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The Solomon Scandals
photo credit Robert Farber.



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Comments from Pulitzer Prize winner James Polk and media expert James Fallows.



The Solomon Scandals

David Rothman




Chapter 1


Wendy Blevin's obituary in the Telegram ran only 578 words--a notably miserly length. As much as anyone, she was a natural for a long feature in the "She had everything to live for" vein. I say this despite the Solomon scandals.

She was thirty-three, slender, and WASP-pretty, with pale blond hair that matched the coat of her Afghan hound. She earned $75,000 a year, as one of Washington's best gossips in print and in person. She'd been president of her class at Sidwell Friends School while leading an un-Quaker-like social life. She won a short-story contest sponsored by one of the snobbier women's magazines. She edited the yearbook at Vassar and was the first columnist on the student newspaper to use the word "fuck" with impunity.

Wendy marched against the Vietnam War. She lobbied for the environment, a cause made all the more attractive when a ticky-tacky development encroached on her family's mansion in Potomac, Maryland. She was as highly pedigreed as her dog; she was eccentric rather than crazy. She jumped to her death off a balcony at the Watergate.

The day before her suicide, she was the subject of an exposé in her own paper--one, I am pleased to say, I had no part in writing.

And having said that much, I'll stop. The Blevin obituary was a cover-up, all right, but no more than the Telegram's treatment of the scandals that preceded it. I'll never forget how George McWilliams wavered on his way to journalistic immortality, how McWilliams the editor warred with McWilliams the friend.

* * *

Inside the glass booth in the middle of the newsroom, I saw a wrinkle-faced man in dowdy plaids.

Mac was small and had a sloping forehead and receding chin. But when he started speaking to you, quizzing you, trying to outmaneuver you, you felt as if he were a shark, preparing to steal dinner off the flesh of a larger fish.

I'll always remember the glass shark tank that one of Mac's foes suggested for the Sans Souci restaurant on Seventeenth Street, a VIP-gawker's Eden. The baby shark was the idea of an embittered politician, who wanted the creature named "Little Mac." Originally, the Sans Souci threatened to banish the man to Little Tavern hamburger shops, but McWilliams caught wind of the customer's malice and was captivated. Mac said he would only lunch at the Sans Souci if it brought in the shark.

* * *

Frowning, McWilliams lit up a Corona and leaned back in a plushly padded swivel chair.

My boss and I sat on hard seats. E. J. Rawson--"E. J." around the office, not just in his byline--was a national editor. He wore bifocals and had fled to Washington eons ago from a gothic-grim railroad town in West Virginia.

"Stone," Mac said, after the third puff, "I hear you want to go after Seymour Solomon."

"Not go after him. Investigate him." Officially, the Telegram was objective--Mac kept his shit list only inside his head. "Jeez, he's got fifty percent of the leases locked up in the D.C. area. A little payback for political donations?"

Vulture's Point, Solomon's rickety complex, housing no small number of IRS and CIA employees, never really came up in the beginning. I had yet to learn of the cracks in the slabs, the sexual blackmail from the Oval Office, the Papudoian connection, Wendy's role in the scandals, or the other heads of the Hydra. The white-sheeted corpses existed just within the realm of the unthinkable.

Mac glanced at his gold Rolex, with which he personally timed reporters writing stories or pumping news sources on the phone. After six months on the job, you were safe from the more lethal aspects of the Rolex Treatment, although the watch served the entire newsroom as a reminder of the Telegram's role as a high-speed word mill.

"I know Seymour Solomon--he's a good friend." McWilliams puffed an "O" and, with his fierce, dark eyes, stared at me as if hoping he could elicit a good flinch. "What I'm driving at, pal, is he's not the sort to steal from anyone."

So Mac had Solomon hooked up to a polygraph twenty-four hours a day?

"Including the government," McWilliams blustered. "Especially the government."

I was touched. "Government" included President Eddy Bullard, Mac's fellow OSS alum who, like him, had majored in French literature. At Burning Tree Country Club, they gleefully forsook regulation shoes for ragged sneakers. I could just imagine them in private, jabbering away in obscenity-laced French about Rousseau and putt shots.

