US Coins

1933 double eagle trial: Tripp sits in the hot seat

This is one of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold double eagles that remain at the center of a long-running legal dispute between the federal government and a Pennsylvania family that claims ownership of the coins.

Images by Thomas Mulvaney, courtesy of U.S. Mint.

David Enders Tripp was on the hot seat for more than six hours Tuesday, July 12, as the Langbords’ attorney, Barry Berke, cross-examined him, focusing on the ambiguity of language and the unreliability of Mint records in the 1930s. 
Berke was endeavoring to poke holes in the evidence and methods that Tripp used in concluding that no 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold $20 double eagles left the Mint through legitimate channels.
Tripp — the government’s numismatic witness in the long-running case involving the Langbord family’s attempt to keep 10 1933 double eagles found in a family’s safe deposit box in 2003 — generally kept his cool despite being subjected to lines of questions that at times seemed relentless.
Berke began his cross examination of Tripp by zeroing in on Tripp’s language saying that as of March 6, 1933, no gold coins could be “paid out” from the Mint. A discussion ensued regarding the differences between “paid out,” “authorized” and “released” — detailed and often circular questions that often seemed they did little more than point out the imprecision of the English language.
At times the fine line between a document’s wording and its use to a researcher for interpretative purposes was blurred, and many questions dealt with the Mint’s typical “gold for gold” transactions during and around 1933, which Tripp said were usually “gold for check,” but as Berke pointed out that “gold for gold coins” was a possibility authorized by the Coinage Act of 1873. 
Again, the ‘orphan document’
The next line of questioning dealt with the “orphan document” that has been referenced many times already: a March 7, 1933, telegram from the assistant secretary of the Treasury to the superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint stating that the Mint was authorized “to issue gold coins or bars in exchange for gold bullion received.” Berke established that “orphan document” was Tripp’s term, yet Tripp again stressed that this single outlier document, which he admitted troubled him, had to be read in context with other documents that show that no 1933 double eagles legally left the Mint.
Berke made the point that between March 7 and April 12, 1933, there was no documentation that said that the Mint could not exchange gold coins for gold coins; rather, the documentation seems to provide for “gold for gold” exchanges, which could encompass industrial uses in addition to numismatic ones. Tripp said that many if not most of the post-March 6 “gold for gold” exchanges were for industrial uses to keep businesses functioning, which Berke pointed out was an assumption on Tripp’s part. 
Subsequent questions focused on Tripp’s connection with the government as first a consulting expert and then his hiring by the government in September 2007 as a testifying expert. When asked why he did not cite the March 7 telegram in his report, despite his knowledge about it, Tripp replied that the omission was consistent with his practice to not include “orphan documents,” regardless of what side they supported. 
Berke then noted that the March 7, 1933, telegram was not mentioned in the Secret Service investigation in the 1940s, or in documents regarding the King Farouk coin in the 1950s and when it reemerged in the 1990s, perhaps placing doubt in the minds of some jury members about the validity of the conclusions in those cases.
Defining Tripp as a paid expert
As a testifying expert, Tripp works for the government and Berke worked hard to establish that the payment provided as an expert was a substantial part of Tripp’s income for the past five years, with a total of $350,000 to $400,000 emerging as the likely amount that Tripp has been and will be paid by the government for his expertise. This was done as part of a line of questioning aimed at showing that Tripp’s expert report had reason to omit documents — like the March 7, 1933, telegram — that may not be favorable to the government’s case. 
A key part of evidence in the case are the Mint’s records of daily cashier settlements. Tripp has said throughout the trial that the daily settlements are consistent with records of the gold coins going out with gold requests going in. Berke pointed out several specific transactions where gold coins could have been given out, especially in absence of any specific evidence to the contrary, as there were no regulations that required the cashier to make note of dates on the coins held in the drawers. 
A long dialogue followed involving “counter cash,” which Tripp said at trial did not likely include gold coins as they were a “class apart” due to their value. Berke again made the distinction between an inference, deduction and assumption versus the facts as stated in filed documents. Berke brought up the Oct. 8, 2008, deposition where Tripp said that “counter cash” could include circulated gold coins. Tripp admitted that his 2008 statement was incorrect, and was clarified with subsequent research. 
‘Not the brightest bulb in the box’
The last substantial points of the day involved the “untidy” vault records, which Tripp has relied upon to explain the disposition of the 1933 double eagles. Berke pointed out that the 1940s Secret Service report studied the records, and questioned the vault custodian regarding his vault entries. The custodian, Edward McKernan, denied to the Secret Service — eight years after he had retired — that he received 34 1933 double eagles, admitting that a May 19, 1933, entry was his, but that he did not initial it. 
The following dialogue succinctly encapsulated the views of both sides:
Berke asked Tripp, then where are the 34 coins? Tripp replied that they were stolen and are the subject of the current trial. Berke countered that they were exchanged for gold at the Mint’s cashier’s window.
Tripp then characterized McKernan as “not the brightest bulb in the box” based on the Secret Service’s report, which found the vault records of the time so poorly done that they could not be relied upon. 
Berke then asked if the records used in the research were reliable, complete and accurate — questioning if an unsigned, handwritten daily settlement could accurately reflect the dates when the 34 1933 double eagles were moved and sent to the basement vault. Tripp replied that the records accurately reflected this. 
An incomplete record
Despite the voluminous records that are being presented at trial, many are missing that if included, would provide a clearer picture. For example, there are:
• No records related to bullion exchanges in the 1930s.
• No correspondence of the Mint’s responses to public inquiries in the 1920s and 1930s.
• Little if any records of documents that were destroyed in the 1970s and otherwise.
Yet, Tripp countered that there are more records for the years immediately before and after 1933 than most other two- to three-year periods. Berke followed by presenting an April 27, 1943, request from the Philadelphia Mint for the return of records that were stored in archives, yet the subject and type of the requested documents is unknown — and the 1943 request was unknown to Tripp. 
The day ended abruptly just after 4 p.m., just as Berke introduced a line of questioning involving coin grading. The government promptly objected on the basis  that the questions were outside of scope, and a tired-looking Judge Legrome D. Davis dismissed the jurors and requested that the attorneys speak with him privately.
Today, Berke’s cross examination will continue, followed by the redirect examination by the government. ¦

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