The 1937 ‘Microphone Scandal’: When an Attorney, Reporter, Restaurant Inspector Bugged the Governor’s Office

an old fashioned looking microphone
In 1937, a special grand jury convened in Denver to investigate what news outlets called the “Microphone Scandal.” / Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash.

In 1937, a special grand jury convened in Denver to investigate what news outlets called the “Microphone Scandal.” 

Then-Gov. Teller Ammons had just been sworn in to office and Democrats held a majority in the governor’s seat and in the legislature. By the following year, a scandal ballooned and burst, culminating in the firing of a restaurant inspector and a reporter, the disbarment of a local attorney and a grand jury indictment for “creating a public nuisance,” eavesdropping and “conspiring against the peace and dignity of the state of Colorado,” according to August 1937 coverage by the Longmont Times-Call

The outlet reported following an eight-week grand jury session investigating the scandal “returned indictments against [Erl] Ellis, attorney, Jack Gilmore, detective, Walden E. Sweet, Denver Post reporter, and Walter Lear, former secretary to Governor Johnson,” an additional indictment was returned “against Donald B. Clifford, attorney, accusing him of bribing and attempting to bribe legislators with gifts of liquor, influencing them to vote and work against a proposed state owned liquor monopoly.”

Longmont Times-Call went on to note that four state lawmakers were charged with violating their oaths to accept those bribes. “According to figures submitted by the jury these four statesmen, if guilty as charged, either had extraordinary thirsts or else a host of thirsty friends, for the gifts of liquor ranged in price from $300 up to $700 to each of them,” the news outlet reported. “The state monopoly system has many objectionable features which were no doubt honestly considered by most of the legislators who voted against it.”

Ellis was disbarred by the state Supreme Court for his role, which the Longmont Times-Call reported was “directing the installation of the microphones.” The outlet also noted on Aug. 31, 1937, an announcement was made “that Walden E. Sweet has been fired by the Denver Post because of his connection with the affair. Nobody loves an eavesdropper.” 

But the men said they were “slickered” by then-District Attorney John Carroll, according to a September 1937 article in The Record Journal of Douglas County. The Douglas County outlet reported Ellis, Gilmore and Sweet asserted Carroll assured them there “was no case against them” and the men then came forward with the information. They asserted this assurance “took away their constitutional rights as they were not [aware] that any statements they made would be used against them.”

The Douglas County outlet reported the three men also asserted portions of the recordings they captured were deleted prior to publication and they wanted the entirety of the recordings to be introduced as evidence. 

Lear, who was a state restaurant inspector at the time, was dismissed from his post by Ammons only in part due to his role in the scandal, the Douglas County outlet reported. “[Lear] was named in an investigation by the state medical board in the release of a large number of eggs, condemned as unfit for food, from a Denver storage warehouse,” the outlet noted. 

The trial took place early the following year and was covered by the Steamboat Pilot. “Erl Ellis, Jack Gilmore and Walden E. Sweet, admitted installers of hidden microphones in the private office of Governor Teller Ammons, were found guilty of charges of eavesdropping by a district court jury in Denver,” the outlet reported. Deliberations took more than 22 hours, according to the outlet, but they were acquitted of the nuisance and conspiracy charges. 

The Steamboat Pilot reported the four legislators and a lobbyist were set to “stand trial on bribery and violation of oath of office charges on indictments returned by the special microphone grand jury.”

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