentor has said that Hampco “insisted” Baker be paid. Besides getting a cut from the new importer, Baker also has been guaranteed 2.5% of Hampco’s annual net profits, up to a maximum of $30,000 a year. What for? Nobody knows yet.

Had Baker provided entertainment facilities for persons doing business with the Government, “and by entertainment facilities I refer to personnel, including party girls”?

There has been no testimony that Baker himself was involved in supplying party girls, although several of his Washington pals have been described as practitioners of the so-called “get-a-contract-with-a-girl” form of business promotion.

Had Baker been involved in deportation proceedings against one Ellen Rometsch?

Ellen Rometsch, a party girl of peculiar tastes, was sent back home to West Germany last summer after the FBI began investigating her sex habits. “Elly” is remembered as a sometime hostess at the Quorum Club, a Washington watering spot for lobbyists and Congressmen that Baker helped organize. Though Baker, as well as other men about Washington, probably breathed a sigh of relief when Elly left, he apparently had no part in getting her deported. She was subsequently divorced by her West German army sergeant husband on grounds of “conduct contrary to matrimonial rules.”

Did Baker “recall or wish to state how many people you have referred to a Puerto Rican doctor for the performance of abortions”?

Witness Reynolds told the committee that he once called Baker on behalf of a client who, in turn, had a friend interested in an abortion. Reynolds said that Baker supplied a Capitol telephone number, which Reynolds passed along. He did not know whether an abortion was performed.

“Was it true that you forced a Senate page named Boyd Richie to deduct $50 per month from his salary and kick it back to you in order that you could help Walter J. Stewart along?”

Richie, a $403-a-month telephone page in Baker’s office, roomed with Stewart, also a page, and paid Stewart $50 a month rent. When Stewart went off the Senate payroll while on military duty, Richie said, Baker ordered him to pay an additional $50 monthly, presumably to make up for Stewart’s missing income. Richie, who was dating Lucy Baines Johnson at the time, mentioned the inequitable arrangement to then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson. L.B.J. spoke to Baker, suggested that Richie live free for three months in Stewart’s apartment to make up what he had lost. Said Baker, explaining why the bite had been put on Richie: “After all, he was just a teen-ager making a good salary.”

Had Baker received $10,000 from Fred Black for a 1960 presidential candidate’s campaign contribution?

Reynolds told the committee’s Republican members that he was present when Black gave Baker $10,000 in cash “to get our man elected,” and promised $90,000 more. Reynolds said that Baker later told him the money was for Johnson’s campaign.

“A Tragedy.” The Rules Committee was understandably grieved by Baker’s refusal to answer such questions. Declared Counsel McLendon: “We have witnessed a tragedy this morning because a man who has occupied a very high position in Government—so important, so sensitive, so close to the heart of Government—finds it necessary to invoke the protection of the Fifth Amendment.”

Next day the committee got another brushoff—but, all things being relative, this one seemed almost pleasurable. When Carole Tyler swept into the hearing room on the arm of her lawyer, the photographers nearly rioted. From her lacquered bouffant hairdo down to her black high-heeled pumps, she was 5 ft. 4 in. of elliptical extravagance. Unlike Baker, Carole did not in the least mind appearing on television; rather, her batter-thick pancake makeup, her bright vermilion lip paint and her heavily charcoaled eyebrows seemed ready for living color. The Baker investigation, she pouted, “has resulted in some worldwide intimations and suggestions that I have indulged in improper conduct, to say the least.” She went on to lecture the Senators on what the U.S. Supreme Court has said about taking a person’s use of the Fifth Amendment as evidence of guilt. “I pray,” she purred, “that the public will keep an open mind regarding me in order to insure that no further irreparable injury may result to my reputation.” The committee was gentle with her, asked only 25 questions. When she refused to answer, it was with sweet firmness. Each time, she read from a typewritten card: “I decline to answer on the ground that this investigation is unrelated to any legislative purpose and is an invalid invasion of my right of privacy; and I decline to answer on the further ground that my answer might tend to incriminate me.”

