10 Cover-ups That Just Made Things Worse

The Teapot Dome Scandal
Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall (2nd from left) shakes hands with American oil magnate Edward Doheny, flanked by their lawyers, after their acquittal during the Teapot Dome scandal. Fall was subsequently sentenced. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you think politics is dirty and corrupt today, it's a good thing you weren't around in the 1920s. That's when the White House was occupied by Warren G. Harding, a charming but dim-witted fellow who privately admitted to friends that the job was beyond his abilities. While not personally dishonest, Harding — who once gambled away the White House china set in a card game — filled his administration with poker and golf buddies, many of whom turned out to be crooks.

Take Harding's Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall. He secretly allowed oil companies to tap the Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming and the Elk Hills oil reserve in California in exchange for several hundred thousand dollars in bribes [source: Miller Center]. After the Wall Street Journal published a 1922 expose revealing that the oil had been sold without competitive bidding, a crusading senator from Wisconsin, Robert La Follette, arranged for the Senate Committee on Public Lands to investigate [source: U.S. Senate].

Harding's attorney-general, Harry Daugherty, who was getting heat for failing to investigate corruption, turned to then-FBI director William J. Burns. Burns sent one of his agents to ransack La Follette's office, to search for anything that might be used to blackmail the senator into silence [source: Jeffreys-Jones]. But that only convinced La Follette that he was on to something, and the investigation pressed on, exposing Fall's shady dealings. Eventually, Fall became the first U.S. cabinet secretary in history to go to prison.