Robert Budd Dwyer (November 21, 1939 – January 22, 1987) was the 30th State Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
He served from 1971 to 1981 as a Republican member of the Pennsylvania State Senate representing the state’s 50th district. He then served as the 30th Treasurer of Pennsylvania from January 20, 1981, until his death.
On January 22, 1987, Dwyer called a news conference in the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg where he killed himself in front of the gathered reporters, by shooting himself in the mouth with a .357 Magnum revolver. Dwyer’s suicide was broadcast later that day to a wide television audience across Pennsylvania.
In the early 1980s, Pennsylvania discovered its state workers had overpaid federal taxes due to errors in state withholding. Many accounting firms competed for a multimillion-dollar contract to determine the compensation to each employee. In 1986, Dwyer was convicted of receiving a bribe from the California firm that ultimately won the contract. He was scheduled to be sentenced on those charges on January 23, 1987, the day after his suicide.
Throughout Dwyer’s trial and after his conviction, he maintained that he was not guilty of the charges levied against him, and that he had been framed. Decades later, the prosecution’s primary witness, William T. Smith, whose testimony was largely used to obtain Dwyer’s conviction, admitted in a documentary about Dwyer that he had lied under oath regarding Dwyer’s acceptance of bribes in order to receive a reduced sentence.
Smith acknowledges, as he did at Dwyer’s trial, that he had lied in his own earlier trial when he testified that he had offered Dwyer a bribe.
He admitted that he testified against Dwyer in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence and to spare his wife from being prosecuted for her role in the conspiracy, and expressed his regret for that decision and the role it played in Dwyer’s death.
Bribery investigation and conviction
During the early 1980s, public employees of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania overpaid millions of dollars in Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes. As a result, the state solicited bids from accounting firms to determine refunds for its employees. The contract was eventually awarded to Computer Technology Associates (CTA), a California-based firm, owned by John Torquato, Jr, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Later Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh received an anonymous memo detailing allegations of bribery that took place during the bidding process for the $4.6 million contract.
An investigation was undertaken by federal prosecutors. Dwyer was charged with agreeing to receive kickbacks worth $300,000 in return for using his office to steer the contract toward CTA. The US Attorney also indicted Torquato, Torquato’s attorney William T. Smith, Smith’s wife, and Bob Asher, the former Republican Party Chairman for the State of Pennsylvania. In return for lighter sentences, Torquato and the Smiths pleaded guilty and testified on behalf of the Federal government against Dwyer and Asher.
He denied any wrongdoing. Federal prosecutors offered him a single charge of bribe receiving (which would have meant up to a maximum of five years’ imprisonment), resignation from his office as Treasurer of Pennsylvania and full cooperation with the government’s investigation but he refused.
Instead, he went to full trial. However, his defense was curtailed by the prosecution because the case was limited to only those who had been charged.
The names of the unindicted co-conspirators who were linked in the bribery scandal but were not on trial were withheld. These unnamed individuals were believed to have been staff members of the Dauphin County Republican Party.
On December 18, 1986, He was found guilty on 11 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering, and consequently faced a sentence of up to 55 years imprisonment and a $300,000 fine. His sentencing was scheduled for January 23, 1987, to be performed by U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Muir.
Bob Asher, Dwyer’s co-defendant, was sentenced to one year in jail. He later returned to politics and served as a Republican national committeeman for Pennsylvania.
Dwyer’s status as state treasurer
Pennsylvania law stated that Dwyer could not officially be removed from office until his sentencing in January. Given this, Dwyer stated that until his legal appeal was resolved, he would stay on as Treasurer under leave of absence without pay. In the interim, the treasury department would be run by Deputy Treasurer Donald L. Johnson.
He continued to profess his innocence after being convicted, as did others close to him. On December 23, he wrote a letter to President Ronald Reagan seeking a presidential pardon, and to Senator Arlen Specter seeking support in this effort.
The week of Dwyer’s sentencing, Pennsylvania State Attorney General Leroy Zimmerman and state prosecutors were investigating a provision of the Pennsylvania state constitution where removal of a city worker from office who has been convicted of a crime is “self-executing”, thus, automatic upon that person’s sentencing.
A decision confirming this constitutional point was expected on January 22, the day before Dwyer’s sentencing hearing.
January 22 press conference
In a meeting in his home, he discussed the idea of a press conference, with his press secretary James “Duke” Horshock and Deputy Treasurer Don Johnson, on January 15, 1987.
At the time, Johnson cautioned Dwyer not to use such a forum to attack the governor or other individuals involved with his criminal conviction, and Dwyer assured him that he would not do so. Both men left assuming Dwyer would ultimately resign if the press conference were held.
Dwyer finally reached Senator Specter by telephone on January 21, two days before his sentencing. A Specter aide stated that the two of them talked for 8 to 10 minutes. Following up on his letter to the senator asking for help, he personally asked for a presidential pardon at that time.
The senator’s response was that this request was “not realistic” because the judicial process, including appeals, had not yet run its course.
On the same day, Dwyer asked his press secretary Horshock and deputy press secretary Gregory Penny to set up a news conference for the next day without telling them what he was to discuss. Horshock arranged the press conference for 10:30 a.m. EST the next day, January 22. The press secretary called dozens of reporters asking them to attend, and told them he did not know its subject.
Leading up to this press conference acting U.S. Attorney James J. West, who had secured the conviction against him, remarked that a Dwyer resignation “sounds like the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances.
It seems like it would save everybody a lot of time and aggravation.” Similarly, Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Kenn Marshall described the consensus among reporters: they would be attending to see Dwyer announce his resignation from office. “My mission was to stay there until he said those words, then call in a new top for our story.”
What nobody knew at the time was that Dwyer was considering a much more drastic action. The night before the press conference, Dwyer wrote the following note:
“I enjoy being with Jo so much, the next 20 years or so would have been wonderful. Tomorrow is going to be so difficult and I hope I can go through with it.”
After he had finished speaking and handing out the notes to his staffers, Dwyer then produced a manila envelope with a blued Smith & Wesson Model 27 .357 Magnum revolver in it.
When the crowd in the room saw what Dwyer had pulled out of the envelope, the mood changed immediately from one of waiting to see whether he would resign his office to one of panic as nobody else but Dwyer knew what he was planning to do with the gun. People gasped and he backed up against the wall, pointing the weapon into the air.
Dwyer calmly stated to his audience, “Please, please leave the room if this will…if this will affect you.”
What followed was chaotic. Some people in the room left to call for help. Among those that stayed, some pleaded with Dwyer to surrender the gun while others tried to approach him and seize the weapon.
He warned against either action, exclaiming, “Don’t, don’t, don’t, this will hurt someone.” A moment later, Dwyer fired one shot into his mouth and collapsed to the floor, dead. Witnesses screamed and cursed as five news cameras recorded the events.
One of the cameras remained focused on Dwyer and captured close up footage of the aftermath of the shooting; as his lifeless body slumped to the floor, blood streamed from the exit wound in the back of his head as well as from his nostrils.
A shaken Horshock took the podium and asked the media to leave and for someone to call for medical assistance and the Pennsylvania Capitol Police.
Dwyer died instantly from the gunshot shortly before 11:00 a.m. EST, but was not pronounced dead at the scene until 11:31 a.m. An aide later stated that Dwyer’s corneas were made available for transplant per his organ donation wishes, but that no others were usable by the time his body reached a hospital.
*This article was originally published at https://en.wikipedia.org/