Ray McCarl, Watchdog of the Treasury

Monday, September 28, 2015
J. Ray McCarl

(Note: Recently we brought you a story about Wm. Valentine, one of McCook's early (and great) Superintendents. Today we bring to you the story of one of the early graduates of MHS, during Mr. Valentine's tenure, and a fellow who credited Mr. Valentine for steering him on the path of success.)

For 15 years, during the 1920s and 30s, one of McCook's own, J. Raymond McCarl, held the position of Comptroller of the United States. This position at once made McCarl one of the most powerful figures in Washington, The Watchdog of the Treasury, a title which he relished, whilc at the same time made him probably the most hated figure in Washington (by bureaucrats).

Ray McCarl was born in 1879 in a log cabin near Des Moines, IA. There were four boys and two girls in the family. When Ray was a teenager his father died, after which his mother moved the family to McCook, NE. Even though it was necessary for all the children to work to help make ends meet, Ray thoroughly enjoyed his high school experience, Class of '97. He played halfback on the football team, sang bass in the school quartet, and was a popular fellow in school circles, where he was said to be a quick wit, with fast comebacks in repartee. He also had a special girlfriend, Ethel Barnett, the daughter of McCook's leading citizen, who indeed became Mrs. McCarl..

In his spare time McCarl studied law. In 1902 he decided that he would attend the University of Nebraska Law College. Having very little money, he took an accelerated course of study. He amazed his professors by attaining his LLB after just one year.

Returning to McCook, he became a member of a law firm with future District Judge C.E. Eldred and John Cordeal. Over the next year he engaged in the practice of law in and around McCook. He tried some cases before Judge George W. Norris. He so impressed the Judge that when Norris went to Washington he took Ray McCarl along as his private Secretary. He served in this capacity for the next fourteen years. In 1918, believing that Norris' opposition to WW I had cost him any chance for reelection to his 2nd Senate term, McCarl left Norris to become Secretary to the Republican Congressional Committee.

In his new Washington post McCarl attracted the attention of Warren G. Harding, who in 1920 selected McCarl to direct the Speakers' Bureau for Harding's Presidential Campaign. When Harding assumed the Presidency, he took McCarl along. by appointing him to be the first Comptroller General of the United States (a newly created sub-cabinet position).

This was a unique Presidential appointment. McCarl was appointed for a 15 year term. He could not be reappointed, but he also could not be removed from office, save by an act of Congress. Over the next 15 years McCarl became a dominating force in Washington in his role as "Watchdog of the Treasury".

Away from the office McCarl was said to have "an infectious smile, rippling speech, and a dominating personality". He was an avid weekend golfer. In his role as Comptroller General, McCarl was a little bulldog. Said one bureaucrat, "...He has become more of a divisive force of mystery, fear, and wholesome dread than anyone else in government service".

McCarl, a mixture of Scotsman and Irishman (with a predominance of the former), was denounced by many in Washington for his penny-pinching ways, but heralded by citizens across the nation as "the man who has brought fiscal integrity to the United States Treasury". The phrase, "McCarl Refuses!" became a familiar one in Washington. Over his 15 year term he said No! to four Presidents---Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt, and made his No! stick.

McCarl was even handed in watching the Treasury's money. He decreed that no government money could be spent on taxi rides of less than four blocks (not even 15 cents). Naval personnel who had claimed their mothers as dependents were forced to pay money back if McCarl found these mothers to be self-sufficient. If a train trip for an official started after 6 p.m. the government would not pay for a meal on the train. The official should have eaten at home.

When an official bought a warm leather coat for his chauffeur out of his travel allowance, McCarl ordered him to pay the money back to the Treasury. It was not allowed by law. "A chauffeur is no more entitled to a leather coat than is a stenographer to a pretty pink chemise!" If a proper voucher was not produced he disallowed the expenditure. No discussion!

Gen. McArthur bought Purple Heart Medals for some of his men out of his surplus clothing allowance. Not Allowed! General Pershing requisitioned funds for a train trip he had already made into Washington. Not Allowed! The General did not have the necessary vouchers. A Naval officer commandeered a tug boat in New York Harbor to go to the rescue of a boat, which had caught fire. When he asked for funds to reimburse the tug boat owner -- Not Allowed! He had not gone through the necessary channels to requisition funds to hire a tug boat.

Federal Judges were required to buy their own robes, and pay for their own bottled water while they were in Court. Secretary of Labor Davis came back from Europe in a $3000 suite. He was forced to pay back the difference between the suite and ordinary first class fare.

When Franklin Roosevelt came into office McCarl was pleased, as FDR talked of fiscal responsibility after what FDR referred to as the "temporary" help to the nation's poor and unemployed. McCarl was quickly disillusioned, when the myriad of government agencies multiplied rather than diminished.

The relationship between Senator Norris and his protégé had always been good. But in the 1930s, as Norris' "Baby," the TVA, grew in complexity and overruns, the relationship between the two strained and cooled to the point of animosity. McCarl questioned the TVA's purchasing methods, and contended that some operators had gone beyond authority granted by Congress. In 1935 McCarl had a series of ˝ page ads printed in newspapers around the country, which enumerated some 25 points in which he said that the TVA had committed acts that were in violation with the mandates dictated by Congress. That was the last straw.

In an interview soon after Norris said, "I am shocked! Mr. McCarl's criticisms of TVA Operations represent the Power Trust's anti-TVA attitude. The only answer I can imagine is that Mr. McCarl has been bitten by the Presidential bug and has been spoiled by it."

It is true that there was a movement afoot in 1935 to promote Ray McCarl as the GOP candidate for President---just as there was a movement to promote Sen. Norris for the job. McCarl was being heralded as a favorite son candidate in Nebraska. McCook's J.E. Kelly, a veteran of GOP activities in this part of the state was part of a Statewide Committee that met in Grand Island to back McCarl's candidacy. McCarl never said no, but offered very little encouragement. In the end, neither McCarl's nor Norris' movement for a Presidential run gained wide support.

McCarl's term as Comptroller General ended in 1936, with nary a hint of scandal connected with the office, and universal, if grudging praise for the job he did. In the years following he spent his time in his own law office in Washington. There was another push for a McCarl Presidency in 1940, but his sudden death heart attack (while at work) brought any such campaign to an abrupt halt. Mrs. McCarl passed away in 1949. They had no children. His great niece, Kay Flaska lives in McCook.

Ray McCarl's career as Comptroller General, 1920-1935, would certainly have to be considered a success. He was honest and followed the letter of the law, and a great number of people applauded his efforts in saving Uncle Sam's money. Perhaps he did too good a job. He operated his office in a very dictatorial manner and he made a lot of very important people in Washington very uncomfortable and unhappy.

The Comptroller General heads the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), known as the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO assists the Congress in evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of Federal programs and policies. Among other responsibilities, the Comptroller General also signs the annual audit of the Consolidated Financial Statements of the U.S. Government. It is safe to say that no Comptroller since Mr. McCarl has micro-managed the office with the greater zeal than did McCook's own, Ray McCarl.

Source: Paul Anderson, www.gao.gov. -- Collier's, 10/21/1935 -- various McCook Gazette stories.

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