The Beloved Embezzler
Probably no arrest in Ridgefield’s history has evoked the outpouring of emotion that surrounded the case of Harvey Lown, a beloved war veteran and native son who had been Ridgefield’s tax collector for 13 years . Even the judge who sent Lown to prison had tears in his eyes when he pronounced the sentence.
When the arrest came in February of 1940, “it was as though a bomb had been dropped in our little community,” wrote former town historian Richard E. Venus.
Harvey Bishop Lown was the Norman Rockwell picture of the ideal citizen of a small New England town, a man who had risked his life for his country in World War I, who owned a successful local business, who had led many major organizations in town, who had served on the school board and as a state representative, and who, with his beautiful schoolteacher wife, was invited to many of the nicest social events in Ridgefield.
Born in 1899 in neighboring Wilton, young Harvey Lown came to Ridgefield at the age of three. He attended local schools and Norwalk High School — Ridgefield had no high school back then — and was both a good student and a fine athlete. “He was a great baseball player, an exceptionally good hitter and base runner, and played the outfield with the grace of a Tris Speaker or Joe DiMaggio,” recalled Venus. “He had a very pleasing personality and was very easy to like.”
After graduating Lown worked as a clerk in S.D. Keeler’s store (where Deborah Ann’s Sweet Shoppe is now) until the outbreak of World War I, when he joined the U.S. Navy. Lown served as a storekeeper aboard the U.S.S. Minnesota and later the U.S.S. Tenadores, which was transporting troops and war supplies to France. He sailed on seven missions to France, but on the eighth, his military career nearly ended. At midnight on Dec. 28, 1918, the 485-foot Tenadores struck rocks in the Bay of Biscay and began sinking. Lown and fellow crewmates drifted in a lifeboat for two days before being rescued by a minesweeper. He was then assigned to a destroyer, which stayed afloat till war’s end.
Back in his hometown, Lown went to work for Judge George G. Scott, who had an insurance business and was also the town clerk. It was working under Scott that Lown was introduced to a bookkeeping technique that was to be his downfall. In 1926, he bought Scott’s business on Main Street, a bit south of the town hall, and renamed it the Lown Agency.
Lown was becoming increasingly involved in the community, where he eventually became president of the Promoter’s Club, precursor of the Lions Club, of which he was also president. He was chairman of the 1939 Building Committee that enlarged Ridgefield High School with an auditorium (now the Ridgefield Playhouse), cafeteria and classrooms. He was active in the Red Cross, the Masons, the American Legion, St. Stephen’s Church, and various relief efforts during the Great Depression.
In 1927, Lown was elected the town’s tax collector, a part-time job held over the generations by the most respected and trustworthy citizens.
At around this time he was courting a popular Ridgefield teacher, Elizabeth O’Shea (whose sister Isabel, also a teacher, became the first principal of Veterans Park School). Venus described
In 1932, Tax Collector Lown was also elected one of Ridgefield’s two representatives to the State Legislature, another sign of the high esteem in which he was held. A profile of him that year in The Ridgefield Press said the tax collector “has given the town a highly efficient administration of that office.” It predicted that, “as representative to the General Assembly, Mr. Lown will undoubtedly give the same conscientious and efficient performance of the duties as given to those of the past.”
Lown’s profile in the paper was accompanied by another — that of Judge George G. Scott, with whom Lown had worked and from whom he bought the insurance business. Scott was also a public official; serving among other things as town assessor, judge of probate, and town clerk. Lown learned a lot from Scott—including how to deal with money.
According to 1940 notes written in pencil by Press Publisher and Editor Karl S. Nash and found in an old file, “Scott’s system of bookkeeping was lax. During his incumbency, [he] kept money of town and money of his business in same pot. That was how Mr. Lown learned the business.”
Lown began doing the same thing, keeping his insurance business income in the same account as his tax collections. It simplified his bookkeeping, but led to problems.
Ridgefield in the 1930s was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. Many people were in financial trouble. “We know of several people who went to see Harvey when they were unable to pay either their premiums or their taxes,” historian Venus wrote in 1984. “After hearing their plight, he would agree to carry them until they were back on their feet.”
To help his insurance customers, Lown started using the town’s tax income to cover premiums. He would replace the tax money when he had received enough insurance money to do so. For most of years in office, Lown was able to cover the premium payments he “borrowed” before there was any problem.
Ridgefield was not alone among Connecticut’s 169 towns in having officials who commingled funds. It was apparently a common practice, especially among smaller towns. But the Depression led to shortages in many municipal accounts in the state, and problems became so widespread that in 1939, the General Assembly passed a law requiring regular audits of the books of town offices involved in handling tax dollars.
“It was said that some officials could see the axe about to fall and were successful in getting their houses in order,” Venus said. “Several audits were made and failed to disclose any wrongdoing.”
In November of 1939, the state tax department sent auditors to look at Ridgefield’s books. Lown was at the top of his popularity; he’d just been re-elected tax collector by a huge margin and he had recently been chosen president of the Connecticut Tax Collectors Association. One town official told a newspaper, “the audit is simply the first in a routine check-up which in the future will be made at stated periods in accordance with the enactment of the 1939 legislature.”
But when the auditors stayed in town hall longer than expected, people began to wonder if something was amiss. And in early December, the state tax department disclosed it had found “irregularities” in Ridgefield’s tax collection records.
