At the behest of the Roosevelt administration in 1935, the U.S. Senate established a special committee to investigate lobbying activities by opponents of the “death sentence” of the Public Utility Holding Company Bill. Chaired by Hugo L. Black (D-Ala.), the “Black Committee” expanded its mission into a more general probe of anti–New Deal organizations and individuals. The committee used highly intrusive methods, notably catch-all dragnet subpoenas, to secure evidence. It worked closely with the IRS for access to tax returns and with the FCC to obtain copies of millions of telegrams. When the telegram search became public information, there was a major backlash from the press, Congress, and the courts. Court rulings in 1936, resulting from suits by William Randolph Hearst and others, not only limited the committee’s powers but provided important checks for future investigators, including Senator Joseph McCarthy.
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