In 1971 embattled President Richard M. Nixon sought to use the Internal Revenue Service as a weapon to investigate and punish his “enemies.” Tapes of White House conversations reveal that Nixon wanted as Commissioner “a ruthless son-of-a-bitch, that he will do what he is told, that every income tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.” Attorney General John Mitchell recommended one of his assistants, a specialist in tax law, Johnnie McKeiver Walters, for the key post.
Walters was confirmed as Commissioner of Internal Revenue in August of 1971 and served until 1973. Apparently neither Nixon nor Mitchell ever spoke with Walters to ensure he would aid them as they desired. In fact, Walters was “shocked” when White House counsel John Dean presented him with an “enemies list,” and he refused to politicize the IRS as Nixon wanted. When presidential domestic advisor John P. Ehrlichman confronted Walters about his “foot-dragging tactics” in regard to ordered audits, Walters told Secretary of the Treasury George P. Schultz that he could “have my job anytime he wanted it.” In an administration largely remembered for its abuse of power, Walters stands apart for his steadfast performance under pressure.
A native of Hartsville, Walters was born to Tommie Ellis and Lizzie Grantham Walters in 1919. He was educated in the Hartsville public schools and received his A.B. degree from Furman University in 1942. During World War II he served with distinction in the U.S. Army Air Force as a navigator, flying fifty bombing missions out of Southern Italy. Walters earned his law degree in 1948 from the University of Michigan, where he also met and married his wife, Donna Hall.
Walters began his legal career with the Chief Counsel’s Office of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C. In 1961 he returned to South Carolina to become a founding partner of the Greenville law firm of Geer, Walters & Demo. He remained at the firm until 1969, when he was appointed Assistant Attorney General in the Tax Division of the United States Department of Justice. In this role, he was deeply concerned with civil unrest and headed one of five Civil Disturbance Teams, often being deployed across the country to cities where incidents of civil unrest were anticipated. As Assistant Attorney General, Walters was also actively involved in the nomination processes of several Supreme Court and District Court judges.
As IRS Commissioner, Walters worked to emphasize fast, orderly, and efficient service. Beyond his role in the Watergate investigations, Walters may be best remembered as a vocal advocate for reform of the voluntary tax system into a more taxpayer-friendly system. He received attention from the media for his efforts to simplify and clarify tax forms, for his reintroduction of the 1040A form, and for his pledge to crack down on corporate tax fraud.
After returning to private practice with the Washington, D.C., firm of Hunton, Williams, Gay & Gibson, Walters was an active member of the American Bar Association and promoted specialization in the legal profession as well as reform of the tax system. He left Hunton & Williams in 1979 and returned to Greenville, where he was a partner with the firm of Leatherwood, Walker, Todd & Mann until 1996. He subsequently became Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Colonial Trust Company of Greenville, an investment management firm providing administrative and custodial services to individuals, corporations, partnerships, and non-profit organizations.
The Johnnie M. Walters papers consist of nine linear feet of material and span Walters’ life and career from 1935 until 2003, in particular the years between 1969 and 1978. The collection, which largely consists of correspondence, has been organized into six series—general, public papers, personal papers, speeches, clippings, and photographs.
Public papers include materials relating to Walters’ service as a government official and his role in the Watergate investigations. Walters’ correspondence as Assistant Attorney General reflects his active involvement in reforming the federal tax system as well as his work on such issues as tax fraud and sentencing standards in criminal tax cases. Correspondence relating to the nominations and appointments of judges also reflects Walters’ work with non-taxation issues. The bulk of this correspondence relates to Walters’ efforts on behalf of the failed nomination of South Carolina’s Clement F. Haynsworth, Jr., to the U.S. Supreme Court. Also included are letters regarding the nominations of other judges—Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist among them—to the Supreme Court as well as nominations of district court judges in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Much of the nomination-related correspondence concerns the garnering of support for Republican nominees. Included also is a December 1969 letter from Spiro Agnew commenting on bias in the media.
Papers pertaining to Walters’ employment with the IRS include materials from his work with the Chief Counsel’s Office between 1949 and 1955. Materials dating from the time of his service as Commissioner of Internal Revenue focus upon the reorganization of the IRS to be more efficient and taxpayer-friendly. Walters’ efforts toward this goal are apparent in handwritten notes and correspondence reflecting his reforms and in a 1972 sample copy of the reintroduced 1040A tax form, complete with his letter to the taxpayer. Commissioner’s Advisory Group correspondence and materials, 1973-2001, illustrate Walters’ continuing interest in the affairs of the IRS. The Advisory Group was formed of past Commissioners of Internal Revenue to discuss IRS issues and problems and to suggest improvements and solutions.
Watergate investigation files include documents relating to Walters’ preparation of his statement before the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Investigations. Handwritten notes from the Committee's proceedings provide insight into Walters’ public role in the investigation of the politicization of the IRS.
Personal papers are comprised of correspondence and other materials documenting Walters’ education, service in the military, early career struggles, successful legal practice, and relationships with public figures. There is a wealth of information relating to Walters’ service in the Army Air Force and Reserves during and after World War II, and among the most notable items are his navigator’s logs from bombing raids within Nazi-controlled Europe. The logs include a record of the mission in which Walters was wounded by flak, earning him the Purple Heart. Walters’ handwritten war diary covers three months of his 1944 military service in Italy.
Legal association papers and correspondence from various groups in which Walters participated demonstrate his career-long efforts to improve the tax system and advance the legal profession. A continued interest in and emphasis on tax reform is apparent in papers relating to case work, legislation, and lobbying handled by Walters while with Hunton & Williams.
The persons subseries consists of files relating to public figures with whom Walters maintained a personal relationship, often as advisor, friend, or confidant. Included are files on Nixon Treasury Secretary John B. Connally, Judge Clement F. Haynsworth, Jr., and South Carolina Governor Carroll A. Campbell.
The speeches series consists of those written or given by Walters between 1960 and 1994 on subjects ranging from tax legislation to World War II. As both a tax lawyer and a prominent tax official, Walters was often asked to speak about changes to the tax code and pending legislation. Some speeches delivered as Commissioner of Internal Revenue attracted media attention, particularly those addressing corporate tax fraud issues or advocating simplification of tax forms. Noteworthy is Walters’ May 1973 speech, presented before a joint session of the South Carolina General Assembly, in which he praised the “outstanding financial management” of the state, especially as compared to the federal government. He also spoke at length of the “personal and national tragedy of Watergate,” noting that “any time our leaders fail to set and observe high standards, our great national fabric—our national soul—is damaged and torn.” However, he remained hopeful about the outcome of the Watergate scandal, stating, “In our great country, we shall see the majesty of the law prevail.”