By Royce Williams
Although Sen. Ravenel Macbeth, D-Custer County, cannot be identified
in this photo
of the old Senate Chambers, his charges of "waste and malfeasance" in construction
of the Capitol brought fireworks to several sessions and filled the public gallery
during hearings. Photo courtesy: ISHS
Had the controversy swirling around Idaho’s Capitol in 1909 been presented on a Greek stage a few centuries earlier, the tragedy would have drawn a standing-room-only crowd.
Fellow minority Democrats in the legislature thought they had the “erratic” Ravenel Macbeth, D-Custer County, under control. He had been relegated to the back bench, where his favorite word - malfeasance - wouldn’t disturb the debates so often.
It didn’t work.
Spending of public money, always holding a high spot on any political top-40, was Macbeth’s pick in late January, when he added “extravagance” to spending on the State Capitol under construction.
He submitted a resolution asking that three senators be appointed to investigate and report to the full Senate. He said the 1905 building fund asked for $350,000 to build the Capitol, that $300,000 had already been spent, that Gov. James H. Brady was asking for $400,000 more, plus $100,000 for the dome, and $1 million to build the wings. The difference between money on hand from the sale of state land and a bond issue, he continued, left the state’s taxpayers, “now overburdened with taxation,” with a $1.5 million bill.
The motion got tabled, but after the session, Macbeth was cornered by Idaho Daily Statesman reporters, who quoted him saying he would “not state at this time what the charges will be, except that wrong-doing will not be among them, although I will bring out some sensational matters.”
The quote guaranteed continued coverage, and ears perked on both sides of the aisle, plus the story garnered public attention. In the next-day reconsideration of the vote to table, Republicans managed to put the question into the lap of the State Affairs Committee, a move Macbeth voted for.
A majority of the senators had voted for the probe, apparently thinking the issue did require looking into, if nothing else to clear the air on Capitol expenditures. But the committee asked Macbeth to provide it with evidence to back up his claims of extravagance on the part of the Capitol Commission.
It was a put up or shut up kind of question, and Macbeth responded by asking for more time to gather evidence, since the commission was late with its financial report, and he stoked the political fire by alleging the State Land Board had leased too cheaply mining land to a Republican supporter (Gaylord W. Thompson of Lewiston) as pay-back for that support. He asked for more time to work on the case. He got five days.
The Idaho Daily Statesman reported it this way:
From the spectators’ viewpoint the session was by far the most interesting of any the senate of the Tenth session has held. When Macbeth touched a match to the pyrotechnics, there were but few spectators in the gallery and in the seats back of the railing, but as the strong sulphuric odor soared through the hall on the second floor, others came in and when the noise that had taken the place of the usual tranquility of the senate chamber died away, the gallery was filled and all back seats occupied.
Architect John E. Troutellotte looks across
downtown Boise from the dome of the new
Capitol building, a dome that was trimmed
down from his original design to save money.
He'd argued strongly for keeping the dome in
the face of those urging its elimination. The
Boise Statesman could not quote his
language used in the Macbeth hearings.
Photo courtesy: ISHS
The next day (Friday, Jan. 30, 1909) Macbeth was still asking for more time while he was adding to the charges. Under the Capitol Commission heading, he added that the taxpayers had lost thousands of dollars from “high salaried expert steel workers loafing around Boise for six months drawing pay when not working, because the commission had not closed its steel contract.” He said he had been told the steelwork in the Capitol “was eight inches out of plumb.” He quoted from the Architectural Review an article he said called the new Capitol “an architectural joke,” and he said the joke was on Idaho taxpayers.
Macbeth also suggested that representatives of the Capitol Commission had taken bribes in awarding construction contracts. He reportedly told the full senate that “the man who put in the lowest bid was refused the contract. When they asked him to ‘put up,’ he said ‘No, I cannot make any money by doing that.’” He also quoted a Moscow newspaper editorial, which said there was an unnamed contractor who said he had been asked for money to bring a contract his way. The paper said it would supply information to the investigation, “so that the truth could be ascertained.”
By now, the Custer County senator was saying he could not get a fair hearing before the State Affairs Committee, because the chairman was a Republican. (In the 10th Session, there were 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats.) Macbeth was a member of the committee on the Democrat side.
There was a lull in the fireworks as the chairman of the Capitol Commission, ex-Governor Frank R. Gooding, wrote to the senate that he would welcome an investigation into both the use of Capitol building funds and the land deals to finance the construction. The Capitol’s construction manager, Herbert Quigley, submitted a report of the outlay of money during 1907-08, which totaled $185,144.
