Government and Politics

The American Presidency

What was Teapot Dome?

Teapot Dome was a notorious political scandal that was on a level with Watergate (1972). While the early 1920s abuses of power affected President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923), it was not Harding who was implicated in the crimes. Albert Bacon Fall (1861–1944), Harding’s secretary of the interior, secretly transferred government oil lands at Elk Hills, California, and Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to private use and he did so without a formal bidding process. Fall leased the Elk Hills naval oil reserves to American businessman Edward L. Doheny (1856–1935) in exchange for an interest-free “loan” of $100,000. Fall made a similar arrangement with another businessman, Harry F. Sinclair (1876–1956) of Sinclair Oil Corporation—leasing the Teapot Dome reserves in exchange for $300,000 in cash, bonds, and livestock.

The scandal was revealed in 1922, and committees of the U.S. Senate and a special commission spent the next six years sorting it all out. By the time the hearings and investigations were concluded in 1928, Harding had died; Fall had resigned from office and taken a job working for Sinclair; all three players—Doheny, Sinclair, and Fall—had faced charges; and the government had successfully sued the oil companies for the return of the lands. The punishments were light considering the serious nature of the charges: Fall was convicted of accepting a bribe, fined $100,000, and sentenced to a year in prison, while Doheny and Sinclair were both indicted but later acquitted of the charges against them, which included conspiracy and bribery.

Who Says a Watched Pot Never Boils? A 1924 illustration of Teapot Dome, a notorious scandal involving the Warren Harding administration.

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