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Billie Sol Estes: King of the Texas Wheeler-Dealers

Washington imbroglios – from Watergate and Iran-contra to the current criminal investigation of the IRS -have come and gone over the years. But few were as sensational, or as intriguing, as the mid-1960s scandal surrounding the infamous Texas swindler Billie Sol Estes. It was a saga replete with witnesses who died mysteriously, tales of millions paid to politicians, a defendant who accused a president of having plotted to assassinate his predecessor and, at one point, the exhumation of a pet cat so that authorities could search the grave for a missing $52 million.

estesHad it all happened after rather than before Watergate, in fact, no doubt the scandal would have been dubbed Estesgate.

Estes, who died on May 14 at age 88 in DeCordova, Texas, had a life story with so many bizarre twists that a Hollywood screenwriter would have hesitated to make them up, for fear of seeming far-fetched. He was born to a West Texas family so impoverished that it paid the obstetrician by giving him two hound dogs. Estes grew up plowing fields barefoot while he dreamed of becoming a business tycoon. He became a cotton farmer, and by age 28, was so successful that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce named him one of the nation’s 10 most outstanding young businessmen in 1953. According to a 1962 Time cover story on him, when he received the award, he uttered some prophetic words: “You have to walk out on a limb to the far end – that’s where the fruit is.”

For Estes, that meant the ammonia fertilizer business. He concocted a scheme that enabled him to steal $24 million from finance companies by getting them to write mortgages on nonexistent fertilizer tanks on farms, and a second cabal to swindle farmers out of federal cotton subsidies. Eventually, in 1965, he was convicted on federal mail fraud and conspiracy charges and sentenced to prison, but not before the Kennedy administration was scandalized by his connections with Agriculture Department officials and then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, to whom he claimed to have slipped vast amounts of cash – though the allegation was never proven.

Other weird details of the Estes affair made most of today’s political scandals look bland by comparison. A sampling:

 

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