THE 1928 ROAD-OIL SCANDAL

This affair, started, or rather was uncovered, on Nov. 27, 1928, when Alderman Walter Robb (13th Ward) read an affidavit to his colleagues. Rutherford Burr had applied for a permit to operate a funeral home at 3040 Lyndale Avenue South. In the affidavit Burr swore that a Mr. Miniberg told him that he would probably have to pay $1500 extra to obtain the permit he desired, as Miniberg had had to. After hearing the affidavit, several aldermen reacted vehemently to its contents, accusing Robb of bad faith. Before they adjourned, however, the City Council voted to have the City Attorney look into the accusation. The City Attorney passed along the affidavit to Hennepin County Attorney Floyd B. Olson. Olson began to investigate on Nov. 29.

By December 17 Olson had enough evidence to indict 2 aldermen, Fred Maurer (3rd Ward) and Frank Giebenhain (10th Ward), on bribery charges. Maurer was charged with taking $500 from an employee of the Standard Oil Company in return for voting Yes for a permit for a service station at Fremont & Broadway. Giebenhain was charged with taking $50 in return for a Yes vote for a license for a grocery at 4500 Logan North. Both pleaded not guilty.

With two of his colleagues under indictment, 1st Ward Alderman Louis Ritten appeared before the grand jury on January 9, 1929. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, he testified about bribes given in return for road-oil contracts, Fire Department equipment and a license for the Stables, a dance hall just north of downtown. Rumors spread that Ritten had named 3 aldermen and 4 businessmen. His life was threatened, and Ritten resigned from the Council on Jan. 10 and left town. The next day, as the City Council prepared to accept Ritten's resignation, several aldermen commented as reported in the Minneapolis Journal:

  • Bastis: "Wait a minute. We ought to have a little prayer on this."
  • Sweeney: "I move we print it on yellow paper."
  • Currie: "Soil from the stables."

On the special election:

  • Bastis: "Well, I know how I'm going to vote. I'm going to vote to get that rat out of this body as soon as possible. This is no place for rats or other vermin."
  • John Peterson: "I move we accept this resignation at once, and in so doing serve notice on other aldermen who may contemplate similar action that we won't tolerate anything like this."
  • Bastis: "I wouldn't sit beside this man. I wouldn't have anything to do with him. I never did like his type or stripe. The sooner we can get such rubbish out of here the better."

Bastis and Sweeney were later indicted on bribery charges, too.

Mid-January saw new indictments for bribery for Fred Maurer, Frank Giebenhain, J. Russell Sheffield (8th Ward) and Morris Eisenstadt, owner of a dry cleaning establishment. The charges against Maurer included the following:

  • "asking, accepting and receiving" $1000 from Ritten (1st Ward) and H.M. Baskerville for a YES vote on a bid for 2.25 million gallons of road oil for the city (on Feb. 16, 1928);
  • Maurer received, on Aug. 17, 1927, $1000 from the owners of the Stables night club in return for agreeing to vote to give them a dance hall permit.

Giebenhain was charged with 6 counts of bribery:

  • accepting $500 for a pump truck
  • $225 for a fire hose
  • $150 for a fire barn
  • $500 for 2,250,000 gallons of road oil
  • $500 for voting to grant a license to the Stables night club
  • $250 to stop the issuing of a dry cleaning permit (26th & Nicollet).

Sheffield was charged with giving Ritten a $500 bribe for the purchase of a fire truck. This took place in 1927, before he replaced his father as alderman. Eisenstadt was hoping to buy Ritten's vote on an ordinance to ban small dry-cleaning shops in Mpls. He offered Ritten $4500 for this vote, and another $1000 for voting against a permit for a dry cleaners' on Nicollet.

Alderman John Ekberg (12th Ward) was indicted 2 weeks later, and went on trial at the end of February. Ekberg charged with taking a bribe from Twin Cities Motor Co. ($600) to support their bids for police cars. The $600 was to be used as a down payment on a new car for Ekberg. He was convicted of bribery on March 9, 1929.

On Feb. 25, Maurer pleaded guilty to taking a bribe from the owners of the Stables dance hall. Sentenced March 4, he went to Stillwater prison immediately. Giebenhain was also found guilty, and was sentenced on March 13 to 2 years at hard labor in Stillwater.

On March 13, the grand jury produced 9 new indictments against 2 aldermen. Harry Rendell (8th Ward) was charged with taking $250 on Sept. 15, 1927, as part of a real estate deal in his ward, and taking $250 on Dec. 1, 1926, to facilitate the city's purchase of 2 trucks. E.J. Sweeney (3rd Ward) was indicted for paying $250 to facilitate granting an oil station license, paying $325 for another such license, taking $100 from James Fox, on Aug. 9, 1928, for buying a load of oil from him, accepting 2 bribes from Maurer, $487.50 total, for city equipment, and paying Maurer $50 in the road oil deal.

In mid-March, the newspapers reported that the staff of Hennepin County Attorney Floyd B. Olson had received death threats in connection with their investigation.

Sweeney was tried April 3 to 11, and convicted of taking $405 from Maurer in exchange for voting to buy a GM truck, in 1927. He was sentenced to 1 to 10 years in Stillwater, and a $2500 fine. He appealed, and was denied a new trial on Sept. 26, 1929.

On April 18, the grand jury learned that certain aldermen handed out money to their colleagues, from $50 to $500. One was called the Angel. Maurer reported that he got $300 after a vote. He asked what for, and the alderman said, "Just a gift".

James F. "Haymarket" Duffy went on trial for extortion on April 22. Duffy held the post of 3rd Ward Street Commissioner. He was charged with extorting $225 in hush money from Andrew A. "Red" Golden, who owned a gambling den on the Northside. Golden and Peter Jacob, part owners of the gambling house at 1301 Washington N., both testified that Duffy was paid $75 per week to keep the 3rd Ward Aldermen from noticing the house. Duffy got 5 years on April 26.

On May 3 the grand jury wound up its investigation. Its 4-month look into graft in City Hall had resulted in 22 indictments, involving 13 persons. Of those indicted, 6 were aldermen and 1 was a street commissioner. Four of the aldermen (Maurer, Giebenhain, Ekberg and Sweeney) were convicted.

The investigation had run its course. The primary election in May, followed the same month by a period of convalescence for Olson, coincided with the end of the grand jury's legal life span. The following developments carried the affair into the 1930s:

  • Harry Rendell lost his re-election bid in the May 1929 primary. He came in a repudiating 6th place.
  • Charter Amendment #5 won by an overwhelming margin in the June general election. This measure replaced the 13 ward-based street commissioners, like Haymarket Duffy, with a city-wide street commission.
  • J.R. Sheffield was shot on May 10, 1930, by a companion (see elsewhere). He was charged on Oct. 8, 1930, with accepting a $500 bribe. His trial was scheduled to begin the following Nov. 5, but never took place. He lost re-election, and his career as an alderman ended in July 1931.
  • On May 29. 1930, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Edward Sweeney's conviction for taking $405 from Maurer in exchange for voting to buy a GM truck. He immediately began serving his sentence in Stillwater State Prison.
  • Morris Eisenstadt, who pleaded guilty Oct. 6, 1930, to bribing Ritten, was sentenced October 8 to pay a $1000 fine.
  • Floyd Olson ran for Governor in 1930 on the Farmer-Labor ticket. He won, with 59% of the vote in a 3-way race. Re-elected twice, he died in office on Aug. 24, 1936.
  • Walter Robb retired as 13th Ward alderman in July 1951. He died in 1972 at the age of 87.

— Neal Baxter