"Sam Rayburn, after whom the House office building is named, used to keep a jar on his desk and when lobbyists would come in to see him, they would deposit the appropriate envelope with cash," he told about 100 students and faculty.
Such an allegation does not jibe with written histories and accounts from aides of Rayburn, who during his five decades representing Texas in Congress, built a reputation as a pillar of integrity.
"That's a damned lie, I don't know how [Bennett] could say that," said 84-year-old Fort Worth resident Rene Kimbrough, Rayburn's secretary from 1947 until his death in 1961. "I'd like to see him prove it."
Asked later Friday to do just that, Utah's junior Republican senator said he couldn't. Instead, he offered an apology.
"I have no academic source for my reference to Sam Rayburn. It is simply a story I heard in the old days in Washington, D.C.," Bennett stated via e-mail. "If I need to confess that it was hearsay, I do so and apologize. In the old days of the 1960s, when I was lobbying on the Hill, that was the story that went around. I apologize to the memory of Sam Rayburn and all his descendants."
Rayburn was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1912 and served 48 years - including 21 years as House speaker, until his death at age 79.
Patrick Cox, associate director of the University of Texas Center for American History, said Rayburn was well-known for not taking money from lobbyists, honorariums for speeches or trips at taxpayer expense.
"One of his consistent traits, both critics and admirers would say, is that his honesty and integrity were second to none. The reporting requirements for contributions were not as strict then, but he held himself to a much higher standard," said Cox, who oversees the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum in Austin.
No one knows that better than 87-year-old H.G. Dulaney, Rayburn's aide in Washington from 1951 through 1957 and director of the Sam Rayburn Library until his retirement in 2002.
"He had more integrity than any other person I've ever met," Dulaney told The Salt Lake Tribune. "When he died, he only had $35,000 in the bank and he owed $18,000. This fellow is nuts for linking Mr. Rayburn with [taking lobbyist money]. That jar business is nuts. No hint of scandal ever touched Mr. Rayburn."
After speaking in Texas on one occasion, Dulaney recalls, Rayburn learned his driver had been given an envelope with money inside from the sponsor of the speech. He said Rayburn made the driver turn around and return the money.
"No one could buy him," renowned biographer Robert A. Caro wrote of Rayburn in The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. "Lobbyists could not buy him so much as a meal. Not even the taxpayer could buy him a meal. Spurning the conventional congressional junket, Rayburn would during his 48 years in Congress take exactly one overseas trip . . . and on that trip he insisted on paying his own way. He refused not only fees but travel expenses for out-of-town speeches; hosts who . . . attempted to press checks upon him quickly realized they had made a mistake. . . . Rayburn would say, 'I'm not for sale' - and then he would walk away without a backward glance."
In his remarks Friday to UVSC students, Bennett said reporters have overplayed the recent rash of scandals in the nation's capital.
"The level of ethical behavior in Washington is higher now than it has ever been in our history," he said.
Sure, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, quit as House majority leader, And, yes, Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff is now at the center of of a widening congressional bribery probe.
But, Bennett said, such scandals pale in comparison with the practices of former members of Congress. He capped his recital of ethical breaches by recalling what former Mississippi Democratic Sen. John Stennis told former Republican Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson about how old-school senators differed from their contemporaries.
"The primary difference between you young fellas and the old Senate is that in the old days we did the people's business primarily while we were drunk," Bennett quoted Stennis as saying.
Bennett's apology comes 6 1/2 years after he said he was sorry for saying President Bush could lose the 2000 election only if he stepped in front of a bus or, "let's say, some black woman comes forward with an illegitimate child that he fathered."
Earlier this week, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, backtracked from his statement to Iron County business leaders that "nobody with brains" would deny that Saddam Hussein was "supporting al-Qaida."