Herbert Hoover photo

The President's News Conference

October 28, 1930

OIL SHALE LAND CONTROVERSY

THE PRESIDENT. The Department of Justice has now published its report on the examination into the sensational charges made by Ralph S. Kelley. Kelley, as you know, is an employee of the Land Office--I will give you a shorthand note. The charges were that Secretary Wilbur and the other officials of the Department of the Interior had been guilty of dishonesty and misfeasance in the adjudication of titles to oil shale lands, running into hundreds of thousands of acres, and into losses to the Government running into billions of dollars. It was an attempt to charge odious oil scandals to this administration.

The facts as disclosed are that out of 8 million acres of Government holdings of such lands the whole matter boils down to the item that this administration had approved old title claims for some 43,000 acres arising out of the mineral law prior to 1920. Under my orders no leases or titles to these lands have been granted under the new law, and of these old claims Kelley himself had approved about 20,000 acres. Sixteen thousand acres were transferred on the orders of the courts. About 7,000 acres came up on appeal to the heads of the Department of the Interior for decision, and only a part of these were opposed by Kelley. Furthermore, these oil shale lands have very little present value, and instead of being worth billions, they can be bought for a few dollars an acre.

Attorney General Mitchell and Assistant Attorney General Seth Richardson, after a painstaking examination of the records on every item in Mr. Kelley's charges, pronounce that every one of them has been proved baseless and without any merit or substance. They concluded that the Government's interest in these lands has been vigorously protected, as witness the fact that the courts have set aside the decisions of the Department in granting claims in favor of the claimants. There is a phase of all that incident that I think it is desirable in public interest that I make some comment on, and I may say, at once, that a proper inquiry and proper criticism by the press is always a safeguard of good government. But this investigation shows more than this.

Kelley had been called to Washington last summer to discuss, with his immediate superiors, questions of organization in the office of which he had charge. He made no suggestion of these charges to his superior officers during the period of over 6 weeks in Washington, but during this time he was in negotiation for the sale of his fabrications to a journal identified with the opposition political party. And they were delayed in that for some 6 weeks or more after the negotiations had been entered into in order that they might be used in the campaign in such a fashion as to perhaps prevent asking for an investigation. They were launched in the midst of a political campaign. No single inquiry has been or was made at the Department of the Interior or any other department of the Government as to the facts before their publication.

The charges when they were first published, as you will recollect, were in general and demagogic terms, but were instantly denied by Secretary Wilbur and proof offered that would indicate their falsity. Kelley was asked and refused to place any particulars before his superiors and he even refused to cooperate with the Department of Justice for an independent investigation. Furthermore, Kelley himself could, by the merest inquiry in his own department, have determined the falsity of his own statements, as witness the assertion of titles granted which were never granted, of hundreds of thousands of acres of lands alienated which never were alienated, of papers destroyed that never were destroyed, or billions of dollars that never had existed, and scores of other reckless statements. Yet despite all these opportunities to test the truth, these agencies have persisted in broadcasting them for the last 6 weeks by every device of publicity, and Kelley received payment for them. Any inquiry by him or the broadcasters of these statements would no doubt have destroyed the political value or the sale value of these stories.

Now, as a piece of journalism, it may well be that the newspaper involved was misled. It certainly does not represent the high practice and ideals of the American press. As a piece of politics, it is certainly far below the ideals of political partisanship held by many substantial men in that party.

But there is another and more important phase. I am interested, and have the duty, in the preserving and upbuilding of honest public service. I hope that the American people will realize that when reckless, baseless, and infamous charges, in the face of responsible denial with no attempt at verification, are supported by political agencies and are broadcast, reflecting on the probity of public men such as Secretary Wilbur, that the ultimate result can only be damage to the public service as a whole. Such things damage the whole faith of our people in men. There is hardly an administrative officer of importance in the Federal Government who is now serving this Government who is not doing it at a sacrifice to his own satisfactions and his own pocket. And aside from the service they can render to their countrymen, the only thing that they can hope for is the enhancement of their reputations for the service they have given. The one hope of high service, of integrity and ability is that such men should be willing to enter Government service. And when men of a lifetime of distinction and probity do undertake it, they should not be subjected to infamous transactions of this character.

Thank you.

Note: President Hoover's one hundred and fiftieth news conference was held in the White House at 12 noon on Tuesday, October 28, 1930.

On the same day, the White House also issued a text of the President's statement on the charges of misfeasance in the leasing of oil shale lands by the Department of the Interior (see Item 343).

Herbert Hoover, The President's News Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/212122

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