Rep. Birmingham charged that the taxicab situation could have been straightened out years ago by the police commissioner if he had wanted to, reported the Boston Herald (April 26, 1929, p. 7).
Birmingham asserted that the independent taxicab operators are insulted when they appeal to the commissioner and the only place they can go for relief is to the legislature. He said that a taxicab monopoly exists, and there is now an opportunity to end it.
The Democratic minority leader was commenting on a bill proposed by Rep. Joseph Finnegan that would abolish special or exclusive taxicab stands and make public stands free and open for all vehicles whose owners were licensed.
Finnegan’s bill was reported adversely by the House committee on cities, but Finnegan continued to fight for the bill. The House voted 158 to 46 April 25 to substitute Finnegan’s bill for the adverse committee report.
Finnegan argued that the Checker taxicab company had an unfair competitive position in having exclusive stands set aside for their taxis.
“This measure is not designed as an attack on the police commissioner. It merely says then when a taxi stand is set aside by the city it shall be opened to all licensed taxicabs, which would include special or exclusive stands in a policy of equal treatment for all. Provision is made for reasonable rules and regulations by the police commissioner,” he said during debate on the bill.
Finnegan charged that Charles Innes, a director of the Checker Taxi Company, was behind the opposition to his bill and the reason that the committee on cities issued an adverse report.
Rep. James Twohig of South Boston charged that police officials own Checker company stock and want to put the independent operators out of business.
Rep. Rupert Thompson of Newton, speaking for the committee on cities, said that a bill was passed setting up a Boston traffic commission, and the committee thought that the question of exclusive taxicab stands should be left to the commission to handle.
Rep. Richard Crockwell of Medford, chairman of the committee on cities, objected to Finnegan’s suggestion that Innes was the reason the committee reported adversely on his bill. “Mr. Innes had absolutely nothing to do with the report on this bill,” he said.
Rep. Birmingham spoke in favor of holding a preliminary primary to select candidates to run for mayor of Boston, during a Feb. 18 hearing of the House committee on cities, the Boston Globe reported (Feb. 18, 1930, p. 1, 21).
The committee was considering two bills, one to hold party primaries or preferential primaries in Boston elections and the other to give the Boston mayor the power to appoint the Police Commissioner instead of the governor.
“Party responsibility should be forced on the majority party. The Democrats of Boston are willing to shoulder the responsibility. I am willing to compromise on the preferential primary, but I speak in favor of the party system. We should have had a preliminary primary last year to learn the qualities of the candidates. There was a case where we had a man campaigning four years for the office and another comes in four weeks before election. If we had a preliminary primary system there would be not more candidates and an opportunity to select the best men,” Birmingham said.
The discussion turned to whether the Police Commissioner should be appointed by the Boston mayor instead of the governor. The debate reflected the broader issue of home rule for Boston.
“I honestly believe there is as much corruption in the Police Commissioner’s office as there is in any office in this State. I’m firmly persuaded to that extent,” said Birmingham.
“Place the Commissioner under the Mayor of Boston and we have a Finance Commission to investigate him. I question what will be accomplished by an investigation conducted by the Attorney General of the Garrett case. He is a Republican. This is an election year. The Republican party is not anxious to expose too much and, of course, to my mind, when one mentions the Garrett case it really means an investigation of Commissioner Wilson. If you want any State supervision over the Police Commissioner of Boston let the Civil Service Commissioner approve him, but let the Mayor appoint him,” said Birmingham.
Rep. Birmingham left a closed door meeting of the Joint Rules Committee an hour after it convened in protest because he objected to the Garrett report being examined in star-chamber proceedings, the Springfield Republican reported May 7, 1930, p. 1, 3, 7.
Birmingham argued that the report should be presented in public so that any person could speak about it, including Herbert A. Wilson, deposed Boston police commissioner.
Wilson sent letters on May 6 to the presiding officers of both legislative branches demanding a hearing “with the right to summon and examine witnesses under oath, including members of the executive departments and of the Legislature.”
Wilson was fired by Gov. Frank G. Allen on May 5 following an investigation by Attorney General Joseph E. Warner into corruption charges involving the Boston police department and Oliver Garrett, head of Boston’s vice squad that was tasked with cracking down on bootlegging. Garrett was accused of extortion and racketeering while working on the vice squad.
Birmingham placed blame for the problems in the Boston police department squarely with Gov. Allen and ex-Gov. Alvan T. Fuller, charging “laxity” in the administration of the department.
In response to Birmingham’s protest, Senate President Gaspar G. Bacon and House Speaker Leverett Saltonstall issued a statement following the closed door session:
“The committee on rules, acting concurrently, have voted by majority vote to hold no public hearings on the report of the attorney-general on the Garrett investigation (House No. 1335) as a whole. The matters suggested by the attorney-general therein as being capable of legislative consideration have not yet been considered, and the committees have reached no conclusion as to hearings or as to legislation with respect to such suggestions.”
“If the committees concluded at a later date that some legislation may be necessary, public hearings on such proposed legislation will of course be held. The committees adjourned subject to the usual call of the presiding officers.”
