From June 6, 1993: The rise and fall of Bill Webster's golden career

From June 6, 1993: The rise and fall of Bill Webster's golden career

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Post-Dispatch

John Hall fondly remembers Christine Webster, his English teacher during his sophomore year at Carthage High School.

"She was an excellent instructor and a perfectionist, " Hall said. But sometimes she would get off the subject and talk about her grandson, Billy Webster. It was 1957, and William L. Webster was then just a toddler. "Someday, he's going to be president of the United States, " Christine Webster told Hall and his classmates.

And up until the beginning of a federal investigation of Webster while he was Missouri's attorney general, he seemed to be on a course that could lead to fulfillment of his grandmother's dream. Certainly, many people in Carthage, in the southwestern corner of the state, believed so.

Young Bill Webster had so much going for him: the tall, dark and handsome son of a powerful state senator; voted most likely to succeed; a brilliant debater and an able political strategist.

In 1989, when he strode onto the national scene to argue the abortion issue before the U.S. Supreme Court, Webster's performance drew the attention of the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.

Less than a year ago, Webster, a Republican, campaigned on the same platform with President George Bush. Then only 38 years old, Webster seemed to have everything he needed to win the governor's race — the most campaign money, a lead in the polls and political endorsements.

And many of those who hitched their careers to his believed the next home for the rising Republican star — after a term or two in Jefferson City — would be in Washington.

"He was headed for great things, " said Tony Feather, who managed Webster's campaign last year. "I believed he was going to Washington."

Webster's next home may be federal prison. His agreement last week [on June 2, 1993] to plead guilty to two federal felony charges of conspiracy and embezzlement means he could serve a prison term of between one and two years.

"It is very much an American tragedy, " said Gary Nodler of nearby Joplin. "How someone with tremendous potential and opportunity could end up with this problem is a tragic story."

How could a man who had so much going for him fall so far so quickly? Some believe the answer was buried three years ago in the Park Cemetery here with the body of state Sen. Richard M. Webster.

The Birth Of Ambition

To understand how William Webster came to be where he is today, you have to understand his father, Richard M. "Dick" Webster, and his upbringing, how his own ambition to be governor was frustrated, and how he later used his power to nurture his son's political chances.

Richard Webster, born April 29, 1922, was reared by a single parent. His mother, Christine, was a member of a prominent and respected Carthage family. Her father was a doctor.

Richard's father, a man named Rose, left town shortly after Richard was born. Richard was given the last name of his mother, who raised the boy with the help of her parents.

James R. Spradling, a lawyer whose office sits on the tree-lined town square, says one of the theories in town about why Richard Webster tried so hard to prove himself stemmed from the circumstances of his birth and upbringing.

"The man without a father, " Spradling said.

As early as his days at the Law School of the University of Missouri at Columbia, right after World War II, Richard Webster talked about being governor. It wasn't just idle talk.

Webster married Janet Whitehead in 1948. They had two sons, Richard M. Jr., and William Lawrence, born Sept. 17, 1953. The same year he married, Webster won a state representative seat. In 1953, he became speaker of the House, the last Republican to hold that office.

Being speaker was as close as Webster could get to being governor. He lost races for attorney general in 1952 and for lieutenant governor in 1956.pgmdb

`King Of Missouri Politics'

In the smoke-filled rooms in the state capital, Dick Webster introduced William to an exciting political game and taught him its rules — written and unwritten. The experience began when William was in grade school and his father took him to Jefferson City. William was made a page in the state Senate, and what he saw kindled a burning political desire.

Not so with William's older brother, Richard M. Webster Jr. He resembles his father in appearance but has his mother's personality and no interest in politics. William looks like his mother but inherited his father's personality and political ambition.

Jean Paul Bradshaw, a lawyer in Kansas City and former U.S. attorney, says, "I believe growing up in the family and watching his dad involved in politics and government was no doubt the strongest element in Bill's deciding to get involved in government and public service." His father, Paul Bradshaw, a Republican from Springfield, served in the state Senate with Richard Webster.

"It's tough for a child growing up in a political family because you don't have one of your parents around a whole lot, " Bradshaw said.

What kind of a political role model was state Sen. Richard Webster?

He was powerful. James F. Wolfe, a capital commentator for newspapers in Joplin and St. Joseph, said: "Sen. Webster had respect that bordered on fear. He was the king of Missouri politics."

And he was responsible for some pretty outrageous political conduct.

"He just didn't get caught, " said Mark Youngdahl, a former Democratic state representative from St. Joseph.

For example, when a bill was on the Senate floor to strengthen the state's laws regulating nursing homes, Webster fought it. At the same time, he was a lawyer paid to represent a nursing home management company.

When the frustrated citizens of Skidmore, Mo., gunned down town bully Ken Rex McElroy on July 10, 1981, they were concluding a drama in which Dick Webster played a role. McElroy's still-unsolved murder stemmed from public frustration over long delays in McElroy's trial on assault charges.

Richard Gene McFadin, a Jefferson City lobbyist and McElroy's lawyer, had hired Webster on Jan. 5, 1981, two weeks before McElroy's trial. McFadin's goal was to delay the trial.