After his committee appearance, Bobby repaired to Duke Zeibert’s restaurant, a favorite spa for Washington’s political jet set, and presided over a luncheon with his attorneys. As for Carole, she went back to Baker’s law office, where she is working these days. For a couple of country kids, they had come a long way from rural South Carolina and rural Tennessee.

He Don’t Give Up. Bobby was only 14 when he deserted Pickens. But he had already made a lasting impression. A high-school teacher, Lucille Hallum, recently recalled him as “so vivacious, just a little trigger. If you wanted something done, you gave it to Bobby and you knew it would be done.”

Bobby was the eldest of Postman Ernest Baker’s brood of eight. The Bakers lived in a big frame house on Hampton Avenue, and all the youngsters worked to help out. “We’ve never been poor,” said Ernest Baker, “but we weren’t rich either.” When South Carolina sent Burnet Maybank to the Senate in 1941, Maybank owed a political favor to a man in Pickens, offered to make his son a Senate page. The boy turned it down, and Bobby Baker was recommended in his place. He had never been away before, and upon reaching Washington he became miserably homesick. Teacher Hallum heard about it and wrote him a letter: “I asked him not to give up, to stay there and fight because we were all proud of him and we were with him.” Bobby’s reply was scrawled in pencil upon a sheet of tablet paper. “Miss Hallum,” he wrote, “Bobby Baker don’t quit.”

He sure didn’t. Within two years the homesick boy from Pickens had eager-beavered his way to the position of chief Senate page. Meantime, he put himself through George Washington University, and, later, the American University law school.

In 1949 two men who were to be come the most powerful of Senate Democrats entered the hallowed cham ber. They were Lyndon Johnson of Texas and Robert Kerr of Oklahoma. Bobby Baker spotted them as real comers—and he made certain that they saw him the same way. The relationship with Kerr was cemented first; before very long Kerr was tipping Baker to profitable stock investments, something that the tough, rough oil millionaire did for few others. Next, Baker ingratiated himself with Johnson. Recalls a former Johnson staffer of Baker: “He was an unabashed lackey, a bootlicker. He’d think of all manner of ex cuses to come in the office and see Johnson, and he’d tell him about all the things he was doing for him, all the little ways he was helping him.”

Leaking Stories. Bootlicker he may have been, but Baker was also an extremely agile, able young man. Concedes a Democratic Senator who is not listed among Baker’s foremost admirers: “Bobby always knew more about what was going on around here than most anybody else.” But life was not all work for Bobby: in 1950 he wooed and wed Dorothy Comstock, a slender blonde from Springfield, III., who worked then and now on the Hill as a clerk of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Their wedding reception, to Baker’s everlasting gratification, was held in one of the old Senate Office Building’s ornate committee rooms—not far from where Baker last week was called to testify.

In 1951 the position of Senate majority whip opened, and Johnson had considerable backing for the post. Bobby, naturally, heard about it, and decided to help out. Said he, years later: “I kept leaking stories to the newspapers that Johnson had the inside track; that in a showdown he would have the votes.” Obviously it is impossible to say today just how much Baker’s affairs had to do with John son’s election—but the Baker-sponsored bandwagon movement certainly did not impair Lyndon’s chances. Johnson saw to it that Baker was named assistant Democratic Senate secretary.

The Democrats lost the Senate majority in 1952, but in that same election, Democratic Floor Leader Ernest McFarland of Arizona was defeated at home by Republican Barry Goldwater. The day after the elections, Baker was summoned to the telephone from law class at American University. It was Lyndon Johnson, calling from Texas. “He wanted to know what people in Washington were saying, how things looked up here,” Baker once recalled. “I told him it looked like he was the leader. At the beginning of the next Congress, he was.” Johnson eventually saw to it that Baker was named secretary to the Senate Democrats. Among Baker’s perquisites was a long, black Government-owned Lincoln, a big Capitol office (even if it was in the basement) with a real crystal chandelier and gold draperies. Bobby Baker was now in his element.