The previous day, Birmingham had threatened to leave the committee room if the Wilson part of the Garrett report was discussed behind closed doors, a threat that he made good on.
Birmingham told the newspaper that he favored the Garrett investigation originally. “The Republican rules committee, however, at that time had only two members in favor of the investigation originally, while four members of the Democratic party favored it.
The House minority leader then commented on the reexamination of Garrett ordered by Wilson after Gov. Allen received the opinion of an assistant attorney-general that it could be held:
“The assistant attorney-general had rendered an opinion that a man examined on December 31, 1929, could be reexamined on January 1, 1930, after an elapse of a few hours. I maintain that no court in the commonwealth would have sustained such an opinion.”
“The governor requested this opinion from the attorney-general on this phase of the question and an assistant attorney-general gave him the ruling which could cause this condition to exist.”
“I feel that Mr Fuller and the present governor were familiar with all these facts. They were in the same position with respect to Mr Wilson as Mr Wilson was with respect to Capt Patterson. By that I mean that both the ex-governor and the present governor must have known, from the information given them by the state police, that something was wrong in the police department and the time to act was when they were in possession of this information.”
“Their laxity might have been responsible to a great extent for the conditions existing in the police department. I felt that the opinion was asked and given to stifle the investigation of which I was heartily in favor.”
"I am not attempting to defend Mr Wilson. I understand from a good authoritative source that Mr Wilson, as a private citizen, now desires to appear before the rules committee on House document No 1335 (Warner report), if the hearing were opened to the public. I believe that every citizen, no matter who he is, should be given an opportunity of free speech before any legislative committee.”
Rep. Birmingham attacked a report prepared by Attorney General Warner on corruption charges involving the Boston police department and Oliver Garrett, head of Boston’s vice squad that was tasked with cracking down on bootlegging, the Boston Herald reported (May 25, 1930, p. 14, via Geneaology Bank).
Birmingham criticized Warner’s report and his conduct of the investigation into Garrett, who was accused of extortion and racketeering while working on the vice squad. Despite his attacks and those of other representatives, such as Rep. Roland D. Sawyer of Ware, Warner's report was accepted by the House.
Among other things, Birmingham said that Warner was complicit in having John F. Sullivan, former owner of the Ritz Hotel, committed to the Danvers Insane Hospital. This was intended to undermine Sullivan’s testimony in a trial, he charged.
Birmingham also charged the joint rules committee with being involved in an effort to stop the investigation into Garrett. The committee had denied former Police Commissioner Wilson a public hearing to prevent him from revealing information that would be embarrassing to prominent members of the Republican Party, he said.
Sawyer had earlier introduced a resolve to set up a commission of 13 members to resume the investigation into the Garrett case, but the resolve was rejected by the House. Sawyer then introduced another resolve that would create a special commission including the attorney general, one senator, and three representative, which would investigate the entire subject of the enforcement of prohibition by the police throughout the state.
Sawyer said that Republicans who favored prohibition, the so-called “drys,” were responsible for blocking the investigation into Garrett.
“Three years ago when the complaints against Garrett first were heard, the dry element backed him as an efficient officer. This room rang with the oratory of dry spokesmen who were against any investigation of Garrett,” Sawyer said.
Rep. Leo M. Birmingham, House Democratic Floor Leader, supported an investigation into the financial operations of the Curley administration that was being considered by the House, according to the Boston Traveler, Feb. 12, 1933, and other Boston newspapers (JMC Scrapbooks, Vol. 88, p. 5, 14, 26, 60, 70).
The Committee on Rules held a hearing on Feb. 10, 1933, to consider a petition to investigate Boston's financial operations under Mayor James Michael Curley. Based on the petition, signed by 7,200 individuals, Sen. Parkman introduced a bill calling for a probe of Boston’s financial affairs. Birmingham indicated that he would dissent if the committee recommended against conducting an investigation, while Sen. Joseph Finnegan said he would dissent if the committee recommended a probe.
One of the petitioners, Mrs. Hannah M. Connors, secretary of the Massachusetts Real Estate Owners’ Association, had alleged that James Roosevelt, the son of the president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, had received commissions on insurance policies he had written for the city. Curley had supported FDR over Al Smith in the Democratic presidential primary and had worked with James Roosevelt in promoting FDR’s candidacy in Massachusetts.
James Roosevelt vehemently denied profiting from any type of business transactions involving the city of Boston. In a letter sent to the Sen. Erland F. Fish of Brookline, chairman of the rules committee, Roosevelt said: “In order that the record may be correct, may I state to you and through you to the rules committee that never at any time have I received one cent of commission for insurance or any other business from either the mayor or the city of Boston.”
Boston City Councilman Francis E. Kelly of Dorchester, who supported an investigation, filed a statement with the committee charging “graft and corruption during the present administration.”
An investigation into city finances was supported by the Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Boston Real Estate Exchange, the municipal research bureau, the Massachusetts Real Estate Owners Association, the Massachusetts Tax Association, the Good Government Association, and other civic organizations.
In addition, Sen. Parkman criticized Frank A. Goodwin, chairman of the Boston Finance Commission, for not aggressively investigating waste and corruption in the Curley administration.