"Do you know how much Solomon gave Washington Stage last year so they could build that new children's theater in Reston?" McWilliams asked me. "Two million. Now that's Sy. How many millionaires do you know who drive 1969 Mavericks?"

Mac himself drove a nondescript gray BMW. His job, Rolex, and the antiques in his mini-Versailles provided enough dazzle in his life to suit him; well, those and the Power People he'd befriended outside his word mill.

"Take it from me, pal," Mac said, as if auditioning for a Humphrey Bogart movie, "Sy is a regular guy. Look, isn't Judge Philips one of his investors?"

"That's reassuring," I said. "I'll remember that next time he rules in a zoning case."

Not once did E. J. Rawson--Ezekiel Jerome Rawson back in Thurmond, West Virginia--speak up for me. He was in his fifties, with crew-cut white hair, a weakened heart, and prudent decency toward his reporters despite fits of boss-man rhetoric. We had met through one of my parents' neighbors in northern Virginia, when I'd returned for Passover from my newspaper job in Ohio and accepted an invitation to E. J.'s home.

The first thing that struck me was his excessive formality before he knew you. "I would like," he said, "to discuss your career in the newspaper business." No contractions, no "I'd." Even in the ivy-covered brick Colonial he shared with his wife--a short, buxom Mississippian who had turned the basement into a seven-thousand-book library with thirteen dictionaries--he wore a white shirt and tie. It was as if he were distancing himself from the dust and grit of Thurmond.

I don't remember drinking Scotch as E. J. went on about Dostoevsky, Melville, Faulkner, and the editor of the Saturday Review, and some odd but logical parallels among the four. Still, I could not imagine any other beverage in his off-hours life.

By the time E. J. was through, a dozen writers later, having discussed George McWilliams in the same reverent tones, I hadn't the least doubt of my future as Mac's successor.

My own father, a "public affairs" man for a PR and lobbying firm on K Street, toiled in a bazaar, not an editorial cathedral. 

"Well?" I asked the priestly shark in plaids.

"I'm not a regular guy, I'm a bastard, and I'm just enough of one to turn Stone loose on my friend Sy"--McWilliams glared at E. J.--"at your direction, pal."

I wished that just once Mac would gulp down a tranquilizer or reach for some ulcer medicine or do anything else that would confirm his mortality.

As if dismissing a pair of menials, McWilliams waved us out of the booth, the Shark's Cage, as everyone called it, and I decided I was confusing mortality with humanity.

* * *

Rexwood Garst, renter of a converted carriage house in Georgetown, filled in for me on the national housing beat. He had a penchant for pipes and attaché cases and the other impedimenta of Washington stereotypes.

Garst knew he'd soon rise beyond his beat in Prince George's County. "Serbo-Croatian," he had told me, "that's the key." Pause. "I know how to speak it."


"It's how I'll become Eastern European Correspondent."

"Why not Polish?"

"Because Serbo-Croatian's more unique."

I'd shaken my head. "The real future's in Korean."

"How do you know?"

"Suit yourself," I'd said, "but you'll never make it big here if you don't know Korean."

McWilliams rejoiced in assigning two people to one task and seeing who'd come out on top. If Garst dug up too much at the Department of Housing and Urban Development while I was away, I might have to share my muck with him in the future.

* * *

The Telegram was that kind of a place--a whole newspaper remade to reflect Mac's ambitions for himself and the rest of us.

Mac had been born sixty-three years ago, the only son of a Scot and a Jew, and he'd put himself through Columbia University while reporting murders for the New York Daily News.

He had graduated summa cum laude; he had gone on to awe the dons of Oxford. In his thirties, after his days as a Herald Tribune prodigy and time in Washington with two secretive spy agencies, he had made a fortune as a bond and currency trader, outsmarting the Brahmins of Wall Street and beyond.

Mac's econo-Versailles on the fringes of Maryland hunt country dwarfed his publisher's Victorian mansion on the Chesapeake Bay.

No one could fathom why Mac had returned to newspapering as a flunky rather than doing the genteel thing and buying Knopf or The New Yorker. He might still be alive today if enough people had gotten curious and saved him from himself.

