[Feb. 7 - UPDATED Feb. 7, 8:22 p.m. to add appendix about newly uncovered rape claim and other bribery claims]
As controversy continues to simmer over President Clinton's 11th-hour pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, the 20th anniversary of the best-known sentence commutation in Nashville business history has passed quietly.
President Jimmy Carter's December 1980 decision to release Frederic B. (Fritz) Ingram from federal prison involved almost the inverse of the Rich case. Whereas some claim that big money and partisan politics were behind the presidential act that allows Mr. Rich to return to the United States from exile, a bipartisan effort among prominent people with no obvious vested interest set Mr. Ingram free – and he responded by angrily going into exile.
Mr. Ingram, who grew up in Nashville and later made his home in New Orleans, was convicted in 1977 of bribing Chicago municipal officials in order to win a key contract for Ingram Corp., the company that he and his brother, E. Bronson Ingram of Nashville, jointly ran.
Bronson Ingram was acquitted of the same charges. He went on to create Ingram Industries, Inc., which became one of the nation's largest privately held companies before he died in 1995.
In an appeal to President Carter for commutation of his four-year prison sentence (copies of which NashvillePost.com has obtained from the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta), Fritz Ingram said the family company had been "near financial collapse" in the early 1970s, when the bribery took place. He blamed a junior company official for initiating the payments and said he agreed to continue them because he "was being extorted" by the Chicago officials.
Mr. Ingram wrote of his contrition and stated: "I was guilty of a crime." But he argued that his sentence -- which he began serving in January 1980 at a federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force, Florida -- was "far in excess of that imposed upon others who are convicted of bribery."
He also emphasized to the President what a "painful shock" it was to be unable "to continue my … service to my community." He wrote of his eagerness "to begin to restructure my life, to atone for my mistake with my family, friends, and community." He said he wanted to "return to my community activities that have been a part of me all my life."
Those activities had been substantial indeed. An appendix to Mr. Ingram's appeal, listing his civic activities prior to his incarceration, took up more than four pages of single-spaced text. He served on the boards of, and acted as a key supporter of, organizations ranging from Tulane University, to the New Orleans Museum of Art, to the New Orleans Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
Some of the most prominent individuals in Nashville and New Orleans wrote letters to President Carter in support of Mr. Ingram's petition. Each cited reasons that echoed those in Mr. Ingram's letter to the President.
Republican Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee and Democrats Jim Sasser of Tennessee and Russell Long and Bennett Johnston of Louisiana all wrote letters. Ned McWherter, then speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, wrote a letter. John Seigenthaler, then editor and publisher of The Tennessean, added his voice as well.
Louisiana Democratic congresswoman Lindy Boggs also contributed a letter, as did New Orleans Mayor Ernest Morial, Tulane University President Sheldon Hackney, renowned New Orleans physician Alton Ochsner, and Philip Hannan, the archbishop of New Orleans.
"I sincerely believe that Mr. Ingram is a good man and an exceptional citizen," Sen. Baker wrote, "one whose worthwhile and notable contributions to his community are presently being missed."
Sens. Long and Johnston, in a joint letter, wrote that "given Fritz's lifelong commitment to civic work and community service, his continued incarceration is a palpable loss."
Mayor Morial explained that Mr. Ingram had originated a program to put unemployed youth in New Orleans to work cleaning up the city. "The plan that Mr. Ingram devised is now near fruition," he wrote. "As soon as Mr. Ingram is released from prison, I will again ask him to give of his time and talents to administer this program. I know that he will respond as he always has."
Archbishop Hannan, after describing Mr. Ingram's generosity in aiding programs for the poor, wrote that "our community is being deprived of assistance to those who need it most by the incarceration of Mr. Ingram. I am confident that if he were released, he would be of immense assistance."
On December 23, 1980, President Carter commuted Fritz Ingram's prison sentence to 16 months from the 32 months he would have served with time off for good conduct. He was released in May 1981. Afterward, a group of Nashville friends joined him in Beersheba Springs to celebrate his freedom.
Later in 1981, Mr. Ingram traveled to Dublin, renounced his American citizenship, and became an Irish citizen.
In his appeal to the President, he had written: "Although angry at myself, I am not bitter. I do not begrudge society my imprisonment." However, testimony in a 1995 civil trial in Nashville told a different story.
Ingram sued William F. Earthman, former chairman of Nashville's Commerce Union Bank, seeking to collect on a personal loan he had made to Mr. Earthman in the 1970s. At trial, Mr. Earthman testified that Mr. Ingram had decided -- even before going to prison -- that he would renounce his citizenship and move out of the United States "because he was furious with the U.S." over his legal problems.
Part of Mr. Earthman's legal defense was the assertion that Mr. Ingram had forgiven his loan in gratitude for orchestrating the campaign of support that led to the presidential commutation. Mr. Earthman apparently did organize the effort, with assistance from Democratic Party activist John Jay Hooker Jr. But the jury did not buy his defense. Mr. Ingram was awarded $5.66 million in the lawsuit.