Rep. Leo M. Birmingham, Democratic House floor leader, assailed Mayor James M. Curley for pilfering city funds during House debate over whether to override Gov. Joseph Ely's veto of a bill to allow Boston to take a two-year hiatus on its annual contribution to the municipal retirement fund, reported the Boston Herald, April 1, 1932 (JMC Scrapbooks, Vol. 73, p. 4).
Ely's veto was ultimately sustained by the House on a vote of 115 to 108, thanks in no small part to Birmingham's support for the governor's action.
The original bill would have given the city the authority to withhold its annual contribution of $500,000 to the municipal retirement fund for 1932 and 1933, even though the city was required to make those contributions by law. The mayor argued that he needed to suspend the payments because of the depression.
In his veto message, Gov. Ely said: “The effect of this legislation is to adopt the principle that the city may at any time, by legislative sanction, postpone payment of the retirement funds which heretofore, under the provisions of the original act, have been assumed to be a debt of the city. In my opinion, the bill is unsound and endangers the whole principle of the Boston retirement act.”
Birmingham accuses Curley of waste, corruption
Birmingham said that the real reason the mayor was seeking to suspend payments was because he had wasted taxpayer money in paying high prices for goods.
“Let Curley stay home and pay attention to the affairs of the city. Let him stop running around like one who has lost his senses. Figures in my possession from the finance commission on the purchase of supplies show a flagrant waste of municipal funds in the payment of excessive prices for commodities.”
Birmingham said that the Mohawk Packing Co. had shut down after Curley’s second administration only to start up again when his current term began, implying that the company was a front for Curley to benefit from the excessive payments to vendors.
Birmingham charged the mayor with “faking” because he had $4 million to “play with” and could apply part of that money for the annual contribution to the municipal retirement fund, avoiding a 26-cents-per-thousand tax increase.
“Let the mayor undergo a moral reform and the city will save, not $500,000, but millions. Yes sir, I say if he’d stay at City Hall and stop his plundering and robbery he wouldn’t be here for this $500,000,” shouted Birmingham on the House floor, according to the Boston Herald.
“He declared that he would not reduce the salaries of city employees but he put the gun on them and compelled them to give one day’s pay a month to go to the public welfare department. Is that a salary cut?,” Birmingham asked. “It’s more than a 10 percent cut. It was a ruthless, underhanded way of holding up the employees and done in a manner characteristic of everything he does,” the representative charged.
Where's the evidence?
Rep. Francis D. Dailey, a Democrat from the South End, defended the mayor and accused Birmingham of engaging in a political stunt. Dailey demanded that Birmingham produce evidence of the graft and corruption charges against Curley or other members of the municipal administration and provide that evidence to the district attorney or the state attorney general.
Dailey said that Birmingham was simply the mouthpiece of the governor and Dan Coakley, the “sinister influence of Boston politics.”
Mayor Curley had directed an unsuccessful lobbying effort by municipal employees to override the governor’s veto, according to the Herald.
Curley fights back
Not one to let an insult pass, Curley took the occasion of a rally for Franklin Delano Roosevelt delegates at Warren Hall in Brighton, located in Birmingham’s district, to attack Ely and Birmingham, according to an account in the Boston Advertiser, April 3, 1932 (JMC Scrapbooks, vol. 73, p. 20).
“No man has the right to prostitute the office of governor and prevent overriding of a veto which would have been for the interest of the men and women of Boston,” charged Curley.
“Leo M. Birmingham, the man who was so vociferous in support of the governor’s veto, is the same man who was silent when the power trust bill was in the House in 1931. But he was vociferous in saddling 25 cents extra on the taxpayers and rentpayers of Boston. If the Legislature would have let us transfer that amount the 25 cents could be saved. In addition to that the legislature would not give us permission to transfer $500,000 from the cemetery funds. The city taxpayers will really pay 50 cents more than they should on the tax rate,” Curley said during the rally.
According to the Boston Herald, April 3, 1932 (JMC Scrapbooks, vol. 73, p. 22), Curley said that Ely’s motive was to punish him for supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt over Al Smith for the Democratic presidential nomination. Ely’s veto of the bill was a “prostitution of the power of his high office to vent his personal spleen on me because I have dared to oppose his wishes and fight for the nomination of Gov. Roosevelt,” said Curley.
Birmingham had joined with Ely to “crush Curley,” the mayor said. “You will pay $1 a month extra to your landlord because of the hostility of Birmingham and Ely to Curley and only because Curley had the temerity to support Gov. Roosevelt in this fight for the presidency.” Curley explained that rents would go up because the taxes on homeowners would have to increase to pay for city’s contribution to the municipal retirement fund.
Both Gov. Ely and Rep. Birmingham were on the official slate of delegates and alternates to the Democratic national convention pledged to support Al Smith as the Democratic nominee for president. The slate, which was filed with the Massachusetts Secretary of State on March 19, 1932, was headed by Ely and US Senators David I. Walsh and Marcus A. Coolidge. Birmingham was listed as an alternate at large, reported the Boston Globe (JMC Scrapbooks, Vol. 72, p. 6)