The report said all invoices were in the State Treasurer’s office for anyone to see, and said it was not unusual in a building like the Capitol for on-the-ground expenses to stretch beyond early cost projections. And the Idaho House finished a report on its look into the extravagant spending charge. That report exonerated the commission, but the House said it would put its finding “into cold storage” and wait for the senate committee’s report, releasing both together.
Macbeth, meanwhile, submitted his report to the senate, which included the same numbers he had used in his first resolution. He said the commission’s report had not touched on projected costs of the finished Capitol, so he had no more information than he had already. He called contractors who had submitted bids or expressed an interest in submitting one as witnesses - S.W. Underwood, D.F. Murphy, Joseph Sullivan, Thomas Owens, John Monarch, James Thomas, A.S. Whiteway, and Gov. James H. Brady.
By the middle of February, the State Affairs Committee began three days of hearings that quickly disintegrated into an emotional knock down-drag out fight. Things got hot in a hurry after the first day of hearings in which local contractors expressed personal opinions about things like whether or not steam power was cheaper than electrical, how the commission had saved money on bargain prices for the Table Rock Quarry and land on which the Capitol sat. Architect John E. Toutellotte said the Capitol dome had been cut to one-eighth of its size in his original drawings to save money. And some of Macbeth’s witnesses showed up with attorneys and said nothing, citing the possibility their testimony could be self-incriminating.
The press coverage summarized these sessions in a headline:
NOTHING WRONG WITH CAPITOL COMMISSION
Members and Others Say it Did Work Well and Economically as Could Be
The fireworks erupted during Tourtellotte’s response to the Architectural Review article that quoted a Boston architect as saying the Capitol design was poor design, “an architectural joke.” Tourtellotte was a member of the First Methodist Episcopal Church, the largest congregation in Boise at the time, where he served on the church’s Board of Trustees. So it was a surprise when he reportedly pounded the table and his face turned from red to white as he yelled what newspapers reported:
The man who criticized the building is a rattle-brained... Here, Tourtellotte uttered a coarse name.
When the packed public gallery stopped laughing, Toutellotte apologized for this use of the unpublished word(s), and he said he had received an apology from the magazine for publishing the critical article. But, he blasted Macbeth as well:
Work on the Capitol dome waited as the debate raged about
whether or not it was necessary. Photo courtesy: ISHS
You have brought charges against the commission only to furnish kindling for yourself and your party two years hence. You have accepted as truth statements you have heard on the curbs. You have taken the word of irresponsible parties. Not one of the contractors you had testify here this afternoon is responsible, and I know them all.
The committee chairman demanded that Tourtellotte apologize, which he did:
I have gone too far, and I beg the pardon of the gentlemen. But I was mad, and I could not help saying what I thought.
After the hearings, Quigley wrote to his cousin in Pennsylvania:
The legislature is in session here now and the Democratic minority members have been making a great cry of fraud, scandal, mismanagement, bribery, etc. against the Capitol Building Commission and against me. This has made a great lot of work for me in preparing special reports, with which to defend our side. I have worked some nights nearly all night and often half the night. I am glad to say that the investigation almost completely exonerates us all, even the members making the charges against us are said to be disgusted with the way they were gulled into making charges.
Personally, I stand better today before the Commission and the people generally than I did before, in as much as I have now been tried by fire, as it were, and found OK.
The committee reportedly found “irregularities but nothing criminal” in the land board’s handling of state land sales. One irregularity not related to the Capitol project involved the failure to deposit land sale funds for schools in interest-bearing accounts. The land board made changes in its procedures.
Macbeth was undeterred by the committee’s report, and he insisted that the full senate adopt a minority report. His minority report said, in essence, that the commission had been extravagant in its spending and had mismanaged the project. It was a repeat of his earlier charges. Insisting that he was being gagged, he did manage to have his report read to the full senate. This after the Republican speaker was quoted as saying: “In order to show the flimsiness and silliness of the Custer senator and his motion, I will permit it to be read.”
Macbeth said he wished to state, “that the chair has none of the instincts of a gentleman. He may bulldoze the majority but he cannot bulldoze the minority.”
The final bill for the central portion, opened three years after the hearing (1912), came in at $1,145,925.05. The final bill was within the range Quigley had placed at between $1 million and $1.5 million “for a first class Capitol building” when he testified at the 1909 hearings.