NashvillePost.com was able to reach two of the individuals who lent support to Mr. Ingram's bid for a commutation. Sheldon Hackney, the former Tulane president who later headed the National Endowment for the Humanities, remembered visiting Mr. Ingram in prison.
"That was a real shock," Professor Hackney recalled. "He was at this minimum-security place, which people think of as a country club. But it just shattered me. Your freedom is gone."
Prof. Hackney had been unaware of Mr. Ingram's renunciation of citizenship, but did not find it surprising. "When I saw him in prison," he said, "I was struck by the fact that he was somewhat subdued -- very gracious, glad to see us, but also clearly quite bitter.
"I also understand how it might have been extremely difficult for him to go back to New Orleans, into that society, as an ex-felon. He was a leading figure in New Orleans when all this came up. So he lost a lot.
"You have to try to see the situation from his point of view. I'm sure he would have found it very difficult to go back. His feelings of bitterness were probably tremendous."
John Seigenthaler had testified as a character witness at Mr. Ingram's trial. His letter to President Carter reads, in part: "I am confident that [Mr. Ingram] will again be a good citizen who will give significantly to the betterment of his community."
"I certainly didn't have any idea that he didn't plan to remain a citizen of the United States, or I wouldn't have used the word 'citizen,'" says Mr. Seigenthaler, who is now chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Nashville. "I sure as hell was not talking about his being a citizen of Ireland."
The former newspaperman says he never got "a thank-you note or a thank-you call" from Mr. Ingram, whom he last saw at an Ingram family wedding in Nashville some years later. "He did say thanks that night," Mr. Seigenthaler remembered. "He was rather stiff about it. I had a feeling that he was probably very uncomfortable there."
Still, Mr. Seigenthaler has no regrets about his support. "If I had it to do over again, I'd still write the letter," he says. "I didn't do it for him as much as for his family. I had great sympathy for Hortense, his mother, who was indeed punished by the whole ordeal of having her sons tried [and who died while Mr. Ingram was in prison]. I knew that his sisters were hurting."
Mr. Ingram reportedly lived in Monaco and London after renouncing his citizenship. He and Bronson Ingram had divided the assets of Ingram Corp. before he went to prison, with Fritz, the older brother, retaining the company's more lucrative oil business. In 1983, according to trial testimony, that commodity business suffered a disastrous, $100 million loss in the course of six weeks.
The distribution businesses of Bronson Ingram's Ingram Industries Inc., meanwhile, exploded into a multi-billion-dollar business empire during the 1980s.
Little information is publicly available about the activities of Fritz Ingram in recent years. He is now 71 or 72 years old. NashvillePost.com was unable to reach him for comment but did obtain what is believed to have been a current address as of last year – a $2.6 million home in the ultra-luxurious Santa Barbara, Calif. suburb of Montecito, owned in the name of a California attorney.
Rape Case, Other Bribery Claims Put Ingram's Exile in Different Light
Soon after this story was filed, NashvillePost.com received information from the library of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans that may help to explain why Fritz Ingram declined to resettle in the city where his philanthropy and community activities had won such praise.
On November 23, 1982, The Times-Picayune reported that a jury in the Civil District Court of Orleans Parish had awarded $350,000 to a 25-year-old woman who accused Mr. Ingram of rape.
The woman testified that Mr. Ingram had raped her on the evening of Nov. 16, 1978. An article on the civil trial states that police who investigated the woman's complaint did not arrest Mr. Ingram.
A defense witness, William A. Monteleone, testified that the woman had willingly accompanied him and Mr. Ingram to his penthouse atop the French Quarter's famed Monteleone Hotel, which he owned, for a sauna and whirlpool bath. He said he left the woman, who was a restaurant hostess at the hotel, and Mr. Ingram alone in the apartment.
The woman said that Mr. Ingram forcibly held her down, slapped her repeatedly, and raped her seven times. She said that afterward, she followed him in her car to his home -- a 16-room, 12,660-foot, early 19th-century mansion on Ursuline Street in the French Quarter that Mr. Ingram eventually sold for $2.8 million in 1985, after he left the U.S.
The newspaper account quotes Mr. Ingram's lawyer as saying he would appeal the case. The outcome of that appeal is not known at this writing.
Other revelations by The Times-Picayune may also have influenced Mr. Ingram's decision not to return to New Orleans. The newspaper reported in January 1981 that the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago had cited several factors in urging the Department of Justice to oppose a commutation for Mr. Ingram.
The prosecutors said Mr. Ingram had been "directly involved and approved of a $1.2 million worldwide bribery conspiracy."
They also said he had misled the President by claiming in his application for commutation that the Chicago bribery was an aberration in his business conduct, since the trial had adduced evidence that he had "authorized the same kind of payoffs to individuals in foreign countries."
Further claims about bribery by Ingram Corp. came forth soon after Mr. Ingram was released from prison, in May 1981. The Times-Picayune revealed evidence -- produced by prosecutors but barred by the judge in Mr. Ingram's bribery trial -- that a cash box containing unreported company revenues was kept in Mr. Ingram's office, and that tens of thousands of dollars were paid out from that source in illegal campaign contributions to Louisiana politicians.
--E. Thomas Wood