John Parnell Thomas (January 16, 1895 – November 19, 1970) was a stockbroker and politician. He was elected to seven terms as a U.S. Representative from New Jersey. He was later a convicted criminal who served nine months in federal prison for corruption.
Early life and career
Born as John Parnell Feeney, Jr. in Jersey City, New Jersey, he changed his name in 1919 to John Parnell Thomas. Raised Catholic, he later became an Episcopalian.
After graduating from high school, he went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania. When the United States joined World War I in 1917, he served overseas with the United States Army. Following his discharge from the military in 1919, Thomas worked in the investment securities and insurance business in New York City for the next eighteen years.
He entered Allendale, New Jersey, municipal politics in 1925 and was elected councilman and then mayor of Allendale from 1926 to 1930. He was elected to a two-year term to the New Jersey General Assembly in 1935. In 1936 was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a Republican Party Representative from New Jersey's 7th congressional district, filling the vacancy left by the death of Randolph Perkins. He would be re-elected six times.
As a U.S. Congressman, Thomas was a staunch conservative opponent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, claiming the President's legislative agenda had "sabotaged the capitalist system." Thomas opposed government support for the Federal Theatre Project declaring that "practically every play presented under the auspices of the Project is sheer propaganda for Communism or the New Deal."
In 1949 Thomas called the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, "the most dangerous man in America" and claimed that if Forrestal were not removed from office he would "cause another world war."
In the post-war period, Thomas called for a rapid demobilization of the American military. In 1946, he invited General Dwight Eisenhower to his office to discuss the issue. When he arrived, the general was faced with a table surrounded by soldier's wives, many holding babies. News photographers took photos of the furious Eisenhower.
Following the Republican Party gaining control of the 80th Congress in the November 1946 elections, Thomas was appointed chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). In May 1947, Thomas traveled to Hollywood to meet with film industry executives with a view to exposing what he believed was Communist infiltration of motion pictures content by members of the Screen Writers Guild. Returning to Washington, D.C., he shifted the focus of the committee to what he called the "subversives" working in the film business.
Under Thomas, in October 1947, HUAC summoned suspected Communists to appear for questioning. These summonses led to the conviction and imprisonment for contempt of Congress of the "Hollywood Ten" who had refused to answer the Committee's questions, citing the Fifth Amendment.
Corruption charges and imprisonment
Prominent American columnists Jack Anderson and Drew Pearson were critical of Thomas and his committee's methods.
Rumors about corrupt practices on the part of Thomas were confirmed when his secretary, Helen Campbell, sent documents to Pearson which he used to expose Thomas' corruption in an August 4, 1948, newspaper article. The fraud had begun on New Years Day of 1940, when Thomas placed Myra Midkiff on his payroll as a clerk. She earned roughly $1,200 a year and was to kick back her salary to the Congressman to avoid taxation. The arrangement lasted for four years. As a result, Thomas was summoned to answer to charges of salary fraud before a grand jury.
Thomas refused to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment rights, the same stance for which he had criticised accused Communists. Indicted, Thomas was tried and convicted of fraud, fined and given an 18-month prison sentence. He resigned from Congress on January 2, 1950.
In another twist, he was imprisoned in Danbury Prison with Lester Cole and Ring Lardner, Jr., both members of the "Hollywood Ten" serving time because of Thomas' inquiries into the film industry.
After his release from prison, Thomas was an editor and publisher of three weekly newspapers in Bergen County, New Jersey. President Harry S. Truman pardoned Thomas on Christmas Eve of 1952. In 1954, Thomas tried to re-enter politics, but was defeated for the Republican Party nomination for Congress.
Thomas died in 1970 in St. Petersburg, Florida, aged 75, of undisclosed causes. He was cremated, and his ashes were interred in the Elmgrove Cemetery in Mystic, Connecticut.
In the 2015 film Trumbo, Thomas is portrayed by James Dumont.