When McWilliams blew up at an underling, he might take a catcher's mitt from his battered wooden desk and smack a baseball against it. The object of his temper would inevitably recoil, as if convinced McWilliams was about to bean him. Mac didn't use the mitt that often but kept it on a shelf behind him, so that you might as well be a horse looking at a whip.

The Rolex, too, had inspired a few stories. McWilliams had bought it just a few years out of Columbia, an ever-ticking, ever-gleaming assurance that he had left Brooklyn behind.

His parents, a warehouseman and a nurse, were long dead, but his sister, crippled from polio, still lived in the old neighborhood. As divulged by a six-thousand-word profile in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times, she could barely support herself as a seamstress doing piecework--relentlessly paced by a dime-store watch.

Mac's ambitions and quirks were fodder for the diligent ladies at The Elephant, the big-eared gossip column of a rival paper, which mailed its victims quarter-pound bags of Virginia peanuts. The Elephant sounded off enough about McWilliams for him to amass enough bags to feed half the denizens of the Washington zoo.

* * *

Driving home, I could see my obsessions all around me. Up and down Connecticut Avenue, the buildings of Seymour Solomon and associates loomed--each standing two hundred feet high, Washington's commercial limit, each grabbing every dollar of space in the sky, each looking as if a giant George Babbitt had been at work with Scotch tape and an Erector Set.

Bureaucrats occupied Solomon's buildings, along with stockbrokers, trade associations, and other staples of the local rental market. Every now and then rumors wafted about. The drones next to Barb's Secretarial Service--were they Agriculture or CIA? Was another Manhattan Project aborning above Menkov's Ladies' Wear?

At Dupont Circle, I saw half a dozen couples playing catch, just as Eddy Bullard did with his wife. A policeman strutted near the fountain there, his walkie-talkie squawking in some mysterious mix of cop lingo and Citizens Bandese. I remembered Dupont when it had been the territory of beats and hippies and junkies: an Allen Ginsberg poem writ in life on Connecticut Avenue.

In recent years, however, it had become too expensive to be degenerate close to the Circle. Sy Solomon's crowd had bulldozed away many of the cheaper rooming houses in the area, and they had priced the new apartments for the upper-level civil servants and lobbyists who worked in his office buildings. Washington was a veritable white-collar factory town run for management.

My own apartment building was a jumble of sooty red brick, a semislum named Cambridge Towers. I wondered how many years would creak by before Solomon's crowd tore it down in favor of their kind of ugliness.

I tried to envision myself a competent white-collar criminal. The closest I normally came to Dynamic Executivehood, the local robber barons' most common guise, was when I donned my suit from Garfinckel's to infiltrate the stockholders' meetings of the companies I exposed in my articles.

Never could I have passed for Solomon himself, and not simply because he was older by several decades. We were both tall, but I was reporter-thin, as I liked to style myself, and he was businessman-heavy. He had wide shoulders and thick limbs and looked as if, by sheer bulk, he could bully the rest of the world. I remembered the huge hands I'd seen in newspaper photographs. Both physically and financially, Solomon struck me as a born grabber.


Chapter 2


"We've talked to you mothers already, and we're tired of your bullshit. You know about Solomon's fucking dime, don't you?"

Lew Fenton, a union leader and source of the only critical quotes about Seymour Solomon in the Telegram's library, was eager to add to his distinction.

Solomon had quarreled with Fenton's construction local over paying the men a dime more an hour. The upshot was a federal case, going up to the Supreme Court and inspiring editorial-page apologia for Sy along the way.

"Well," Fenton jabbed at me over the phone, "that's about it, mister, except one of his buildings'll fall down. He's just as cheap with his materials as he is with us. The floors--Vulture's Point."

I remembered that fifteen hundred clerks and bureaucrats worked for the Internal Revenue Service there. But I spoke not a word back to Fenton. More than once in my days as a reporter, I'd heard false alarms, whether about impending earthquakes likely to topple the Washington Monument, or anthrax in the mashed potatoes at the Kingswood Elementary School cafeteria.

"The slabs," Fenton said. "He cheated on the rebars. It's the difference between a building that'll stay up and one that'll fall. And the difference of a million bucks to put the mother up. And that's just one thing--the concrete, the girders, you name it, mister, he cut it cheap all the way around."

