On June 20, 1962, former Teamsters Union President Dave Beck (1894-1993) begins serving three concurrent prison sentences at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. Beck was convicted of embezzling money from the union as well as filing fraudulent organizational tax returns. Beck's imprisonment is followed closely in the Seattle media and his two-and-a-half-year prison stay ends with detailed coverage by area newspapers and TV stations. Beck will maintain for the remainder of his long life that the embezzlement charge stemmed from a misunderstanding and clerical error and that he never laid eyes on or signed the fraudulent tax returns. He will return to living in Seattle until his death in 1993.
Rising to the Top
Dave Beck was raised in poverty in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. At a young age, he earned money for his family by shooting wharf rats for the Health Department, earning $5 a pop for every rodent that showed symptoms of plague.
As a young man back from World War I service, Beck worked for a laundry as a truck driver. He became involved in the Laundry Drivers Union leadership, which led to his appointment as an organizer for the Teamsters throughout the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. His success led to his managing the entire West Coast for the union, and organizing the Western Conference of Teamsters. Beck gained respect -- and a public persona -- during the 1936 newspaper strikes in Seattle. When the small Newspaper Guild formed a picket of about 30 people around the Seattle Post-Intelligencer offices, Beck ordered his Teamster drivers who delivered the paper's newsprint to join in, providing added weight to the strike.
By the 1950s, Beck had risen to head the international Teamsters union. But in 1957, he was hit with the first of several years of hardship. He was investigated by the U.S. Senate Labor Committee (also known as the McClellan Committee) about misappropriating loans and union corruption, and struck up a lifelong disregard for Robert Kennedy (1925-1968), chief counsel for the committee. As a result of subsequent investigations by the AFL/CIO, the Teamsters were expelled from that coalition of labor unions that same year.
And in March 1957, Beck was indicted on federal charges for allegedly assisting a union organization in filing fraudulent tax returns for the years 1950 and 1952. Beck was also charged with tax evasion on his personal income taxes, with the government alleging that he failed to pay tax on $240,000 in income between 1950 and 1953, but those claims were dismissed. (Beck, for his part, was quick to correct anyone who confused the fraudulent-tax-return charge for the dismissed tax-evasion claim.) In addition to the federal tax-related charges, Beck faced a state-court charge of embezzlement for selling a 1952 Cadillac that was owned by the Teamsters and pocketing the $1,900 profit himself.
Beck attributed the alleged $1,900 embezzlement to human error. He claimed his secretary simply took the payment check for the Cadillac and put it into the wrong account. When he realized the money was in his personal account, he said, he reimbursed the union immediately. As for the fraudulent tax returns, Beck claimed that he never signed the two annual IRS reports from one of the Teamster Joint Councils that contained fraudulent sums. Since he was technically head of that Joint Council, it was his responsibility to file and sign the reports, but both he and his secretary claimed they never saw it. "So put it down as a bookkeeping blooper," Beck later said, "And a costly one for me" (McCallum).
One Stay in Prison
His legal problems presented a myriad of complications, not the least of them that he was potentially facing two sentences in federal prison for the two fraudulent tax filings, and also a separate sentence in state prison for the larceny. Beck was ultimately convicted on all three charges, but ended up having to serve only a single stint in federal prison. He was sentenced to five years on each of the federal charges but the two sentences were to run concurrently. The state embezzlement charge brought another five-year sentence, but he was also allowed to serve that sentence concurrently with the two federal sentences. And he would be relieved of serving state prison time when he was granted parole after two and a half years in federal prison.
On June 20, 1962, Beck was taken by boat from Steilacoom to the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, located in Pierce County on an island in southern Puget Sound. He was surrounded by a gaggle of reporters and photographers, eager to cover his entry into custody. Beck told the reporters that he was most concerned about the effect imprisonment would have on his elderly mother and his family, and that he was glad his wife -- who had died only months earlier from a heart condition -- was not there to witness the proceedings. Not one to waste an opportunity for flair, he also announced to the surrounding reporters, "What was it MacArthur said at Corregidor? 'I'll be back.' Well, that goes for me too" (McCallum). (The actual MacArthur quote was famously "I shall return" ["MacArthur's Career ..."].) Beck reportedly shook hands with the press and waiting entourage before boarding the boat.
Although the press certainly kept the public up to date on his early progress -- The Seattle Times ran a breathless story the day after his incarceration under the headline "Beck Lines Up for Breakfast" with quotes like "I don't know whether he ate or not," from the prison warden ("Beck Lines Up") -- Beck's two years at McNeil were largely uneventful. His mother, Mary Beck, did die in 1963 at the age of 92 when Beck was in prison, and he did not attend the service.
Released and Pardoned
Beck was released from prison on December 11, 1964. Although every man was supposed to get a suit (courtesy of the prison tailor) for his homecoming outfit, Beck reportedly never received his after telling the tailor he'd likely throw it in the Sound instead of wearing it -- he had his own finery to come back to, after all. Waiting on the dock at Steilacoom was another herd of reporters, so crowded that a KIRO cameraman fell into the water in the shuffle for pictures and quotes.
And although John McCallum's 1978 biography recounts Beck saying that he made his way through the crowd without a word, news reports from the time show that quotes were in steady supply from Dave Beck that day. When asked what he did while at McNeil, Beck replied "You know me ... I try to keep out of work" (Wilson). (In reality, Beck worked in the cannery.) He also maintained his innocence in dramatic fashion by saying to reporters, "I hope that my dear mother, who died while I was in prison, goes to hell and stays there for all eternity if I am one bit guilty" (Wilson).
In 1965, Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) gave Beck a state pardon, which was followed 10 years later by a federal presidential pardon from Gerald Ford (1913-2006). Beck always credited the prison term with extending his life an extra decade or so, as he dropped some 40 pounds while on McNeil Island, and kept the weight off. And he was happy to give his prison neighbors a good review: "Sure, there were some tough palookas -- con artists, thieves, murderers, bootleggers, dope smugglers, draft dodgers -- but there were also some very fine fellows. I wanted to help the good ones but couldn't because prison rules wouldn't let me" (McCallum).
Beck lived on First Hill in Seattle for the later years of his life, mostly keeping a modest public profile. He died in 1993 at the age of 99.