DALLAS – James Claude “Jim” Wright, the first Speaker of the House in history to resign from office because of an ethics scandal, has died. He was 92.
No cause of death was immediately given but Wright reportedly was living in a nursing home at the time of his death.
Known for his fiery temper and highly centralized leadership style, the Texas Democrat found little support within his caucus when the House Ethics Committee found him guilty of ethics violations after a ten-month investigation in 1989.
Wright maintained his innocence, but the scandal, compounded with two separate controversies surrounding an aide and his top deputy, House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, D.-Calif., effectively drove his speakership into the ground.
A former World War II combat pilot and boxing champion, Wright’s tenacity fueled his rise through the House leadership after he was first elected in 1954. The Democrats elected him majority leader in 1977, and ten years later, he succeeded the legendary Tip O’Neill , D.-Mass., as the 56th Speaker of the House.
Then-Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, R.-Ga., led the charges against Wright in 1988, which paved the way for his own rise into the Speaker’s chair in 1995. (However, as retribution, Democrats piled Gingrich with 84 ethics violations during his speakership, resulting in a rare rebuke from the full House and, ultimately, his resignation in 1998.)
The complaint filed by Gingrich and 71 House Republicans asked the ethics panel to investigate reports that Wright had received unusually high royalties of 55 percent – significantly higher than the typical 10 to 15 percent – from his book, “Reflections of a Public Man.” Other charges included that he had inappropriately accepted monetary gifts from people who sought legislative favors, had surpassed the limits on acceptable outside income, ordered congressional aides to work on private business – including promotion of the book – and meddled with federal regulations to benefit the Texas loan industry.
Wright accused Gingrich of timing his complaint so that it would coincide with the Democratic National Convention he was chairing that year. But a year later, in May 1989, the Ethics Committee found that he was guilty of 69 charges.
To make matters worse for Wright that month, one of his top aides, John P. Mack, the executive director of the Congressional Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, became a major point of controversy when The Washington Post published an interview with a woman who said that he had served two years in prison for trying to murder her in 1973. The woman, Pamela Small, said that Mack, who was 19 years old at the time, had rammed her skull with a hammer and stabbed her.
After his release from jail, Mack landed a position in Wright’s Texas district office, thanks in part to his connection as the brother of Wright’s daughter’s husband. He then worked his way up as a file clerk and eventually became one of Wright’s closest aides, which critics claimed demonstrated the Speaker’s disregard for justice.
Many on Capitol Hill had already known about Mack’s felony before Small gave her story to The Post, and some Democratic lawmakers criticized the newspaper for printing the story during the ethics scandal.
The Democrats’ public image worsened even further in May 1989 when Coelho, the majority whip, became entangled in a financial scandal after reports emerged that he had purchased a loan – recorded by his campaign committee – to purchase lucrative junk bonds. While Coelho was not charged with any crime, he resigned only five days before Wright finally succumbed to political reality and stepped down from the House.
“All of us in both political parties must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end,” Wright implored his colleagues in his resignation speech on May 31, 1989. “We've done enough of it!”
Wright, who had famously once threatened to punch a Republican lawmaker, Rep. Dan Lungren of California, on the House floor, had received too many blows to continue effectively serving in Congress. The majority leader, Tom Foley of Washington, ultimately succeeded him as Speaker a month later.
Wright also sparked controversy amid the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 1980s when he met with Nicaraguan rebel leaders independent of the Reagan administration in an attempt to forge an agreement acceptable to both countries. He had also spearheaded extensive congressional hearings and investigations to fully uncover the scandal. House Speakers almost never act alone on foreign policy issues, and Republicans accused Wright of jeopardizing American interests by giving ammunition to the Sandinistas.
“Some people in the administration are scared to death that peace will break out,” Wright said of the White House’s movement on the issue.
Upon his departure from Congress, Wright retired to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. After spending time on the speaking and consulting circuit, he became a professor at Texas Christian University. He taught a course called “Congress and the Presidents,” basing material largely on his 34 years in Washington.
The former Speaker also struggled with tongue cancer in later years, including surgery in 1996.