"But why," I asked, "would Solomon gamble with human life?"

I was lost in my work, unmindful of the evening ahead with Donna Stackelbaum, an old friend with charms beyond the anatomy suggested by her name.

"The banks," Fenton said. "His loans. The interest rates went up just before the loan, and he had to cut it real close."

"How do you know?"

"The suit, mister. Buried in the middle of the trial records. All I know is that there's cracks on the seventh floor, and a lot of fat-assed bureaucrats are gonna fall on their behinds. One of our guys knows someone in maintenance. At GSA."

GSA was the General Services Administration, the government's business and recordkeeping agency. It had doled out so many leases to Solomon that I suspected President Bullard of being his silent partner.

"You want another Skyline?" Fenton asked.

Not far from Vulture's Point, in Fairfax County, the next county over, the center section of a huge condo building had caved in after the collapse of the twenty-fourth floor and a domino-like effect below. Many blamed the weight of a construction crane. Whatever the case, the official story was that a subcontractor had removed the concrete's shoring too early.

Fines had added up to just $300 for the shoring problem and $13,000 for violation of worker safety codes. Manslaughter charges hadn't stuck against the manager who had overseen the shoring at Skyline Plaza. Crimped by the oddities of Virginia law, the victims and their families could not even successfully sue the main contractor.

I remembered a line from one of my favorite public-radio programs: "Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." Yes, yes--welcome to Fairfax County, Virginia, where all the buildings are strong enough, and the business climate is always superior.

Skyline had killed fourteen workers and injured thirty-four. But could another collapse happen, in the adjacent county and the same decade? When it came to bad luck on such matters, northern Virginia had already exceeded its quota.

"How come the people in the building aren't bitching?" I asked about Vulture's Point.

"Because GSA and Solomon have a cover-up going," Fenton said, "a real cover-up. A little reinforcement, pour more concrete, and plop down a carpet. Problem gone, and your upstairs storage area looks prettier. Just a little routine maintenance."

I was getting much closer to being shocked, and I remembered the smashed corpses I had seen after a mine collapse in Sloansville, Pennsylvania--the bloodied, blackened men identified by their dental work and wedding rings.

"You disappoint me," E. J. said when I shared Fenton's alarm. "We had Swinburn check it out."

"Before or after he went to the Real Estate section?" Or became a PR man for the Chamber of Commerce?

"You remember Skyline, don't you?" I asked.

"Come on, Jon," E. J. protested in the informal language he used with the already-hired, "that was a construction accident. A different animal altogether."

"Maybe there's some interbreeding," I said. "Cracks are cracks."

I recalled an essay that E. J. had written about growing up in Thurmond, where, as a foreman for the Chesapeake & Ohio, his father had bossed the Coaling Tower crews. Like father, like son? I wondered what either would have done as a company man in Sloansville.

"Nothing to worry about," E. J. persisted. "Routine stuff. Your story, it would fall apart long before the building did." 

* * *

Arriving in my apartment that night, I took off my Dynamic Executive suit, then headed toward the shower, where I could hear the water already running. Behind the steamed-up glass stood a tall, auburn-haired woman with enough curves for the most demanding of blackmail work. General Motors might well have used her as bait against Ralph Nader, at the Safeway cookie counter, to try to drive him off his Corvair exposés.

"Sweetie," said this fantasy come to life, my life, "your mom called. Seven-thirty Sunday: dinner with the Maxwells."

No blackmailer, no slimy operative, private or public, needed to lure me into bed with the corporate sector or its government stooges. I'd already been there--on and off, between other affairs--for years.

Donna Stackelbaum and I had gone to elementary and high school together, and religious school and the University of Virginia, too, or UVA as most referred to it. Nowadays she was a rising young lawyer-bureaucrat with an almost orgasmic eagerness to do the bidding of the nuclear power industry.

Our parents had always hoped we would marry someday. They were touchingly unaware of the ballots her friends had stuffed to elect her as treasurer of the Student Government Association at Langley High.

Donna drew me against her, and we hugged enthusiastically, both of us, while I enjoyed the voluptuousness around me, my hand gliding over the well-defined waistline, then squeezing her gracefully rounded backside. Its firmness hinted of regular workouts at the health club that one of Seymour Solomon's real estate partners owned a few blocks away.

