Before Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the Clinton impeachment, there was the Teapot Dome scandal. As secretary of the interior under President Warren Harding, Albert Fall used his position to hand government-owned land to his friends in the oil business—and the private buyers agreed to line his pockets in return. The shady dealings resulted in an investigation, a guilty conviction, and a Supreme Court case that changed the role of the Senate. Though similar stories have cycled in out of the news in the decades since, Teapot Dome has remained a touchstone for corruption in U.S. government. Here’s what you should know about the biggest political scandal of the 1920s.
1. Warren Harding’s campaign was backed by the oil industry.
When Warren G. Harding became president in 1920, oil tycoons saw him as the answer to their prayers. Some had donated to his campaign and counted on him to return the favor with oil-friendly Cabinet appointments. Edward L. Doheny of Pan American Petroleum and Transport gave $25,000 to the Republican candidate, while Harry F. Sinclair of Mammoth Oil contributed $1 million. When Harding appointed Senator Albert Fall—a New Mexico rancher and old friend of Doheny’s—to be his Interior secretary, Big Oil was clearly an influence.
2. Teapot Dome wasn’t the first federal property Fall went after.
Conservationists were wary of Fall prior to the Teapot Dome scandal. Before joining Harding’s Cabinet he had worked as a lawyer for logging and mining businesses, and as secretary of the interior, he quickly tried to use his power to grant companies access to public lands. He first attempted to open up Alaska’s natural resources to private businesses, and later, he tried transferring oversight of national forests and the U.S. Forest Service (which were part of the Department of Agriculture) to his department. In both cases, conservationists in Congress blocked his efforts. But they weren’t able to stop him from moving control of the Navy’s oil reserves to the Department of the Interior in 1922.
3. Teapot Dome was one of multiple oil reserves involved.
Before Harding’s administration, President William Howard Taft had set aside several oil fields to be used as fuel reserves for the Navy in case of wartime shortages. Private oil barons had eyed this land for years, and it became much easier to infiltrate under Harding. Fall convinced the president to shift control of the public oil reserves to the Department of the Interior. Following the transfer, Secretary Fall leased multiple government sites to private businessmen without a public announcement or competitive bidding. Teapot Dome, a site north of Casper, Wyoming, went to Harry Sinclair, and Elk Hills in California went to Edward L. Doheny. Though Teapot Dome (named for a nearby rock formation shaped like a teapot) was just one of the properties involved, it would come to represent the scandal.
4. The leases weren’t what got Fall in trouble.
Doheny paid Fall $100,000 in exchange for the land—a sum equivalent to more than $1.5 million today. Fall used the money to pay for his sprawling ranch in New Mexico. Sinclair, meanwhile, delivered livestock to his property and transferred roughly $300,000 in cash and Liberty bonds to Fall’s son-in-law. Ultimately it was these gifts, not the leases, that landed the men in legal trouble. Though Doheny and Fall insisted the $100,000 payment was an “interest-free loan,” the Senate suspected them of bribery and launched an inquiry.
5. It led to a Supreme Court case that granted investigatory power to Congress.
Congress’s right to subpoena witnesses in investigations is less than a century old. As the Senate scrutinized Attorney General Harry Daugherty’s failure to investigate the Teapot Dome scandal, it called on his brother, Mally Daugherty, to testify. He refused, and this led to the spin-off trial McGrain v. Daugherty. The Constitution doesn’t explicitly grant Congress the right to investigate private citizens’ affairs, but the Supreme Court recognized this power when deciding the case in 1927. This precedent was reinforced two years later after Sinclair declined to speak on certain topics before the Senate. In Sinclair v. United States, the Supreme Court once again stated that Congress could make witnesses appear before its investigatory committees, even if they weren’t government officials.
6. Fall was the first Cabinet official to go to prison.
Albert Fall was found guilty of accepting the bribe, making him the first Cabinet member convicted of a crime committed while in office. Fall was the lone guilty verdict. (Though Edward Doheny also offered the bribe, he was acquitted of the same crime.) He was originally fined $100,000 and sentenced to prison for one year. He was incarcerated in 1931 and released three months early in light of his failing health. Though Sinclair wasn’t convicted of bribery, he ended up spending six months in prison for jury tampering.
7. Harding didn’t live to face the consequences of the scandal.
Harding had appointed Fall as secretary of the interior and Daugherty as attorney general, but the 29th president mostly avoided the fallout from the scandal. Harding died unexpectedly at age 57 in 1923, likely from cardiac arrest. Though Harding didn’t live to see the full investigation play out, the Teapot Dome scandal and other examples of corruption in his administration have damaged his legacy. Today many historians regard him among the worst presidents in U.S. history.
8. Albert Fall wasn’t the original “fall guy.”
Though he didn’t act alone, Fall was the only player convicted of bribery in the Teapot Dome scandal. That technically makes him a “fall guy”—or someone who takes the full blame for a situation—but despite a popular misconception, the term didn’t originate with him. Fall guy was already in the lexicon by the 1920s; it was even the title of a Broadway play that premiered in 1925. The phrase’s exact origins are unknown, but they definitely predate the Teapot Dome scandal.
9. It was the Watergate of its time.
The affair was the biggest political scandal the country had seen when it rocked the Harding administration in the 1920s. Fifty years later, when five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.’s Watergate complex, journalists drew comparisons to Teapot Dome. Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell became the second U.S. Cabinet official to go to prison when he was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury.
10. The government sold Teapot Dome years later (legally).
Following the scandal, the leased oil fields were reinstated as Naval reserves—though they didn’t stay that way forever. During the Clinton presidency, Elk Hills in California was auctioned off to the Occidental Petroleum Company. The U.S. government held on to the scandal’s namesake Teapot Dome until 2015, when it was bought by Stranded Oil Resources Corporation for a winning bid of $45 million. The transparent sales didn’t lead to criminal charges this time around.