With the 118th Congress taking office at noon tomorrow, it’s a good time to tell the story of Rev. Merwin Coad, an Iowa Democrat who is the earliest-serving Member of Congress, and at age 98, the second-oldest living ex-congressman.
Coad was a 32-year-old minister and boy scout leader when he won a congressional seat in 1956. He unseated a six-term incumbent by 198 votes in a contest that Republicans sought to overturn. He was re-elected in 1968 and 1960 and served in Congress during the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
But in 1962, Coad abruptly announced that he would not seek a fourth term. After that, his life began to unravel when the media began to figure out some of the details of his personal life.
Coad had gone to Alabama in 1961 to obtain a divorce without telling his wife of seventeen years and then secretly married the ex-wife of his chief of staff shortly after they obtained a divorce in Las Vegas. It took more than a year for the story to get out. His new wife, who was Miss Ogden, Utah in 1956, was also a member of Coad’s congressional staff, and after their marriage, he raised her salary to make her the highest-paid employee in his office. In today’s dollars, the new Mrs. Coad was making about $125,000 annually.
The story of Coad’s marital situation caught the interest of Des Moines Register reporter Clark Mollenhoff, who did a deep dive into Coad’s finances. Coad had accumulated significant debt, losing money as a grain market speculator despite his seat on the House Agriculture Committee. He had gambling losses, including a $2,000 hit in a late-night Washington poker game – that’s about $20,000 in 2023 dollars. Coad took on a big mortgage for a new house in Washington and bounced a $4,000 check with the House Segreant-At-Arms.
After leaving Congress, Coad got a job as a consultant for the Agency for International Development. But when a Republican U.S. Senator from Iowa found out about is $75-per-day gig, he called the Kennedy White House to complain and Coad was gone one day later.
Coad went into the real estate lending business in the Washington suburbs and later faced allegations of mortgage fraud when a widow claimed he had charged her a usurious borrowing rate and defrauded her.
U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica, who would gain fame during the Watergate scandal a few years later, slammed the former congressman and minister.
“This is just a racket…that’s all it is… just a racket,” Sirica said in a 1967 ruling that rejected his bid to foreclose on the widow’s home. “This thing smacks of fraud.”
In 1981, another Des Moines Register reporter, Daniel Pederson, found Coad had moved to Nebraska and ran ads in a local inviting people to come hear him speak at a local Holiday Inn about how to get rich: “You can buy real estate with no money down and become wealthy in your spare time,” he explained. “Congressman Coad’s 12 proven no-money-down secrets to wealth.”
According to Pederson, dozen of attendees were paying Coad $395-a-person to learn his secrets. By the 1990s, Coad was facing accusations that he defrauded investors in real estate schemes. He had also been married and divorced at least two more times.
Coad, who turned 98 in September, now lives in Florida.