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Dave Durenberger, censured by Senate in ethics breach, dies at 88

Then-senator Durenberger was joined by President Reagan at a rally in Bloomington, Minn., in 1982.TERESA ZABALA/NYT

Dave Durenberger, a former moderate Republican senator from Minnesota who was censured by the Senate in 1990 for financial improprieties that destroyed his 16-year Washington career and led to a plea deal to avoid felony criminal charges, died Tuesday at his home in St. Paul. He was 88.

The cause was heart failure, his wife, Susan Bartlett Foote, said.

Before the roof caved in, Mr. Durenberger was a favorite son in a traditionally Democratic state. Minnesota had sent him to Washington as an independent, ethically irreproachable successor to the storied Hubert Humphrey, the ebullient Democrat who had returned to the Senate after losing the 1968 presidential race and whose widow, Muriel Humphrey, had been holding her husband’s unexpired term.


Mr. Durenberger was elected to complete the term in a special election in 1978, becoming the first Republican senator from Minnesota in 20 years.

A decade later, after what colleagues and constituents called the senator’s yeoman service as an advocate on health and environmental issues, a hidden side of Mr. Durenberger began to surface. He was arrested after a dispute with a police officer. Two of his sons had drug problems. He and his second wife separated. And the Senate Ethics Committee began investigating his financial affairs.

What it found was a series of unsavory deals to evade Senate income and expense rules. In one scheme, Mr. Durenberger took reimbursements of $40,000 for “renting” a Minneapolis condo he partly owned. In another, he circumvented limits on speaking fees by disguising $100,000 as income from a publisher for promoting two books he wrote.

He did not dispute the allegations. The Senate ordered him to repay $29,000 in disallowed travel expenses and to give $95,000 in disallowed speaking fees to a charity. And it voted 96-0 to censure Durenberger for bringing “dishonor and disrepute” on the Senate. Only expulsion, last invoked for Senator Harrison Williams in 1981 in the Abscam scandal, would have been more severe.


Mr. Durenberger did not resign from office, but served out the remaining four years of his term in disgrace, retiring in early 1995. By then he had been indicted on federal felony charges of conspiring to make false claims in the Senate. Facing up to 10 years in prison, he pleaded guilty to five misdemeanor counts of expense account cheating and was sentenced to one year of probation.

“This particular ethics imbroglio is not about votes bartered or influence sold,” U.S. News & World Report said. “It resides at the other end of the political-morality spectrum, in the private pressures on politicians squeezed for cash.” In a Senate largely composed of millionaires, it noted, Mr. Durenberger “never belonged to that part of the fraternity.”

And in an editorial, The New York Times said: “Last year, senators openly pocketed more than $2 million in honorariums from government favor-seekers. And they collected tens of millions more in campaign contributions from the same special interests. This system of legalized bribery poses a far greater threat to the Senate’s credibility than do any of Mr. Durenberger’s evasions.”

After leaving the Senate, Mr. Durenberger returned to St. Paul and taught health care policy at St. Thomas University from 1995 to 2014, when he retired. His political opinions, it seemed, were still valued by voters. Rejecting his fellow Republican Donald Trump, he endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for the presidency in 2016 and Joe Biden’s run for the White House in 2020. Both candidates carried Minnesota.


David Ferdinand Durenberger was born in St. Cloud, Minn., on Aug. 19, 1934, to George and Isabelle (Cebulla) Durenberger. His father was the athletic director of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. The family lived on campus, and David grew up with the work ethic and monastic influences of the college’s Benedictine monks.

He majored in political science at St. John’s University, graduating in 1955. In his senior year, he was voted “most likely to translate St. John’s work and pray ethic into public service.”

He was an Army officer for two years and spent seven more in the reserves. In 1959, he earned a law degree at the University of Minnesota. He joined a Twin Cities law firm with Republican ties that had produced governors Harold E. Stassen and Harold LeVander, who made Mr. Durenberger his chief of staff.

In 1962, he married Judith McGlumphy, who died of breast cancer in 1970, leaving him with four young sons: Charles, David, Michael, and Daniel. In 1971, he married Penny Baran Tuohy, a member of Hubert Humphrey’s Senate staff. He and his second wife were divorced in 1993.

Mr. Durenberger married Foote, a health care policy expert and former member of his Senate staff, in 1995. In addition to her and his sons, he leaves a stepdaughter, Rebecca Greenwald; a stepson, Benjamin Foote; two brothers, Mark and Tom; two sisters, Connie Kniep and Mary Mcloud; eight grandchildren; and six step-grandchildren.


In the early part of his Senate tenure, Mr. Durenberger emerged as a serious and pragmatic legislator. He hailed women’s groups supporting the Equal Rights Amendment but opposed legalizing abortion. In 1981, he was named “Environmentalist of the Year” by Minnesota’s Sierra Club, but took campaign contributions from corporate polluters.

A fiscal conservative, he supported the Reagan administration’s tax and budget cuts, while distancing himself from many of its social retrenchments.

Later, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the Iran-Contra scandal, Mr. Durenberger defended President Reagan, saying he had been deceived by aides, but he did not let Lieutentant Colonel Oliver North off the hook, calling him the mastermind of the plot behind the scandal — to illegally sell weapons to Iran and divert the funds to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua, in violation of a congressional mandate.

Books he wrote during his Senate tenure included “Neither Madmen Nor Messiahs: A Policy of National Security for America” (1984) and “Prescription for Change” (1986), on health care reform.

Running for a third term in 1988, Mr. Durenberger trounced the Minnesota attorney general, Hubert Humphrey III. Durenberger He won by stressing his “rural values” acquired growing up in Collegeville, a setting he portrayed as a buttress for education, hard work, religion, and morality.

But he was soon caught up in what became a two-year investigation of his ethical lapses.

“That Mr. Durenberger is enmeshed in an ethics scandal is all the more surprising because for years he was seen as Mr. Clean Politics,” the Times said in 1990. “Mr. Durenberger was considered so upstanding that soon after he entered the Senate, he was named to the ethics committee, the very panel that is now weighing his fate.”