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15 MONTHS IN LEAVENWORTH

DATE OF EVENT: Monday, May 22, 1939

DATE PUBLISHED: Monday, May 22, 1939, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: The day of the Democratic machine in Jackson County politics began to come to an end with the sentencing of “Boss” T. J. Pendergast. Convicted of income-tax evasion, Pendergast would leave his associates unprotected while he served his prison term. Pendergast’s sidekick, City Manager H.F. McElroy, would resign, and an audit would discover that the city was millions of dollars in debt. Other Pendergast associates were driven from office. In 1940, reformers would win the elections, ousting the machine from City Hall.



The spectacular political career of T.J. Pendergast collapsed in ruins in the federal court today when Judge Merrill E. Otis sentenced the erstwhile Democratic machine boss to fifteen months in prison on the government’s charges of income tax evasion.

At the same time Judge Otis threw open a felon’s cell for Pendergast, he imposed a fine of $10,000 which must be paid, in addition to delinquent income taxes for 1935 and 1936.

The prison sentence, which will be served in Leavenworth prison, was on the first of two counts in the indictment against Pendergast. The fine was on the second count. In addition, Judge Otis imposed a sentence of three years on the second count, suspended that sentence and placed the boss on probation for five years, the probation to begin after he has served the fifteen months.

Judge Otis tightened the conditions somewhat by requiring the boss to pay more than $430,000 in delinquent taxes, penalties and interest, and the $10,000 fine, before he could qualify for the probationary second count sentence.

Pendergast was extremely nervous while the judge read the conditions of his sentence. His face paled and he nervously rubbed his thumbs together with the fingers of both hands interlocked.

The sentence was much lighter than most observers had expected. The consensus among the crowd of spectators, freely heard as it broke up, was that Pendergast had got off extremely lucky. The average guess was three years of actual prison service.

… Judge Otis ordered that sentence begin immediately, but John G. Madden, Pendergast’s attorney, requested a temporary stay to allow Pendergast time to arrange his business affairs. Judge Otis granted a stay of one week, which means Pendergast must surrender and go to Leavenworth prison next Monday.

… In his remarks preceding sentence Judge Otis referred caustically to the political corruption revealed here under the Pendergast regime

… Dr. A. Sophian, Pendergast’s physician many years … detailed to the court the heart and intestinal ailments that have beset Pendergast in the last ten years, but which he said were not acute at the present time.

… A word picture of the government’s case against Pendergast was drawn by Maurice M. Milligan, United States district attorney, who spoke from transcript in a voice too low to be heard by the audience.

… Since 1927, he said, the government had uncovered income of $1,240,746.56 which Pendergast had not reported.

The government, Milligan said, would not prosecute Pendergast further on criminal charges, in view of his plea of guilty today, but the probe of Pendergast’s use of straw men in holding his stocks in his companies and in making fictitious loans from them would be continued to determine the extent of the civil liabilities and penalties of Pendergast.

Madden, in a forceful appeal for his client, did not attempt to challenge any of Milligan’s statements. He … pitched his appeal on Pendergast’s mania for betting on race horses.

“This was a mania,” Madden said. “There was this man’s weakness. It has made wreckage of his life, brought ruin to his family and destruction to his reputation. Because of this, he will suffer greater punishment than any court can give him.”

… R.R. Brewster, the other defense attorney, also emphasized the race horse mania. … He drew a picture of Pendergast every day poring over form sheets with advisers, using the telephone and telegraph to place his bets and then using the long-distance telephone connected with race tracks for the thrill of hearing the roar of the crowds and the winners announced.

… Pendergast shed tears when Brewster told the court he had come to know the boss only in the last month, describing him as a very human man, kind to his family and generous with his friends. Brewster closed with a plea for probation.

After Judge Otis imposed sentence the crowd quickly dispersed. Pendergast made his way through the corridor to the elevator and was stopped two or three times by admirers who shook his hand. …

He walked out with his son and nephew, climbed in his car and sped away, apparently for home. …

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