Republicans in the Texas State Legislature voted last week to impeach embattled state Attorney General and GOP mainstay Ken Paxton, setting up a dramatic trial and illuminating the shifting political allegiances in the Lonestar State. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Texas Tall-Tales, Ken Paxton…and Us,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman placed the Paxton scandal within the turbulent and often-mythological history of Texas, from the Alamo to the oil boom. In the late 1950s, another Texas politician, state representative James E. Cox, also came under fire for corruption and sparked a reckoning over the state’s politics and culture.
At the start of 1957, Texas state representative James E. Cox was riding high. Over the previous two years, the 36-year-old accountant from Conroe – a 10,000-person town 40 miles north of Houston – had led a battle to protect small grocery stores against national chains from his perch on the powerful state affairs committee.
Cox had also shown an interest in outlawing naturopathy, or, as he called them, “nature doctors.” There were more than 350 practicing naturopaths, alternative physicians who eschewed the use of establishment medicine and surgery, in Texas. Early in the 1957 session, Cox introduced a bill that would effectively outlaw the practitioners across the state.
Cox’s bill became his undoing. On February 20th, 1957, Cox agreed to meet Dr. Howard Harmon, the president of the Texas Naturopathic Physicians’ Association, in Harmon’s room at the Stephen F. Austin hotel in downtown Austin. The naturopath had clandestinely installed a tape recorder underneath the bed.
The recording captured the two men working out a deal for Cox to withdraw his anti-naturopathy bill. Cox pushed the conversation toward a payoff: “Now you’ve said you’ll want to compensate me for my services, if we should work on this thing. Well, what do you mean compensate? Now, let’s just sit down—now, let’s put the cards on the table now.”
The legislator asked the naturopath how much he would be willing to pay up to make the bill go away. Harmon responded, “I think it’s worth 5 Gs for you to do that if you will. If you’ll help.”
When Harmon later tried to push the bribe down to $3,500, Cox responded, “I don’t like that $3,500…I like that 5 better.” Cox also played up his influence in the legislature: “I’ve got some pretty good friends on that committee. I’ve got pretty god damn good power up there.”
With the $5,000 bribe agreed upon, Cox issued a caution to Harmon to keep their conversation private. “They’ll send us to the pen. You know that.” And Cox offered further reassurance that he would follow through: “I’ll work for you. When you give me the money I’m on your side.”
Harmon, however, was not really looking to influence Cox. Instead, he was aiming to show the corruption of the legislature and the shallowness of the body’s anti-naturopathy stance. Harmon quickly took the tape to the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, Waggoner Carr, who turned the tapes over to state authorities.
Cox was arrested on the evening of February 26th on bribery charges and posted a $5,000 bond. The following day – with Cox conspicuously absent from his seat – Speaker Carr appointed a nine-representative team to investigate the embattled legislator.
Carr also addressed the Texas House, offering a reassuring message amid the growing flood of negative national publicity surrounding the Cox scandal. “Without a doubt this is one of the finest, most sincere and hard-working House of Representatives with which I have ever had the privilege of serving,” Carr said. “Yet, because of a charge which has been filed against one of our members accusing him of violating a criminal law of our state, this House stands under a cloud of suspicion by those who do not know us individually and personally.”
The Speaker finished with a call to arms for the investigating team and the larger body: “This House stands to be tested in the history books of Texas by the way and the manner in which it faces this challenge.”
As the legislature geared up for their investigation, Cox was plenty busy. On the morning of February 28th, he filed his own bribery charge against Harmon. Later that day, he reappeared suddenly in the House chamber and rose to address his colleagues, alleging that the entire meeting had been his set-up to ferret out what he called “crooked lobbyists.”
“I know I put you all on the spot,” Cox conceded. “But it was time for the House and the Senate to stand up and be counted and take a stand against this web of corruption [that] has been drawing closer and closer around this capitol.”
The House investigating committee set to work trying to figure out who was trying to entrap whom. Harmon, the naturopath, testified before the legislature on March 2nd. In a revelation that spread further suspicion through the legislature, Harmon claimed that his set-up of Cox was the result of long-time frustration with the payola inherent to protecting his professional life. Two years earlier in 1955, Harmon claimed, the Naturopathic Physicians’ Association had collected a fund with as much as $55,000 to pay off Texas lawmakers.