Webster filed papers with the court stating that he was also representing McElroy. He sought a trial delay under a law that requires judges to continue a case if a lawyer-legislator's presence is required at a session of the General Assembly. The session was in progress, and the judge had no choice but to grant another delay. The citizens of Skidmore dispensed their own street "justice" six months later.

`Governors On Their Knees'

Spradling, the lawyer from Carthage, served as state revenue director under Republican Gov. Christopher S. Bond from 1973 to 1976. When he first went to Jefferson City, Spradling was surprised to hear that Dick Webster "was the most powerful man in the capital."

"After two weeks of lobbying the Legislature, I found out it was true, " Spradling said. "He could get governors down on their knees and beg."

The sources of his power were his knowledge, experience and willingness to play politics full time.

"Nobody did it better, " said Harvey Tettlebaum, a Jefferson City lawyer and treasurer for the state Republican Party. "He was marvelous. He committed himself to his career in politics and his role in the Senate. That involves a certain amount of personal sacrifice. You are not with your family as much. You are not aggregating personal wealth."

What Dick Webster did accumulate were political IOUs.

"He was like the First National Bank of IOUs, " Tettlebaum said. And Webster began cashing them in when William Webster entered politics.

"There was no question he wanted his son to be the governor, " Tettlebaum said.

Said Spradling: "I think Bill wanted it, and Dick said, `If so, I'll do everything I can to help you.' "

Richard Webster helped bankroll his son's campaigns for the state House in 1980 and 1982 and the attorney general's office in 1984. The money poured in from lobbyists who owed the senator, and the elder Webster's campaign committee transferred thousands more to the son's.

And once William Webster was elected attorney general, Dick Webster ran interference for him in the Legislature. For example, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Webster kept the attorney general's office budget intact.

After easily winning re-election in 1988, William Webster was poised for a shot at the governor's office.

The Senator Dies

On the wall of William Webster's office in Jefferson City hangs a plaque from Missouri Southern State College in Joplin, where the Webster Communications Building was dedicated in memory of his father. The plaque is next to William Webster's framed law license, which he now must surrender.

On the same wall is a photo of Richard Webster, holding an infant, David Webster, the youngest of three sons born to William and Susan Webster. Richard Webster died from complications that followed heart surgery on March 4, 1990, a week after the photo was taken. He was 67.

To many, the death marked a turning point in William Webster's political career.

"Early on, I had the impression that Bill Webster's ambition derived from his father's development, " said Gary Nodler, who for 20 years ran the office of Gene Taylor, a Republican congressman from Sarcoxie.

"When Dick Webster died, Bill's ambition changed, " Nodler said. "At that time, I sensed a very strong ambition in Bill. I thought there was a watermark point when his father died that changed the level of Bill's ambition. I thought he seemed more driven to succeed and become governor than ever before. Before that, I wasn't sure if it was his ambition or he was carrying out his father's ambition."

Others say that with Dick's death, Bill lost the counsel of his politically astute father, as well as becoming vulnerable to attacks from both of their enemies. They say that Dick Webster would have been able to stave off the federal investigation of his son.

"I think if Dick had been alive, nobody would have dared to try it, " said Spradling. "Dick knew where all the skeletons were buried."

Webster Becomes A Target

The federal investigation of William Webster began in 1991. The U.S. attorney's office in Springfield received a tip about a land deal involving a partnership that included William, Richard Jr. and Sen. Webster. The partnership sold a financially troubled condominium development to a group that included Stephen Redford, a resort developer who had been investigated by the attorney general's office.

Then, prompted by several articles in the Post-Dispatch, the investigation turned to William E. Roussin, the St. Louis lawyer who defended the Second Injury Fund for the attorney general's office and collected campaign contributions for Webster.

Throughout his campaign for governor, Webster denied that he was under investigation, even though federal authorities had informed him in November 1991 — a year before the election — that he was a target.

Redford and Roussin pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges, implicating Webster as they did so. Webster hadn't been charged. By then the court of public opinion, in Missouri's Nov. 3 general election, had issued its verdict. Webster lost the governor's race overwhelmingly to Democrat Mel Carnahan.

Despite the $5 million that Webster collected for his campaign, he still shaved campaign expenses by using his staff and equipment in the attorney general's office for political purposes. He reluctantly pleaded guilty to that last week before U.S. District Judge D. Brook Bartlett.

Although the two-count federal charge accused him of conspiring to defraud the state of its assets, including abusing the Second Injury Fund, Webster only admitted the charges of using his office staff, equipment and supplies for his political purposes.

He denied any involvement with Roussin, and the case involving Redford was dropped by the government in a plea bargain. Bartlett accepted Webster's guilty plea and convicted him on each of the two counts.

Mike Wolff, who ran unsuccessfully against Webster for attorney general in 1988, said:

"Webster came into court, and the federal government accused him of being a horse thief. At first Webster said some chickens were stolen by somebody while he was in office."

Finally, after relentless interrogation by Judge Bartlett, "Webster admitted that, yes, he had stolen some chickens, too."

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