I smelled Donna's freshly shampooed hair, nuzzled into her generous breasts, and almost didn't care if sex with her kept me out of Muckraker's Heaven. How could I have resisted her good intentions? Donna's future had been as palpable to her, ever since high school, as the ripe nipple I'd just tickled. If a prospective husband did not make enough money, and she was talking millions, not just upper-middle-class respectable, then she would do so herself without the hassles of sugar daddies.

Nothing mercenary impelled us, however, just a carnal fondness for each other in defiance of a values gap dwarfing the Mariana Trench.

At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Donna radiated a sunny obtuseness toward moral complexities--she regarded her work there as just a warm-up for her future lobbying duties for Corporate America. But she was more Civil Service-smart, more exam-smart, than brilliant in the Machiavellian style of energy lobbyists. The stuffed ballots were child's play by Washington standards. With my job and worldview, I never could understand why she had chosen me as a confidant, except for our families' propinquities, her lust for extratall, skinny men, and a bizarre and endearing appreciation of my quirks.

"Heard the latest on Papudo?" It was the setting of America's latest oil-driven exigency.

"Sweetie, you're running out of soap." This response from a woman juggling a budget of tens of millions!

I rubbed the shrunken bar all over her, and she returned the favor while I silently reflected on her urge, off the job, for domesticity. Putz! I scolded myself--don't let Papudo distract you. The bedroom awaited us. Even amid the ecstasies in the shower, I couldn't help asking myself if Donna was criminal-brainy enough to reach a sleazy pinnacle as a lobbyist rather than slip off a cliff and into a prison cell.

My father, by contrast, had come by his public-affairs job honestly, the result of sheer canniness and diligence. No bribes need he dispense or receive. Most of his routine consisted of simply tutoring the guilty to avoid indictment--he might as well have been working in one of the cleaner jobs in a stockyard. He didn't slaughter or clean up after the animals. Rather, he just herded the cattle along, except that his mission actually was to steer them away from the blades.

If Donna wanted to be a realistic sellout, then she should work for my father's well-lawyered firm, a nice, safe pseudo–Civil Service, so to speak, for careerists keen on abetting the more obnoxious of the corporate profiteers.

Heated pleas from me notwithstanding, Donna failed to acknowledge her limits as a potential influence-peddler. And so in time we became simply "love buddies," as she euphemistically called us--still good friends and happy with the joys of the moment but not looking far beyond. That was even before I learned of her preemployment deal with Quad-State Atomic.

Risky career move. For the deal to fly, Donna had to enlist the help of enough compatibly ambitious coworkers to "adjust" federal oversight of Quad. At least for now, as with the stuffed ballots, Donna was getting her way. No one had squealed yet. Fish kept dying in hot discharges from Quad, while antiradiation precautions slackened to the level at which I expected the people nearby to be glowing a bright green.

To Donna's horror, I glommed more on to the hazards of nuclear meltdowns and cooked fish than the crinkly kind of green destined for her three-hundred-dollar handbag. So we agreed to clam up about each other's work, all the less for me to have to share with a grand jury someday, and all the more chance for her to retreat into pseudodomesticity. Though she had the key to my apartment, I warned her that it was not her fate to be forever domestic with me.

Despite our friendship, and despite her Mensian IQ, the crippled golden retriever she had rescued from the D.C. pound, the volunteer duties for the Humane Society, her prowess as a sailboater on Chesapeake Bay, the stamina both on the Appalachian Trail and in the bedroom, the curly auburn locks, the milky complexion, the little snub nose, the high cheekbones, the strong but feminine chin, the endless legs, not to mention the twin wonders so artfully hidden under the well-cut suits she affected at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission--despite all her assets, I just could not stand the prospect of someday limiting my sex life to conjugal visits.

* * *

After our first trip to my bedroom that evening, Donna warmed up some lasagna in the kitchen while I watched President Bullard lie away on CBS News. He had shaggy gray hair, thick eyebrows, and deep wrinkles that looked as if a cartoonist had drawn them after too many martinis. The Telegram's editorialists had marveled at the compassion and concern for us all that the president's furrowed forehead bespoke; I myself suspected the wrinkles were whiskey lines.

