R. Budd Dwyer, the affable Meadville Republican destined to be governor, then fell quickly from favor and grace and, finally, killed himself at a Harrisburg press conference 23 years ago. He was an enigma for more reasons than that.
Dwyer is back in the news because a documentary movie is being shown in Harrisburg and may eventually reach mainstream TV if it doesn’t play theaters throughout PA. Likely his story never made it to a melodramatic made-for-TV movie because for two decades his image has been zealously guarded by his wife Joanne and son Robert. Mrs. Dwyer died of natural causes last year.
Dwyer, to the second when he pulled the trigger of a 347 Magnum handgun before a horde of reporters and camera people, maintained he was innocent in a bribery scheme designed to enrich him $300,000 in exchange for help on a state contract. The contract was never entered into and no money ever passed hands, leaving authorities relying on he-said, he-said evidence.
The documentary focuses on William Smith, former Dauphin County Republican chairman and self-admitted go-between for Dwyer and John Torquato Jr., Johnstown businessman seeking the contract. Smith now says he perjured himself to gain a better deal with the Feds for himself. Smith indicates Dwyer never knew about the $300,000 offer.
What drew suspicions to Dwyer was that Torquato was a member of a notorious family sometimes linked to organized crime. More than one wag opined that while Torquato’s father was a longtime Democrat party boss, even Democrat officeholders would hesitate to do business with him.
State treasurer at the time, Dwyer had begun his career as a teacher before winning a Meadville-based state House seat. In 1970 he defeated Republican incumbent Jim Willard, of Mercer County, for the 50th State Senate office in a bitter and bloody Republican primary. The district was comprised of Mercer and Crawford counties. Willard won 99 of the 100 precincts in Mercer but Dwyer won every precinct in Crawford by a greater margin.
Popular with the PSEA and working labor unions, despite his GOP registration, Dwyer rode the Reagan wave to the state treasurer’s office in 1980. In 1984 he won re-election by less than two percent in a battle with Erie Democrat Al Benedict. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette refused to endorse anyone, claiming both were too tainted by unrelated scandals.
Dwyer’s fall from grace began a year or two earlier. In yearning to succeed Dick Thornburgh as governor in 1986, Budd made a bad move. Dwyer criticized Thornburgh for charging his wife’s expenses to the taxpayers when she accompanied the Governor on an overseas business junket and having state police ferry his son to a college in Connecticut.
PA politics is among the roughest on the planet, but an unwritten rule says thou shall never attack family members of your enemies.
Either Dwyer figured he could become Thornburgh’s successor without Thornburgh’s help or he didn’t think at all. The relationship between Thornburgh and Dwyer became very frosty. At a tourist promotion dinner both men were seated at the same table and never said a single word to each other throughout.
Dwyer’s supporters believed Thornburgh encouraged Central PA US Attorney Jim West to launch the corruption probe against the Treasurer. West and Thornburgh were buddies because Thornburgh had served as US Attorney for Western PA. Then, too, even Federal Judge Malcolm Muir was a GOP appointee and active politically before going on the bench. Muir resisted Dwyer’s lawyers basing their defense on inconsistencies with Smith’s testimony and bragged he was not intimidated by Dwyer’s clout.
Dwyer was the consummate politico. In his days members of the senate were permitted to hand out a limited number of scholarships to constituents attending state schools. Even though a Republican in a district that now has not voted for a Democrat in 75 years, Dwyer would make sure sons and daughters of union leaders were on his scholarship list.
More than once he was observed thanking other legislators for a hike in pay that he had been afraid to vote for, but needed as much as the others.
Most Harrisburg journalists assumed Dwyer had called the press conference to announce his resignation as state treasurer. The following day he was to be sentenced. Instead, he killed himself. Many defenders believe the suicide was meant to save his pension for his wife since the moment of his sentence he would no longer be eligible.
A legislator who never had the guts to vote for his own pay raise, makes the ultimate sacrifice for his family?