Liveblogging the Civil War False Claims Act: The House debates a new committee on frauds

by Ben Vernia | April 30th, 2012

On April 30, 1862, the New York Times reported on proceedings on the House floor the previous day, including a spirited discussion of the wisdom of launching a new Select Committee on Government Contracts. The Times reported:

The House then resumed the consideration of the report of the Select Committee on Government contracts. Mr. ROSCOE CONKLING, of New-York, (Rep.,) said he voted against raising this Committee. It seemed none could be so honest or eminent that it would be suitable to clothe them with the unheard-of power asked on that occasion. It seemed unfit to constitute an advisory board to supervise questions of integrity relating to every man engaged in the administration of departmental affairs. It seemed to him a roving commission to take into consideration the honesty or fraud of all future contracts to be entered into with any department of the Government. It brought with it grave objections, and little argument could be found in its favor. Experience had demonstrated that every objection then made had been abundantly sustained by the conduct of the Committee, which had done grave and irreparable injustice, both to individuals and classes. These as well as the nation have suffered by the declarations of the Committee. As this Committee was a pioneer experiment, and had turned out badly, they could dispense with it. The gentleman (DAWES) had said there was indubitable evidence of fraud well nigh, in a single year, as much as the current expenditures of the Government during the Administration, which the people hurled from power because of its corruption. Now he (CONKLING) remarked that if any man was warranted in making that statement, it would justify the people in resorting to anything but revolution to redress the wrong. The poisoned arrows, feathered by the frankingprivilege, were shot far and wide among the loyal States of the Republic. Like other remarks and statements the gentleman (DAWES) made, however deliberately prepared, this was one on mature reflection he would be willing to recall. The Committee had proceeded on exparte testimony in secret. Parties never were informed they were to be tried and convicted and stigmatized, and hung up to festering infamy, and, as a case in point, he said the Committee had privily and clandestinely gathered evidence against Gen. FREMONT to blast his character as a citizen and soldier, at the time when he was in command of an army. They never informed Gen. FREMONT that he was aspersed, nor gave him the names of the witnesses against him, and they afforded him no opportunity for defence. What good, Mr. CONKLING asked, had the Committee done to offset the harm? He was not aware that one single fraud had been developed by the Committee which remained unearthed at the time they pretended to dig it up. Mr. CONKLING asked the Speaker what time remained to him. The Speaker replied eighteen minutes. Mr. DAWES, of Massachusetts, (Rep.) — The time will be extended to the gentleman. Mr. WASHBURNE, of Illinois, (Rep.) — I object to that. Mr. CONKLING — I knew that, and do you know how I knew it? Because the member from Illinois is the only man in this House surly enough to interpose objections in such a case. Mr. WASHBURNE rose to reply, when Mr. CONKLING called the member to order. Mr. WASHBURNE (excitedly) — I call the creature to order. The Speaker demanded the preservation of order. Mr. CONKLING — The member from Illinois understands the rules of this House, and must understand that this is not the place for personal altercation. He knows the proper place for that is outside these walls. Mr. WASHBURNE (excitedly) — Yes, Sir, and I am ready for it. Mr. CONKLING — No individual in this House better knows than the member from Illinois that I stand by what I say until convinced that I am in error; and therefore there is no necessity for any interruption here. Mr. CONKLING, in the course of his remarks, said he regarded the Committee as one of those ornaments too expensive under the circumstances to be indulged, and in this connection humorously commented on the allowance to the Committee by their own order, of twenty cents a mile for traveling, and two dollars a day, besides other necessary expenses. He was unaware that any other Committee had thus provided for themselves. If this Committee have been engaged in assailing men and blackening their characters, it was proper to know how much it cost. As a fine point was being put on things, it behooved them all to know whether any persons round the board had been getting anything they ought not to have. A little mileage was a dangerous thing. Like liquor, if it was tasted too much, the habit gets fastened. Mr. WASHBURNE, in reply, said it was the “unkindest out of all,” when the Chairman (Mr. STEVENS) of the Committee of Ways and Means, the leader of the House, and holding the purse-strings of the nation, recently rose in the House, and attacked the Committee in their absence, charging that they had committed more frauds than they had detected. The Committee had been notified that they should feel the biting sarcasm and blistering invective; and to-day they had listened to what might be called a pitiful imitation from the extraordinary member (Mr. CONKLING from New-York, who had attacked the Committee for the benefit of thieves, contractors, and plunderers, who had been for two weeks holding high carnival, in anticipation that the Committee were to be destroyed. It would have been but fair to give the Committee notice of the contemplated annihilation, that they might be prepared to die with decency. Why did not the member from New-York make his charges like a man and not like a skulking coward? The member undertook to criticise the expenses of the Committee, which he had figured up, and sneaked into the Clerk’s office to ask how much the members had been paid. If the member had known anything he must have known his statement was false. There was no Committee ever engaged in investigations and traveling abroad but what had been paid their proper expenses. The Committee had neglected everything to discharge the responsible trust reposed in them by the House. Now a clamor was raised to disband the Committee. If the House believes the charges made are true it would be unjust to itself and to the country if it did not disband the Committee before the adjournment to-day, and place on the brows of the members thereof the brand of dishonor. If the Committee had failed to discharge their duty, and are obnoxious to the charges made he, (WASHBURNE) called on the House not to postpone their action, but disband the Committee at once. The Committee and the country would accept that as a tribute to its faithful performance of its duty, which had led to to