While Harmon sold his side of the case, Cox also had his defenders. Ed Watson, the editor of Cox’s hometown paper, the Conroe Courier, claimed that he had talked with Cox about the Harmon bribe before Cox was caught and that the lawmaker had suggested he was setting up the naturopath. “This wasn’t the first time Jim had told me about corruption in Austin. He was always telling about how ‘dern much corruption’ there is down there and that it makes it hard on Legislators.”
“That boy’s record is clean down here,” Watson continued. “I don’t believe those charges against him until I see more proof than I’ve seen so far. Something about all this stinks to high heaven, and I want to know what it is.”
Another one of Cox’s supporters was his friend R.E. McMeans, a chiropractor who claimed that Cox had often discussed the merits and drawbacks of naturopathy with him. McMeans told the House investigating committee that he believed Cox had introduced the anti-naturopathy bill not to collect bribes, but out of a real interest in the medical ethics involved. Just days after McMeans’s testimony, an unknown assailant appeared at McMeans’s chiropractic clinic in Conroe and tossed hydrochloric acid from a pint fruit jar into McMeans’s face.
By the time of the vigilante attack on Means, however, Cox’s resolve had frayed. He was indicted by a local grand jury in early March and resigned a day later to begin preparations for his trial.
As Texas geared up for Cox’s trial during the summer of 1957, the national press painted a damning portrait of the state’s politics. In July, the popular Look magazine ran a feature titled “How Corrupt is Texas?” The article, which featured a massive photo of Cox, linked the bribery scandal to a broader payola conflagration involving BenJack Cage, a crooked insurance impresario whose massive ICT had recently collapsed. The article suggested that politicians had looked the other way as the insurance giant took on heavier risks, and that the same penchant for bribery was ultimately to blame for the Cox drama.
The article also detailed subsequent attempts by the legislature to raise their own salaries from a paltry $1,500 per year up to $7,500 in order to lessen the allure of bribes. One downtrodden legislator told the magazine, “Public opinion of this legislature is so low it won’t get another thin dime. But the people of Texas ought to remember that while poverty is no excuse for thievery, it’s a damn big help.”
When Cox’s bribery trial opened in October 1957, the ex-legislator’s defense reiterated forcefully that Cox had been setting Harmon up, not vice versa. Much of the trial also concerned Cox’s conduct with prior anti-naturopathy bills. The state called two witnesses who claimed that Cox had told them he would hold up a similar 1955 bill if he received bribes. The official legislative journal, however, showed that Cox had vocally supported the bill. The lead prosecutor and lead defense counsel almost came to blows over the dispute.
Despite the spirited defense of Cox, the prosecution convinced the jury that Cox had taken the bribe on his own accord, even revealing that Cox had solicited similar bribes in his formerly-vaunted bill protecting small grocers. In one dramatic moment, an Assistant District Attorney, whilst pointing at Cox, said, “The people of Austin were being made a carnival of corruption by legislators such as this one.”
Cox was sentenced to two years in Huntsville Prison. He remained defiant as he entered the penitentiary, telling the press, “I never knew that I would have to pay a debt to society I didn’t owe, but I’m here and I’m going to make the best of it.”
Cox’s defensive posture certainly sounds a lot like Ken Paxton. And the broader attempts by the Texas legislature to clean house amid overwhelming evidence of corruption reflects the long-term struggle to bring accountability and true democracy to a state with such a self-defined penchant for rugged individualism and unfettered money-making.
For a telling look at Texas politics in the 1950s and 1960s, check out journalist Neal Spelce’s memoir With the Bark Off: A Journalist’s Memories of LBJ and a Life in the News Media.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
To receive Time Machine articles in your inbox, sign up to receive the CAFE Brief newsletter sent every Friday.
Catch up on some recent Time Machine deep dives into history:
- ‘We’re Here Because We’re Masochists’: Searching for Good Taste at the 1996 White House Correspondents’ Dinner
- ‘A Very, Very Serious Violation’: Lawyer Thomas G. Corcoran and Improper Influences on the Supreme Court
- ‘Through Difficulties to the Stars’: Tennessee Legislator Samuel Allen McElwee’s Fight for Black Representation