As it happened, Johnson was one of the most effective—and most domineering—floor leaders in Senate history. He set right out to bridle the Senate, and he used Baker as the bit. Recalls a Senate veteran: “Bobby was Lyndon’s bluntest instrument in running the show the way he wanted.” For being such, Baker was rewarded with equal measures of prestige and praise.

Last & First. At the end of the 1957 congressional session, for example, Johnson rose in the Senate and lauded Bobby almost to the point of embarrassment. “The secretary to the majority is the most tireless and indefatigable man on this floor,” said Lyndon. “Bobby Baker is a young man who already has gone much further in life than many others of far greater years. And it is my personal opinion that he is just getting started.” Another time, during Johnson’s 1960 vice-presidential campaign, he took the better part of an afternoon to go with Bobby into the mountains of South Carolina, to a place called Rocky Bottom, for a political rally. For Native Son Baker, it was a tremendous triumph to appear in such a place with such a man. Johnson took the opportunity to tell Baker’s father that Bobby was “my strong right arm, the last man I see at night, the first one I see in the morning.”

A good intelligence system was held dear by Lyndon in running the Senate, and Bobby was the expert at estimating the overall mood. While so engaged, Baker was forever scurrying back and forth across the Democratic side of the floor. Indeed, at times he looked like a busy, busy squirrel that owned a great oak tree and spent its days dashing about the limbs to make sure all the acorns remained in place. Part of Baker’s job was keeping track of the voting. On important measures, he usually kept tab on narrow white tally sheets. On the more routine votes, he would more than likely be found just inside the rear center door, telling arriving Democrats what was at issue and how the leadership—meaning Johnson—wanted them to vote.

Sometimes, of course, his highhanded ways enraged rank-and-file Democratic Senators. There was the time when North Dakota’s Quentin Burdick and Ohio’s Stephen Young, both Democrats but a bit too liberal to be members of the Johnson fan club, badly wanted two vacancies that had occurred on the Judiciary Committee. Both had applied for the places in writing. When the committee-assigning Democratic steering committee met, however, Baker appeared before it and announced that Burdick and Young had withdrawn their requests. No one questioned his word, and the seats were given to Missouri’s Edward Long and Texas’ William Blakley, both Johnson enthusiasts. As it turned out, neither Burdick nor Young had agreed to withdraw.

When Johnson became Vice President, Baker stayed on as majority secretary. To some, it seemed that Johnson was not really gone at all: Baker slavishly tried to effect a Johnsonian pose, took to standing on the Senate floor as Johnson was wont to do, bracing his shoulders and smoothing his sideburns. Said one observer: “The only thing that was wrong with his act was that he was six inches too short.”

That did not bother Bobby. He was growing bigger every day—too big, in fact, for his britches. Once, during this period, he told a group of visiting political-science scholars: “On any issue, I have at least ten Senators in the palm of my hand.” At the same time, says a Senate aide, who watched Bobby’s rise with some awe, “the lobbyists were swarming around his office like flies. They buttered him up, kept telling him how great he was, and I think a lot of his trouble now comes because he got to believing it.”

A Lot of Laughs. Well he might have. Baker had long since begun to maneuver outside the Senate as well as in the cloakrooms. For one thing, he had acquired Carole Tyler as his secretary. Back home in Tennessee, she had won a “Miss Loudon County” award, and she was a natural beauty-pageant type —35-26-35. Daughter of a Lenoir City dry-cleaning plant operator, Carole arrived in Washington in 1959, three years later was Baker’s private secretary and confidante. As the former she received $8,000 a year, as the latter a lot of laughs and good times. When Baker established her in the lavendercarpeted cooperative townhouse in December 1962, he had a more convenient base of operations for his extracurricular activities. They were many and diverse:

∙STOCK. Baker’s fortunes began to grow when he first latched onto a 250-share hunk of stock in Milwaukee’s Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corp. (nicknamed “Magic”). He bought the stock before the SEC had registered it, eventually saw a $28,750 investment balloon to about $400,000. Why had Magic’s president, Max Karl, catered to Bobby? As Karl later testified, “I was impressed with his title.” It would be good for Magic, he added, to have “well-known stockholders,” and Baker “knew a lot of people.” Baker certainly did, and he touted many of them, including Robert F. Thompson, executive vice president of Tecon Corp., a Dallas construction firm headed by Clint Murchison Jr. When Thompson borrowed $110,000 from Dallas’ First National to buy Magic stock and offered to cut Baker in fifty-fifty on profits or losses under a “gentleman’s agreement,” Baker cleared a cool $21,000 profit without investing a penny.

∙LAND. Bobby became a land speculator after Florida’s Democratic Senator George Smathers sold both Baker and Scott Peek, at that time Smathers’ administrative assistant, one-eighth shares in a 143-acre development near Orlando, Fla. Baker paid $1,500 for his share, has so far got back about $4,000.

∙BANKING. Baker got a seemingly inexhaustible line of credit through Bob Kerr’s Fidelity National Bank in Oklahoma City. During 1962, Friend Fred Black Jr. testified, he and Baker borrowed more than $500,000 from Fidelity National, much of the money going to finance operations of Serv-U Corp. Through Baker’s friendship with Kerr, Black said, he was able to borrow large sums. In 1962 he got one loan for $175,000 to purchase stock in the Farmers & Merchants State Bank in Tulsa, subsequently sold 1,500 shares to Edward Levinson and 1,600 shares to Ben Sigelbaum, a seldom-seen Miami pal of Levinson’s. For his part, Baker had other well-oiled bank connections. Washington’s District of Columbia National Bank lent him an unsecured $125,000 for the full cost of Baker’s new Washington home because, a bank officer testified, Baker was “a gentleman with innumerable friendships and connections.” Baker’s house, into which he moved last fall with Wife Dorothy and the five Baker children, ages 13 to 1½, is near Lyndon Johnson’s pre-White House mansion, and equally close to Fred Black’s imposing pad, all in the Spring Valley section.

There were other enterprises, among them a travel agency in Washington and a Howard Johnson’s motel in North Carolina, in both of which Baker had a piece of the action. But they were small potatoes compared with Serv-U, the Baker-Black-controlled vending-machine firm. Less than 24 months after it qualified to do business in California in January 1962, Serv U had been awarded chunks of the vending business at three major aerospace firms—North American Aviation, Northrop Corp., and Thompson Ramo Wooldridge’s Space Technology Laboratories.

Serv-U is unusual in another sense as well. It is the one outfit in which so many of Baker’s business associates are linked together. These include men like the glib Fred Black, under indictment for income tax evasion and, until he was fired last week, a top lobbyist paid by North American; Ernest Tucker, with whom Baker shares a Washington law office, and who has his finger in several Baker pies; Edward Levinson, the Las Vegas operator, and the mysterious Miamian, Benny Sigelbaum.

Far from Closed. There is no doubt that, through the tangled web of his far-reaching financial dealings, Baker used his Senate post to feather his own and his friends’ nests. But whether an influence-peddling case can be made against him remains to be seen. While Pennsylvania Republican Hugh Scott, a member of the committee investigating Bobby, wants 40 more witnesses called, Counsel McLendon talks privately about summoning only half a dozen or so more, then closing down. Chairman Jordan seems disposed to go along with McLendon. Naturally enough, the Republican minority would like to turn the Baker affair into an attack on Lyndon Johnson next fall; the Democrats, just as naturally, are reluctant to let things go too far. Looming ahead is a certain roadblock. The Senate’s upcoming debate on the civil rights bill will bring most committee hearings to a standstill.

But no matter how fervently some wish the Baker business would be laid to rest without disturbing more bodies, the case is far from closed. As busy as Bobby Baker was, all sorts of trails will inevitably keep turning up.

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