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Autopen: A Powerful Sign of the Times in Washington

The Washington Post

Workers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development say they quickly realized that Deborah Gore Dean, executive assistant to former HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr., was one of the more powerful people in the department during the Reagan Administration.

Dean not only had the boss’s ear, she had his autopen.

As the unraveling HUD scandal has revealed, nothing symbolized Dean’s control over the department better than her access to Pierce’s automated signing machine.

As one of the few aides with direct access to the secretary, Dean used that power often to dispatch letter after letter to HUD’s executive secretariat, where they arrived with Pierce’s signature.

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‘Worst-Kept Secret’

Kept under lock down the hall from Pierce’s 10th floor suite, the Autopen has become what one autograph expert calls one of “Washington’s worst-kept secrets” and another calls the “latest status symbol” in the nation’s capital.

Manufactured by a small, secretive company in Northern Virginia, the $2,995 machines have become as essential to the federal bureaucracy as personnel regulations, disclosure forms and building passes.

“Everybody is using the machine,” said Edward N. Bomsey, an Annandale, Va., autograph dealer who says most members of Congress, the Supreme Court, astronauts and heads of major federal agencies have a signing machine.

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All these reports draw a smile from Robert M. DeShazo, a former government toolmaker who acquired the rights to the Autopen during World War II while working at a Navy torpedo plant in Alexandria, Va.

“You do your own research,” he told a visitor to his International Autopen Co. plant near Dulles International Airport. Neither DeShazo nor his son, Lindsay, will discuss their customers.

“We wouldn’t think of publicizing them,” said Lindsay S. DeShazo, who is in charge of customer services for Autopen.

Robert DeShazo, who owns the company and perfected a duplicating device first patented in 1915, rarely grants interviews. The reason, the DeShazos said, is their customers’ desire to keep secret the fact that they don’t personally sign all their autographs.

“You’re getting into the cloudy world of who you’re fooling,” said Robert DeShazo.

Fooling or not, the Autopens have become a booming business, fed by the growth of the federal bureaucracy and its ability to grind out tons of letters and documents that need signatures. In all, Robert DeShazo estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 of the machines are in use today, many of them in Washington.

There is no other machine on the market that can duplicate a signature using a fountain, ballpoint or felt-tip pen, said Robert DeShazo. He calls his Autopen Model 80, the basic $2,995 model, “another American scientific achievement.”

The machine is essentially a small table, with a stainless steel, spider-like apparatus that replicates a signature with motions identical to those of the individual who penned the signature in the first place.

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Accessories allow the machine to be locked, to count the number of signatures, to automatically feed documents into it and to allow large documents such as books and other items such as White House Easter eggs and pieces of sculpture to be signed.

Persuaded that there are other markets to capture, the company has launched a campaign to sell the machine to college presidents--for use in fund-raising campaigns--and to corporate executives.

Economic Sense

Autopens make good economic sense for top executives, if only to free them from perhaps as little as 15 minutes a day of signing their names, the DeShazos said. “By relegating this function to Autopen and a lower-level employee, Autopen can pay for itself in less than a year,” a sales brochure claims.

Washington, however, was where the Autopen got its start, and it still provides a strong base for the company’s operations, the DeShazos said.

“Whether a senator gets 1,000 or 10,000 letters, you’ve got to remember that every one of those letters represents a vote,” Robert DeShazo said. And each constituent wants “the personal feeling,” said Lindsay DeShazo.

So who could dislike the Autopen? Autograph collectors. “They hate us,” said Robert DeShazo.

Bomsey says the reason is obvious. The widespread use of Autopens is forcing collectors “to be very careful,” fearful that they might purchase an Autopenned signature instead of the real thing.

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In the case of a signature by former President Ronald Reagan, that could be the difference between a $15 Autopenned White House letter and a genuine, but rarer, Reagan signature worth “several hundred dollars,” Bomsey said.

Most politicians change their signatures. HUD’s Pierce changed his annually. Presidents and their wives are notorious for having various signatures in use at the same time, one for close friends (i.e. a “Jerry Ford”) and more formal ones (Gerald R. Ford) for other correspondence and letters.

Ford won praise from autograph collectors for being the first President to acknowledge use of the Autopen, and for furnishing examples of his signature to autograph publications.

Use of the pens goes back to the Truman Administration, when the Defense Department became the first agency to employ the machines widely.

Presidential autograph collector Paul K. Carr of Rockville, Md., has studied use of the pens by various Presidents and ranks Nixon and Reagan as among those who have issued the most different Autopenned signatures during their public careers.

He said he was not surprised at the furor over Dean’s use of the Autopen at HUD. “I have long said the day is going to come when someone is going to go in and raise hell and say, ‘Who signed this?’ ”


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