Walter Cronkite announced that the president was flunking the Gallup and Harris polls--the election was next year--and the Republicans were pouncing on him for being too soft on some on-again, off-again Reds in Papudo. Of course, Bullard was reacting like most other practically liberal Democrats in the White House. His latest speech had been bellicose enough to please the owner of a tank factory.

I was ingesting microwaved lasagna, and Walter's latest on stocks, tumbling because of Papudo, when our publisher suddenly came to mind.

Victoria Simpson owned the Telegram, but the real objects of her affections were a concert pavilion in suburban Maryland, the American Vivaldi Foundation, and invitations to the White House. She'd originally had a few misgivings about Eddy Bullard, a cocky commoner from Chicago, until he'd shown up at a picnic benefit for her pavilion. When one of the official White House photographers snapped a picture of the president that somehow made it seem as if he were rakishly leering her way, vanity overcame snobbery.

Mac had gone through eight music critics in five years, and I rejoiced that Bullard's GSA was not a concert pavilion. 


The Solomon Scandals Copyright © 2009. David Rothman. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.



Author Bio

The Solomon Scandals is fiction, but David Rothman did report on such stories as the secret investment that one senator's "blind trust" had held in a CIA-occupied building in Arlington, Virginia.

'The Case of The Missing Cafeteria" also came to light through his newspaper work. A cafeteria at the Environmental Protection Agency had gone AWOL despite a lease calling for one. It would have cost more than five-hundred-thousand dollars to build.

Rothman’s reporting, under grants from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, led to a congressional investigation and reforms in the federal office-leasing program. The NBC and ABC evening news shows broadcast his revelations.

Author of six nonfiction books, Rothman is a native of the Washington area, where he lives today with his wife, Carly.

Visit Rothman on the Web at You can reach him via email at dr [at] The site will include links on related topics ranging from journalism to building collapses.

Author web site.

TTB title: The Solomon Scandals




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Author News

Twilight Times Books recently released The Solomon Scandals, David Rothman's entertaining mix of suspense and satire on Washington, D.C.'s oft-bizarre ways. Rothman's newspaper novel is about real estate tycoons and bureaucrats--not just the usual politicians, spymasters and journalists.



"Tracing the conscientious reportage of hard-nosed Washington Telegram correspondent Jon Stone, Rothman's thriller weaves together society gossip, zoning reportage, and union grumblings into a pulp-ish web of international intrigue. Stone is the Cassandra of the D.C. press corps--his hunches mocked, his scoops unpublished until it’s too late. ...Characterizations of D.C. with the same dark zeal Hammett held for Frisco or Chandler had for Los Angeles. ...It's hard to call an e-book a page-turner--novels like The Solomon Scandals require a new word."

Ted Scheinman, Washington City Paper

"If only the cesspool of corruption Rothman plumbs so well in the past did not persist even today in Washington, where the first purpose of politics seems to remain the divvying up of spoils among secret cronies."

James Polk, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Watergate coverage for the Washington Star

The Solomon Scandals is a mordantly entertaining book that broadens the cast of the standard Washington novel beyond spymasters and politicians to include real estate barons and federal contract officers. David Rothman’s detailed knowledge of the D.C. scene comes through in his satire. Scandals is set in yesterday’s Washington, but it is about truths behind today’s headlines—and about the troubled newspapers that publish the headlines.

Like Boomsday and others of the best recent Washington novels, it amuses while broadening our understanding of how today’s government works--and doesn’t.

James Fallows, author of Breaking the News  

"David Rothman's bright, breezy, fast-paced, and funny novel shines a merciless spotlight on greed, skulduggery and fraud within government, catching President Bullard like a deer in the headlights. But what resonates with me, as a long-time investigative journalist, is protagonist Jonathan Stone's nightmare in getting his explosive findings into print. Seemingly the Washington Post hungered for every syllable Woodward and Bernstein could dig up on Watergate. However, it's not always that easy. Stone's fictional struggle to write and publish his expose is more than a shadow of the truth."

Bettina Gregory, former ABC News Correspondent





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