State Treasurer Robert “Budd” Dwyer had called a news conference in Harrisburg to discuss the corruption trial he was facing. No one could imagine the tragic end (Grosby)
On January 22, 1987, a fierce snow storm blew over much of the state of Pennsylvania. Schools and universities suspended their classes and, except for essential service workers, people stayed at home. For this reason, in the afternoon entire families were in front of the televisions and witnessed the event, broadcast live and direct.
State Treasurer Robert “Budd” Dwyer had called a press conference in Harrisburg to discuss the corruption trial he was facing and whose sentence would be announced the following day. He was accused of receiving bribes from a company to which he had been assigned the task of repaying poorly collected taxes to the population.
Dwyer, 47, married with two small children, had been proclaiming his innocence from the rooftops. His good name and honor were the most important thing for him and his family, he insisted every time he talked about it. For this reason, he explained again and again, he had not accepted a proposal from the prosecution to receive a light sentence if he pleaded guilty.
The press conference was going smoothly. Dwyer began by reading a text that he had written and, when he finished, he handed three envelopes to as many collaborators. Then he took another envelope – bulky, made of papier-mâché –, took out a .357 Magnum revolver from inside it and held it pointed at the ceiling.
Budd Dwyer holds up the gun he just pulled out of a vellum he had brought to kill himself in front of television cameras (AP/Gary D. Miller)
As the cameras continued to focus on Dwyer, a murmur grew in the press room.
“Please leave the room if this offends you,” Budd said, pointing the revolver at the ceiling.
– Budd, Budd! – was heard screaming.
“Back up, or this thing will hurt someone,” Dwyer said.
They were his last words before pulling the trigger. He died on the spot.
A serious accusation
Robert Dwyer was born in Saint Charles, Missouri, but spent his entire political career in the State of Pennsylvania. At 47, he had passed through the House of Representatives and served three terms as a state senator before being named State Treasurer, the highest authority in the area of tax collection.
Dwyer, 47, was married with two young children. He came proclaiming his innocence from the rooftops: his good name and honor were the most important things for him and his family (Grosby)
He had been in office since 1980, and serious errors had been made under his administration in calculating state employee tax pay. As a result, for years they had overpaid and the state had improperly collected more than $100 million.
To solve the problem, the State called for a tender of accounting firms to select the one that would be in charge of calculating and reimbursing the workers the surcharges that had been charged to them.
William T. Smith, an attorney for the CTA owner, accused Budd Dwyer of receiving bribes. More than two decades later, he confessed that he had lied and felt responsible for his death.
The winner was a company based in California, Computer Technology Associates (CTA), owned by John Torquato, Jr. For the work, the firm would charge 4.6 million dollars.
Shortly after the bid, then-Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh received an anonymous letter alleging the CTA had paid bribes to win the contract.
Prosecutors charged the CTA owner, his attorney, William T. Smith, and his wife with bribery of public officials. But prosecutors’ biggest concern was determining who had been bribed, so they offered Torquato and his accomplices a deal: if they revealed the identity of those officials, they would receive much lighter sentences. All three said they had paid Budd Dwyer $300,000 to influence the contract award for CTA.
In 1986, Dwyer was indicted for receiving bribes, tax fraud, conspiracy and being part of organized crime.
The prosecution, convinced of his guilt, made him an offer to avoid trial. If he pleaded guilty, he would be fined $300,000 and sentenced to five years in prison, less than half of which he would spend behind bars. Instead, if he denied the charges, prosecutors would ask for a sentence of 55 years in prison.
Despite the risk of spending the rest of his life in prison, Budd Dwyer rejected the proposal and decided to go to trial. He always remained firm in his position: he denied having received a single dollar and, furthermore, the tender had not been awarded by him but by a working group made up of state officials.
Budd Dwyer on the day he was sworn in as Pennsylvania State Treasurer in 1984 (Grosby)
The trial began in December 1986 and, summoned as witnesses by the prosecution, Torquato, the lawyer Smith and his wife pointed out Dwyer -who during the process, given the presumption of innocence, continued in his position- as the only official they had bribed to get the contract.
After the process and the arguments, Judge Malcom Muir announced that he would announce the sentence on January 23, 1987.
However, on the night of January 21, someone told Budd Dwyer that the decision had already been made: he would be found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 55 years in prison.
the last conference
On the morning of January 22, Dwyer called a press conference for the same afternoon. The announcement said that the state treasurer would make “an update on the situation” judicial.
Despite the snowstorm that hit the city of Harrisburg, the attendance of journalists was massive. Many thought that he would publicly resign his position.
“We trust that reason and truth will prevail and I will be acquitted dedicating the rest of our lives to creating a justice system here in the United States. The guilty verdict has strengthened that decision,” he said in front of the cameras.
Budd Dwyer entered the room agitated. In his hands were four envelopes—three thin white ones, one bulging wood-colored one—and a typewritten sheet of paper. Standing in front of the television cameras, he read the text:
“I thank God for giving me 47 years of exciting challenges, stimulating experiences, many happy occasions, and above all, the excellent wife and children that any man could wish for.
“Now my life has changed, for no apparent reason. The people who have called and written to me are upset and feel powerless. They know I am innocent and want to help. But in this nation, the world’s greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime I did not commit.
“Judge Muir is known for his medieval sentences. I faced a maximum sentence of 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine for being innocent. Judge Muir told the press ‘I felt reinvigorated’ when I was found guilty and that he plans to jail me as a disincentive to other public officials. But I will not be a deterrent because every public official who knows me knows that I am innocent; It won’t be a legitimate punishment because I haven’t done anything wrong. Since I am the victim of political persecution, my prison will simply be an American gulag.
“I ask those who believe in me to continue to be friends with and pray for my family, to work tirelessly for the creation of a genuine justice system in the United States, and to continue efforts to exonerate me, so that my family and your future relatives are not stained by this injustice that has been perpetrated against me.
“We trust that reason and truth will prevail and I will be acquitted dedicating the rest of our lives to creating a justice system here in the United States. The guilty verdict has strengthened that decision.”
The dramatic moment in which Budd Dwyer shot himself live and overwhelmed by corruption allegations that could lead him to 55 years in prison (AP / Paul Vathis)
When he finished reading, he handed the three white envelopes to his collaborators, extracted the .357 Magnum revolver from the brown paper envelope and shot himself.
One of the white envelopes contained a farewell letter to Joanne, his wife; the second, an organ donation certificate; the third letter was addressed to the new Governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, who had taken office two days earlier. In it, Budd Dwyer again proclaimed his innocence and denounced the judicial system that he had been “unjustly” convicted.
“An honest man”
For almost 23 years, Roberto Budd Dwyer remained in American political history as a corrupt official who had decided to commit suicide in public.
In October 2010, the premiere of the documentary Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer, from director James Dirschberger, changed that view of events.
Official’s grave and a confession that came too late: “I gave false testimony under oath during the 1986 trial, therefore I take credit for the suicide and death of Budd Dwyer,” said attorney Smith
Interviewed for the film, CTA attorney William T. Smith, who was the last of the “repentants” to testify against Dwyer at trial, confessed that he felt guilty about his suicide:
“I gave false testimony under oath during the 1986 trial, therefore I take credit for the suicide and death of Budd Dwyer,” he said.
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