Coal scandal ended mayor's career

Catching fire for coal
Catching fire for coal
Mayor Harry Branning was indicted during an investigation into coal prices in 1950. He was trounced in the Democratic mayoral primary in 1951.
By ANDREW JAROSH of The News-Sentinel

One was a rookie city councilman whose question about the price of coal uncovered one of the city's most infamous scandals.

The other was a Roanoke farmer who got a rare insider's glimpse at Fort Wayne politics as foreman of a grand jury that helped topple Democrat Mayor Henry Branning.

The two -- Paul Mike Burns and Charles O. Wisel were brought together nearly half a century ago as key players in Fort Wayne's most celebrated political scandal, the coal deal probe of 1950-1954.

On Nov. 10, 1950, a six-person grand jury indicted six prominent men, including Fort Wayne's mayor and police chief, after an investigation into how the city bought coal. All hell broke loose when Burns, a first-term city councilman, alleged that Martin Coal & Supply Co. was overcharging the city $2 a ton for coal for the City Light generating plant , today's home of Science Central.

Burns, 82, said, it all started out innocently enough.

As City Utilities chairman, Burns said he only wanted to inquire why a shipping notice showed that City Utilities was being charged $5.50 a ton for $3.50-a-ton coal.

"We were paying too damn much for coal," and Burns, invoices in hand, wanted to know why.

So, apparently, did the rest of the community.

"The s--t hit the fan, I'll tell you that, in the little town of Fort Wayne, all over coal," Burns laughed.

Days after Burns' inquiry at City Council, a grand jury, with Wisel as its foreman, was convened. For about seven weeks, a slew of witnesses and suspects testified before the grand jury in a second floor room of the Allen County Courthouse.

In the end, unanimous indictments were brought against Branning; Police Chief Lester Eisenhut; City Councilman Charles Boyer; Traffic Capt. Gregor Klug; City Utilities purchasing agent Harold Battenberg, and A. Eugene Martin, president of the coal company.

For Wisel, their guilt was not in doubt. He had "no compunction about indicting the mayor and police chief." Neither did the rest of the grand jury; all voted to indict.

"I thought so at the time," and Essex employee. "They were guilty," said the retired 86-year-old farmer.

When Burns joined the board of the local Red Cross, he met Shelley Wagner, whose father had supplied the city's coal under Branning's predecessor, Republican Harry Baals.

One evening over a plate of fried fish at the downtown Van Orman Hotel, Wagner asked Burns whether he knew what the city paid for coal. Wagner knew Burns, an ambitious politician in his early 30s, would aggressively pursue the case against Branning and others.

Burns said he hadn't a clue.

At a meeting over drinks in the "very pretentious home" of Wagner's father, Burns said he was given copies of shipping invoices that showed Martin Coal paid $3.50 a ton for coal. Company president, A. Eugene Martin, had served as Allen County Democratic Party chairman during Branning's successful 1947 mayoral campaign.

Martin, operating his "company" from a small office on McKinley Avenue, sold the coal to the city at $5.50 a ton.

Such deals in local politics were not unusual. What was unusual, Burns said, is that Martin turned around and sold the coal to the city at a cost of $5.50 a ton. Other than maybe a slight administrative cost for the local agent, Martin -- who apparently had nothing more than a "shingle sign" atop a small office on McKinley Avenue, as Burns described it -- the city should not have been charged any more for the coal.

Its shipping by rail at $6.99 a ton, meanwhile, was set by the federal Interstate Commerce Commission regardless of the cost of the coal itself and was paid for entirely by the city.

His curiosity piqued, Burns visited the power plant supposedly to check out a new 10,000 kilowatt generator. At the end of his visit, Burns nonchalantly asked the plant superintendent, "What did we pay for this carload of coal?"

Burns knew he was on to something when the superintendent replied, "Don't get me in trouble." The superintendent then gave Burns copies of the bills the city was charged for carloads of coal that showed a cost of $5.50. Not wanting to get him in trouble -- it was the city purchasing agent who bought the coal, not the plant superintendent -- Burns ran off to a blueprint company to make copies of the bills and returned the originals.

"It was a slick operation," Burns said.

For example, coal was purchased in lots of five carloads to skirt a state law requiring that purchases of more than $2,000 be approved by the city council. This, in spite of the fact The plant used five carloads of coal a day, or about 90,000 tons a year.

