News and Politics

Budd Dwyer: Lessons in Politics and Media

Thirty seven years ago today, Pennsylvania Treasurer Budd Dwyer committed suicide in the Treasurer’s office in front of reporters.

Born in Missouri, Dwyer would attend Alleghany College, majoring in political science and accounting. He would obtain his master’s degree in education, working as a social studies teacher.

Dwyer would enter politics in 1964 as a state representative for Crawford County at just 25-years-old. Eventually, Dwyer would take over the 6th District after the House Assembly moved away from the County apportioned seats in 1969.

He would move up to Senator in 1970, representing the 50th District for 10 years. After two successful re-elections, Dwyer would run for Pennsylvania Treasurer, running to unseat Robert E. Casey. Casey had won the Treasurer position in 1976, benefitting from the popularity of Auditor General Robert P. Casey Sr. despite not being related to him.

Dwyer would win the Treasurer position in 1980, becoming the first Republican Treasurer since Robert F. Kent in 1957.

However, the scandal that would ultimately lead to Dywer ending his life had begun.

In 1979, Pennsylvania School Districts and 200,000 public employees of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would overpay in Federal Income Taxes or Social Security Taxes. This overpayment would go on through 1980 and 1981. The total amount, according to the Treasurer’s office, was up to 40 million dollars.

To return the money, the state would need an accounting firm to determine the refund amount for the 200,000 employees and hundreds of school districts. Dwyer would give the job/contract to Computer Technology Associates on May 10, 1984 without any competitive bidding. 

Computer Technology Associates

The Commonwealth needed an accounting firm to work out the paperwork and get the money back to Pennsylvanians in a timely fashion. Computer Technology Associates was a data-processing company located in Newport Beach, California. Besides not being an accountant firm, the company had only three people at the time of winning the contract: owner John Torquato Jr., C.T.A. President Judy Ellis and Vice President Janice R. Kincaid were the only employees at the time. Torquato Jr., originally from Harrisburg, was the son of a long-term Democratic official in Pennsylvania.

Questions of the contract would first be raised by the Deputy Comptroller of Pittsburgh public schools Dennis Schatzman. Schatzman examined the contract and noticed the financial discrepancies in the deal, contacting both school officials and Arthur Young and associates. Arthur Young would validate Schatzman’s questions, claiming that the contract was overvalued by millions of dollars. 

Why did Dwyer give this sweetheart deal of a contract? A sworn statement from C.T.A. Vice President Kincaid stated that Dwyer was promised 300,000 dollars if C.T.A. got the contract. David I. Herbert, Pennsylvania Director of Social Security, had also received 100,000 dollars for helping the company procure the contract.

As this unfolded over the summer months, Dwyer would attempt to escape from trouble. Initially, by rescinding the contract in early July. Then in an attempt to thwart the investigation, Dwyer had told his staff to reject the request and withhold information from the FBI and the US Attorney. Dwyer was finally apprehended in late October 1984. 

Before Dwyer’s indictment on October 22, 1984, a grand jury indicted Torquato, Torquato’s attorney William T. Smith, Judy Smith, Alan R. Stoneman, and David Herbert. William T. Smith was directly involved with Dwyer, initially claiming Torquato attempted to bribe Dwyer, but Dwyer refused. Torquato claimed that Smith had offered the deal to Dwyer. Dwyer, as a defense witness for Smith, claimed there was no bribery. 

Smith would quickly change his story after his indictment. Smith would confess to offering the bribe and Dwyer had accepted it. Dwyer planned to take 100,000 for himself, 100,000 for his reelection campaign and 100,000 to the Republican State Committee. Dwyer would add Robert Asher to the issue by contacting him about the 300,000. Asher would object to the three-way split, wanting all of the money to go to the Republican State Committee, and claiming he “did not want Dwyer to go to jail over it.”

This only helped the federal prosecutor’s case. In May 1986, Asher and Dwyer were indicted on federal charges. 

Trial

U.S. Attorney James West offered a plea bargain to Dwyer, allowing him to plea on one count of bribery, a max of five years, resign from Treasurer and cooperate in the government’s investigation. Dwyer would reject the offer, setting up the trial.

Former management consultant director Charles Collins testified that Arthur Young, who had experience in the process, had prepared to negotiate the contract down to nearly half the cost. 

Dwyer’s defense was minimal at best. His lawyer, Paul Killion, presented no witnesses since he believed the state could not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. 

On December 18, 1986, Dwyer was found guilty on 11 accounts. He would face up to 55 years of imprisonment and a 300,000 dollar fine. Dwyer would be sentenced on January 23, 1987.

While waiting for sentencing Dwyer would try to salvage his career, asking then-President Ronald Reagan for a presidential pardon, and even asking the then Senator Arlen Specter to help his pardon case. But these would fail. 

January 22, 1987

Dwyer would call a press conference for all members of the media. The press conference was largely expected to be a resignation from the position of State Treasurer. Dwyer prepared a 21-page document, where he proclaimed innocence and blamed numerous individuals, including US Attorney James West, the FBI, the media and U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Muir for ruining his life. 

This press conference would last nearly thirty minutes. When journalists tried to pack up and leave, Dwyer would interrupt himself, “Those of you who are putting your cameras away, I think you ought to stay because we’re not finished yet.” Dwyer would stop reading the 21st page before reaching the end, ending the press conference. Dwyer would hand notes to staffers there and then pull out a .357 Magnum revolver out of a manila envelope. 

Initially, media members were shocked. Dwyer offered members to leave if it would affect them. Some members of the press who stayed, tried to talk Dwyer down before uttering “Don’t, don’t, don’t, this will hurt someone.” Dwyer put the muzzle in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Budd Dwyer committed suicide.

The footage of Dwyer would make it to the news in various forms. WPVI (Channel 6 in Philadelphia) showed Dwyer pulling the trigger and falling to the ground. WCAU (Philadelphia), KYW (Philadelphia) and KDKA (Pittsburgh) all froze the footage before the gunshot. Not every station edited the footage, however.

WPVI (Philadelphia) aired the suicide footage in full on its 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Action News broadcast without warning to the shock of many- especially the school children who were off school that day due to snow. WPXI (Pittsburgh) would air the footage uncensored on an early newscast. Operations Manager By Williams would justify the uncensored footage by saying, “It’s an important event [about] an important man.”

Why Dwyer did do it?

Ultimately, the public does not know. Some theorized it was to help his family. His family would receive full survivor benefits totaling over $1.28 million ($3.3 million today) if he had died in office. This theory makes sense, especially after Dwyer hired a lawyer and went to trial for multiple months. His sister would cast doubt on this theory claiming Dwyer did not know that he would be barred from pension and benefits after being removed.

Some theorize he did it to get back at the people who wronged him. The ultimate show of look-at-what-you-did-to-me, and now you have traumatized all of these people.

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