The Bridgeport Telegram reported on Jan. 9 that a preliminary report on Ridgefield’s audit had been turned over to State Tax Commissioner Charles J. McLaughlin and State’s Attorney Lorin W. Willis. McLaughlin had ordered the audit when, he said, tax receipts and bank balances over the previous two years “appeared to be out of balance.”
Then, on Jan. 16, Lown resigned as tax collector, and was immediately arrested for embezzlement.
Ridgefielders couldn’t believe what was happening. Much loved in town and much respected throughout Connecticut, Harvey Lown was under arrest, charged with misappropriating funds.
First Selectman Winthrop Rockwell was shaken. The fellow Republican and longtime friend of Lown called an emergency meeting of the Board of Selectmen, the people who run town government. However, when many citizens and three reporters from local newspapers showed up, Rockwell and his board tried to have them all ejected so the officials could discuss the auditors’ report in private. That sparked angry outcries. The reporters and some citizens refused to leave, believing the discussion should be public. Eventually the meeting was canceled, but the outrage at the attempt at secrecy became so widespread that the selectmen wound up releasing the report to the public.
It turned out that Lown’s tax accounts were missing some $11,500 — nearly $200,000 in today’s dollars.
Lown pleaded guilty. With the help of friends, he also made full restitution of the missing $11,500. Nonetheless, the state wanted to make an example of him so that public officials across Connecticut would heed the new, tough law on commingling tax funds.
Lown was brought before Judge Carl Foster in a packed courtroom at Superior Court, Bridgeport.
First Selectman Rockwell testified in Lown’s behalf. “He was a man for whom we always felt there was a great future,” he said. “This unfortunate situation would never have occurred had it not been for the fact that he devoted so much of his efforts and time to civic affairs.”
Rockwell argued that “it was more than a man’s job and if it weren’t for this and other civic undertakings which he shouldered and the fact that he had so many friends whom he disliked to dun for insurance premiums in the conduct of his own business, he would never have been in this position.”
State’s Attorney Willis took a different tack, telling the court that because Lown had so many friends among his clients, he was lax in pressing them for premium payments. When it came time for him to send the money to the insurance companies, he “unfortunately fell into the habit of drawing money from the town funds to make good to the companies he represented, but always with the intention of making good, just as every embezzler does.” When Lown did collect the late premiums, he would return the money to the town accounts, but he was never able to quite catch up.
Willis argued that Lown had been doing this since he first took office and each year fell further behind until the accumulated shortages reached about $11,500. “We have before us the unhappy situation which has become all too common, of a tax collector in whom the public placed its confidence and held in high esteem, and who then proves faithless,” Willis said.
Tax collectors, he said, “fail to realize the gravity of such an offense. It strikes a blow at the orderly forms of democratic government and these things cannot be overlooked. I understand that several townspeople, including officials, are here today to testify in Mr. Lown’s behalf, but it is difficult to understand how town officers can take any stand in this matter.”
The judge felt he had little choice in the case. His decision prompted an unusually emotional 65-word sentence opening to the news story in The Bridgeport Post:
“One of the most dramatic incidents in the history of the Superior Court, a picture so rare that spectators sat breathless in their seats in stunned silence after it was over, occurred today when Judge Carl Foster, voice choked with emotion and tears flooding his eyes, sentenced Harvey B. Lown, 40, former Ridgefield tax collector, to state’s prison for two to five years for embezzlement.”
The judge, the account continued, “seemed nearly carried away by an inner emotional turbulence as he declared, prior to the sentencing: ‘This man deserves every ounce of credit, yet the law must be upheld.’ ”
Judge Foster’s sentence shocked most people, both because he’d seemed sympathetic to Lown and because State’s Attorney Willis had repeatedly referred to the fact that Lown had made full restitution of the losses and always was — and still was — highly regarded by his town.
The sentence was tougher than those handed out today. During his first year in prison, Lown could receive only one letter a week, and his wife was limited to only two, 30-minute visits a month.
“This tragic situation had a profound effect on many people,” said Venus. “The person most affected, after Harvey himself, was his ever-loyal wife, Elizabeth, who stepped into the breech and carried on the Lown Insurance business.”
In fact, that business continued in operation for many years. Even while Lown was in prison,
When he was released from prison in 1943, “the strain had taken its toll,” Venus said. “The once vibrant and enthusiastic Lowns would never be the happy people they had been.”
Nonetheless, Lown remained a part of the business and social community, and was particularly active in the American Legion where he served many years as chairman of the Sailors, Soldiers and Marines Fund, retiring in 1962 because of poor eyesight. In 1964, he was elected president of the Last Man’s Club, a group of World War I veterans. In a touch of irony, his vice president was John C. Kelly, former head of the Connecticut State Police Department.
The Lown Agency was eventually sold to A.J. Carnall, which is now part of the Fairfield County Bank Insurance Services. Elizabeth died in 1959 at the age of 57. A year later, Lown married Katherine Klein English, a widow from Bethel.
When he died in 1967, the man who had once been a friend of everyone in town and subject of countless front-page stories, good and bad, had only a brief six-paragraph obituary, placed deep inside that week’s Ridgefield Press. It said nothing of his having been the town’s tax collector for 13 years — or of his arrest and imprisonment.
“Harvey’s loyal friends have always felt that he never shortchanged anyone but himself,” Venus said.—from “Wicked Ridgefield”