Dick Thornburgh, who as Pennsylvania Governor received praise for his cool handling of the 1979 Three Mile Island Crisis and, as US Attorney General, restored the credibility of a Department of Justice injured by the Iran-Contra scandal, has died. He was 88 years old.
Thornburgh died Thursday morning at a retirement facility outside of Pittsburgh, his son David said. The cause is not yet known. He suffered a minor stroke in June 2014.
Thornburgh built his reputation as a criminal federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh and as a moderate Republican governor. As the country’s top law enforcement officer, he followed the savings and credit scandal. He also directed the Act on Americans with Disabilities. One of his sons was severely brain damaged in a car accident.
After retiring from public office, Thornburgh became a problem solver who helped CBS investigate its messaging practices, investigated illegality at telecommunications company WorldCom, and sought to improve the effectiveness of the United Nations.
“I’ve always had the opportunity to fix a ship that was on something and was taking water,” he told The Associated Press in 1999. “I wouldn’t mind being called ‘Mr. Fix It’. I liked the daily challenges of governance.”
President Ronald Reagan appointed Thornburgh as attorney general in the final months of his tenure. Thornburgh succeeded the embattled Edwin Meese III, who was investigated by a special prosecutor for possible violations of ethics. His August 1988 appointment was hailed on Capitol Hill as an opportunity to restore the agency’s morale and image.
When George HW Bush became president in 1989, he was asked to remain as attorney general.
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Thornburgh got into trouble with the press and members of Congress, who were put off by his bossy manner. He also fought against liberals and conservatives in Congress for the appointment of the Justice Department.
Despite the difficulties, Thornburgh enjoyed the continued support of President Bush and won unprecedented increases in the Justice Department’s budget to combat crime.
Former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh speaks in Middletown, Pennsylvania on March 28, 2014. (Associated Press) “/>
Former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh speaks in Middletown, Pennsylvania on March 28, 2014. (Associated Press)
Law enforcement against savings and loan operators and borrowers increased during his tenure as the nation faced a growing thrift industry crisis. He set up security fraud and S&L task forces in several major cities.
Also under Thornburgh, the Justice Department pursued the prosecution of the deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who was brought to Miami for drug trafficking after a US invasion.
Thornburgh tried to stop unauthorized leakage of criminal investigation information, but ran into trouble in the spring of 1989 when CBS News aired a story in which the FBI was investigating the Congressional Office of Rep. William Gray, D-Pa. The story sparked outrage among Democrats for airing when Gray attempted to be elected to the House majority whip.
An internal investigation later found that Thornburgh’s own chief spokesperson played a role in confirming the story.
US Senator Pat Toomey said Thornburgh ran Pennsylvania and the Justice Department “successfully and with integrity.”
“The consistency with which he led Pennsylvania through one of its most dangerous crises – the nuclear accident on Three Mile Island – should serve as a model for all elected officials,” said the Republican senator.
“The consistency with which he led Pennsylvania through one of its most dangerous crises – the nuclear accident on Three Mile Island – should serve as a model for all elected officials.”
Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Tom Wolf shared Toomey’s opinion, describing Thornburgh as a “necessary and constant voice of calm in the midst of a crisis” during the accident.
As Governor of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1987, Thornburgh gained the reputation of a squeaky clean, reform-minded executive who slashed the state government’s payroll, but his defining moment came barely two months after he took office.
In March 1979, he faced the worst nuclear accident in American history when a routine equipment failure at the Three Mile Island power plant resulted in a partial collapse that released radioactive elements.
Thornburgh worried whether he should order an evacuation of the area around the facility. He recalled years later that “some people told us more than they knew and others told us less than they knew”.
He eventually ordered pregnant women and young children to evacuate an area five miles around the facility, which resulted in thousands of others fleeing near Harrisburg.
Avoiding panic was attributed to his cool handling of the 10-day crisis.
In later years he was commended for realizing the Pennsylvanian manufacturing industry was fading and pumping government money into the economic development of new businesses.
Thornburgh’s public service career stretched back to the 1960s. He was a US attorney in western Pennsylvania from 1969 to 1975, prosecuting drug traffickers, organized crime persons and corrupt politicians.
From 1975 to 1977 he was Assistant Attorney General and in charge of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Investigation Department, where he stepped up the prosecution for public corruption in the post-Watergate period.
He displayed his sense of humor at events during his first gubernatorial campaign in 1978, and mocked state legislature’s generous compensation for “My Favorite Things”. “Nice fat paychecks and liberal pensions / incidental expenses and perks we won’t even mention …” As an attorney general, he called white-collar crime a “crime in the suites” as opposed to the streets.
When Thornburgh left the US Attorney General in 1991, he ran for the US Senate and lost to Harris Wofford in the general election.
The election brought Thornburgh to a Texas courtroom where Karl Rove, one of George W. Bush’s closest advisers, sued him in an attempt to get back nearly $ 300,000 in campaign debt. Thornburgh lost in court, appealed, and eventually closed the case.
In 1992, Thornburgh assumed a senior administrative position at the United Nations to fight bureaucratic excess and corruption. He quit the job after his one-year contract expired, expressing frustration at inefficiency, and saying the United Nations “is almost completely lacking in effective means to deal with waste, fraud and abuse by employees”.
In recent years, Thornburgh has been tapped into investigating wrongdoing in the corporate world.
In 2002, the Justice Department tapped Thornburgh to help investigate WorldCom for mismanagement, irregularities and fraud. He described the company that filed the largest bankruptcy filing in US history as a “flagship of corporate governance flaws”.
Thornburgh co-led a CBS investigation when the 60 Minutes Wednesday program used forged documents to support a 2004 story that challenged George W. Bush’s military service during the Vietnam War. The probe’s damn final report resulted in the firing of three news managers.
Richard Lewis Thornburgh was born on July 16, 1932 and grew up in Rosslyn Farms, near Pittsburgh. He trained as an engineer at Yale to follow in his father’s footsteps as a civil engineer, but attended the law school at the University of Pittsburgh.
After graduating, he worked as a corporate attorney and later joined the Kirkpatrick and Lockhart law firm.
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Thornburgh married his childhood sweetheart, Virginia “Ginny” Hooton, in 1955. She was killed in a 1960 car accident in which one of her three sons, Peter, was severely brain damaged.
Three years later, Thornburgh married Ginny Judson, who raised his three sons and gave birth to another, William. (He wrote in his memoir, “Ginny and my first wife shared not just one name but many qualities that would undoubtedly have made them quick friends.”)
He said the accident was a pivotal moment that forced him to focus his life on his mission and legacy.
Both he and his second wife became active in programs for the disabled. In 1985 the Thornburghs were named Family of the Year by the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens.
Five years later, the Disabled Americans Act was signed after Thornburgh played a key role in negotiating compromises with Congress.