the attack by the member from New-York, and by every plunderer, thief, and robber, who had broken into the Treasury. While the Committee were engaged in their examinations, he found, by an official document, the member from New-York besieging the door of the Secretary of War to get contrabands for his constituents. Truly, the member was a pretty man to come here and lecture the Committee as to what the Committee had done. In further reply, he said, the history of the Department will show, that in St. Louis alone, nearly two millions of dollars had been saved by the investigations of the Committee. He had been told by Mr. HOLT, that if Congress and the Government would sustain him, nearly eight millions more would be saved by the Commission on Ordnance Contracts, now in session here, which was appointed on the evidence taken and the recommendation of this Committee. Twelve millions of dollars had been saved by the Committee, or as much as it cost JOHN QUINCY ADAMS to carry on the Government for one year. Notwithstanding these things, the Committee were held up here as wasting the public money. He repeated the Committee knew they would be met; they knew whose paths they had crossed; they knew who were the aiders and abettors of the plunderers in and out of this House; they did not like the Committee, of course not, for “No rogue e’er felt the halter draw, With Good opinion of the law.” This Committee were created by a Republican House, and appointed by a Republican Speaker, and had performed their duty without fear, favor or affection, and in their report had “nothing extenuated or set down aught in malice.” To be
sure, they had exposed robbers and plunderers. Were they for this to be condemned? He again referred to Mr. STEVENS, saying the latter, after reporting a tax bill, which was large enough to fill a wheelbarrow, stepped in to attack the Committee. Gentlemen had been earnest in defending Gen. FREMONT, and in this had exhibited extreme sensitiveness, but when anything was said about another General, they were not quite so sensitive. He would leave all the Generals unmolested in the field, but after their services were dispensed with, he would try the cause, and would be ready to defend the Committee against all clamors. Then he would say: “Come on, Macduff, And damned be he who first cries — Hold, enough” Mr. WASHBURNE, in further reply, referred to ZACHI, and other subjects heretofore discussed. He said, toward the conclusion of his remarks, after the infamous attack and abuse of the member from New-York, the latter could not expect to go unscathed. He would permit no one to impugn or challenge his conduct on this floor or of this floor. He called upon the Republican party to rise up in this House and stop these enormous frauds, by every means in their power, else they would not be held guiltless by the country. Mr. HOLMAN, of Indiana, (Rep..) as a member of the Select Committee, briefly referred to the belligerents in this debate, and after declaring his coolness and dispassionateness, proceeded to vindicate the report, especially as to what it says about the transactions of ALEXANDER CUMMINGS, of whom he spoke as the protege of Mr. CAMERON, and who had been put forward to shield his principal. As to the purchase of horses, not one-fourth of those purchased in Pennsylvania and Louisville were serviceable. There was in this no evidence of fidelity to public interest. Mr. MOORHEAD, of Pennsylvania, (Rep.,) protested against such sweeping denunciations. If any person were guilty, let them be exposed, and he would go as far as any one for punishing them. If such charges continue to be indulged, honest contractors would be driven out, and business fall into the hands of scoundrels. Thus the Committee were destroying the very interests we are trying to build up. Mr. HOLMAN referred to Mr. CAMERON’s patronage to the Pennsylvania Central Railroad, which was enormous, as exhibited by the figures. The employment of Mr. CUMMINGS, in connection with transportation,showed that Mr. CAMERON was willing to advance the interests of his own family at the sacrifice of the public good. Mr. MOORHEAD inquired if Mr. CUMMINGS was a member of Mr. CAMERON’s family? Mr. HOLMAN replied that the World newspaper, of which Mr. CUMMINGS was manager, was the most noisy in supporting Mr. CAMERON’s transactions. On the subject of arms, Mr. CAMERON had made contracts amounting to $30,000,000, and on which the profits would have been $7,500,000 over and above the legitimate profits; yet Mr. CAMERON had denied ever making a contract. Against these abuses Gen. RIPLEY had stood up like a Roman — like a breakwater against the tide of corruption. Mr. MOORHEAD said on the 22d of June, less than one month before the battle of Bull Run, Gen. RIPLEY, in the belief that the arms would not be wanted, that there could not be much of a war, disposed of 10 000 rifled muskets, as good as any in the world, to Mr. COLT, in exchange for pistols. Mr. CAMERON directed them to be bought back at the price paid for them. Mr. HOLMAN asked whether the gentleman did not know that Mr. CAMERON made contracts for $30,000,000 worth of arms to mere stock brokers and speculators. In conclusion, he censured the Secretary of the Navy in the matter of purchasing vessels, and referred to other matters discussed in the report of the Select Committee. Mr. DAWES trusted the House, forgetting the personalities indulged in to-day, would return to the direct issue before them. It was said the exposures made by the Committee had brought the nation into disgrace abroad, but this was not the fault of the Committee. Should they have covered up the sore or laid it open, and probed it to the bottom? When abuses ceased to be exposed, then might properly be lamented the absence of honesty and public virtue. It should not be expected that they would be a whitewashing Committee. As a grand inquest, they could only bring the facts before the House for their action. He remarked with pleasure that the Secretary of the Treasury had cooperated with the Committee to the fullest extent, in reforming abuses. Mr. OLIN, of New-York, (Rep.,) defended Gen. RIPLEY as a man of untiring devotion, honesty and patriotic zeal. Mr. FENTON, of New-York, (Rep.,) in replying to the former remarks of Mr. STEVENS, said, in the investigations of the Committee in New-York, Harrisburgh and Washington, they did not fail to furnish the accused parties with the evidence, or offer theman opportunity of being heard in explanation. He did not accompany the Committee to the West, and had dissented from their conclusions as to that Military Department. He moved the previous question on the pending resolution of the Committee. Mr. STEVENS moved to lay the whole subject on the table, pending which the House adjourned.

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