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Editor who won Pulitzer for Estes scandal dies

AP News
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Posted: Nov 28, 2011 4:13 PM
Editor who won Pulitzer for Estes scandal dies

Oscar Griffin Jr., whose investigation of swindler Billie Sol Estes won a 1963 Pulitzer Prize for the small Texas newspaper where he worked, has died. He was 78.

Griffin was the editor and main writer at the Pecos Independent and Enterprise in West Texas when he chronicled how Estes, a one-time associate of then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, borrowed money to build fertilizer tanks that were never constructed. A dozen major finance companies lost about $24 million _ $177.6 million in today's dollars _ in the scam.

The fraud investigation and Estes' prosecution garnered national attention. Estes, who served time in prison for that swindle and later for tax evasion, made the cover of Time in May 1962.

Meg Griffin said her father started investigating Estes after overhearing a conversation between two farmers at a West Texas diner.

"He asked them a few questions and then he thought, `There's a big story here,'" she said. "He was really good at putting two and two together. He could figure what was really going on."

The Houston Chronicle hired Griffin after Estes' arrest and he became the paper's White House correspondent during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. He later worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation under Elizabeth Dole.

Marge Carpenter, the news editor at the Pecos paper when Griffin uncovered Estes' scam, recalled that Estes claimed to have had "enough tanks leased out to go around the county eight times but we don't know where they are. It was a real slick operation for a while."

She said Estes kept showing investors the same tanks over and over. Griffin nailed down the story by talking to investors, digging through bank documents and looking for the tanks _ which didn't exist.

Griffin eventually learned that Estes got someone to change the numbers on the tanks while he drove investors around, approaching the same tanks from different directions and leading investors to believe they were seeing different ones. He also discovered that bank documents listed the same few tank numbers for all transactions.

Meg Griffin said her father always had good journalism instincts and wanted to stay abreast of the news in the days leading up to his death.

But while he was honored by the Pulitzer, he didn't see it as the most important thing in his life.

"I don't think he was overly proud of it," Meg Griffin said, adding that her father didn't speak about it much after leaving Washington. "I think it was a nice tool to let him do the things that he got to do."

Griffin died Nov. 23 in New Waverly from pancreatic cancer. Born April 28, 1933, in Daisetta, he is survived by his wife, three daughters and a son.

Funeral arrangements are pending with the Sam Houston Memorial Funeral Home-Willis.