Based on that, Burns estimated Fort Wayne taxpayers were getting fleeced $500 a day.

With documents in hand, Burns asked the city council on Sept. 13, 1950, and to investigate all purchases of coal.

Branning's supporters on the council, however, tried to block Burns' investigation by appointing themselves to the investigating committee, but to no avail.

Soon afterward Wisel and five other , Paul Lahmon, Kathryn Gerbers, Leonard Jenne, Howard Means and Russell James were picked as grand jurors were given authority to unearth whatever they could about the transactions.

Wisel had to forego work at Essex in return for jury duty pay of $5 a day. Farm work was done at day's end of the day and on weekends. His wife, meanwhile, gave birth to their youngest son during the grand jury probe.

While the news made daily front page headlines, Wisel said he kept mum about the grand jury's deliberations, as he was told 'Don't discuss this with anybody while you're not in this room" Wisel was told by Deputy Prosecutor Chester Lincoln, who assisted in the investigation.

"I didn't even discuss it with my wife," he said.

Under oath, Martin, Battenberg and others were grilled about their involvement in the coal purchases. The grand jury's 15-page report described abuses in city purchasing policies.

The report also criticized how the matter was leaked to the press before the investigation was done. The resulting newspaper stores "originated for political purposes" and hampered the jury's investigation, the report said.

While conceding politics played a role in the coal probe, Burns, a consistent Branning critic, said there nevertheless was enough skullduggery to warrant a probe.

Burns said Branning was an "honest guy" who "never took a dime on this or in politics" as graft. But hegot "caught in the cross-fire" because he trusted his friends.

The indictments "served a purpose. It put everybody on their toes," Burns said.

The grand jury brought 52 indictments against the six men.

  • Branning, Battenberg and Martin were charged with conspiracy to commit grand larceny.
  • Martin also was charged with bribery. Martin was accused of paying Councilman Boyer $7,542 to influence purchases by City Utilities of supplies with the Korte-Baker Co. Boyer was a Korte-Baker salesman; Martin, an officer and director.
  • Eisenhut and Klug were charged with perjury for giving false information to the grand jury, specifically about the frequency of their visits with Martin.
  • Boyer, meanwhile, was charged with conspiracy and for accepting bribes from Martin.
The key 18 indictments were for conspiracy to commit grand larceny, totaling $195,461.

Because of publicity in Fort Wayne, the case was assigned to special Judge Walter Brubaker in Columbia City.

In the scandal's fallout, "Politically, I was the hottest thing in Fort Wayne in 1951," Burns said.

In May of that year, Branning was badly beaten by Burns in the Democratic mayoral primary. Republicans convinced an ailing, 72-year-old Harry Baals to leave political retirement to run against him.

Burns said Baals told him Republicans believed the former mayor would be the only man capable of beating him, despite the fact Baals by then was suffering from cancer.

With Branning's Democratic council friends "working like Trojans against me" because of the stink raised by Burns over the coal purchases, Baals won a fourth term by beating the Democrat by 262 votes. He died in office 21/2 years later.

The coal scandal never went to trial.

On May 1, 1954, Brubaker ruled the major indictment -- that Branning, Boyer, Battenberg and Martin had joined in conspiracy to commit grand larceny -- had been improperly issued. Brubaker ruled that state law protected public officials from prosecution when they are compelled to testify about public contracts.

With their case seriously weakened, prosecutors asked that Brubaker dismiss the other remaining indictments. Brubaker agreed. As a result, the grand jury's contention Martin made exorbitant profits sometimes as high as $4.65 a ton on coal purchases were never proven in court.

Despite losing to Baals, Burns was finally elected mayor in 1960. After defeats in 1963 and 1967, Burns began 20 years as an at-large city councilman in 1971.

Any regrets about the "hell of a stink" he started in 1950?

"I beat the mayor in the primary (election) by 3 to 1 and I lost by 262 votes," Burns said. "I must have done something right."

Wisel, meanwhile, said he continues to be surprised by his selection to the grand jury.

"Why did they pick me?" he has asked himself. "What did I," a farmer, know about big-city political deal-making?

Wisel said he sees parallels with politics today., where deal-making and skullduggery continue in Washington and elsewhere. While the times and characters are different, it's the "same kinds of deals."

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