Jonathan P. Baird: Spiro Agnew and the corruption defense
|Published: 12-27-2018 12:20 AM
How does a corrupt, high-ranking government official, who is under criminal investigation, maintain his grip on power? On TV, I saw Roger Stone describe the game plan: “Admit nothing, deny everything and counterattack.”
Stone was not the first in American politics to advocate such a game plan. Forty-five years ago, then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew pioneered the modern model.
For those who may not remember or were not around yet, Agnew was Richard Nixon’s vice president. He is the only vice president in U.S. history forced to resign the position. The story of Agnew’s fall is brilliantly evoked in Rachel Maddow’s podcast, Bag Man.
It is a story with historical resonance.
President Nixon plucked Agnew from obscurity and put him on the national ticket in 1968. At the time, Agnew was a political unknown. He had served as Baltimore County executive and had a two-year stint as governor of Maryland.
Agnew quickly became extremely popular with the right-wing base of the Republican Party. As Maddow says, he created the mold for confrontational conservatism. Agnew played the role of attack dog. I still remember vintage Agnew lambasting Nixon opponents as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
Agnew had a way with words. For those who lived it, who can forget “nattering nabobs of negativism” or “pusillanimous pussyfooting on law and order.” Agnew was a bomb thrower on the stump. He particularly loved attacking anti-war student demonstrators and the press.
For those on the political right, Agnew was the blunt and honest outsider, willing to speak truths no one else would speak. He was adored for trashing liberals, radicals and minorities. Agnew played a moralist, devoted to the silent majority. He presented himself as a pillar of rectitude and conservative integrity.
What no one knew was that contrary to the image, Agnew was a criminal and his criminality was long-standing. Since the start of his political career as Baltimore County executive, he was on the take. Agnew received kickbacks on contracts he had the power to control. For years he took illegal bribes and payoffs. He had two bag men in his employ.
Shockingly, Agnew continued the bribery and extortion as a governor and even when he was in the White House. Agnew regularly received visitors at the White House and in his office in the Executive Office Building who passed along thousands of dollars of cash stuffed into plain envelopes. In exchange, Agnew steered federal contracts to the paying-off businessmen. Until the investigation into his criminal activities, Agnew never stopped taking bribes. He put the federal government up for sale.
If it were not for three federal prosecutors – Barney Skolnick, Tim Baker and Ron Liebman – Agnew might have gotten away with his crimes and he might have become president when Nixon resigned. The prosecutors decided to follow the money. They quickly assembled a solid case with multiple witnesses and documents. Participants in Agnew’s shake-downs started singing to the prosecutors.
When news of the investigation became public, Agnew fought back. He famously said, “I will not resign, if indicted.” Agnew alleged he was the victim of a witch hunt and he smeared the investigators as biased and corrupt. He attacked the Justice Department for leaks and he said the press and liberals were out to get him.
Agnew’s P.R. strategy was to change the story by making criminal misconduct by Justice Department leakers, not his own crimes, the focus of public attention. Agnew’s lawyers sought to force the press to testify about sources. They subpoenaed nine reporters.
At the same time, Agnew had a private plan to obstruct the investigation into his crimes. He enlisted Nixon’s inner staff, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, in the obstruction effort.
They devised a plan to have Maryland’s senator, Glenn Beall, pressure his brother, George Beall, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, into dropping the Agnew investigation. Sen. Beall owed Nixon because Nixon helped him win back his Senate seat in 1970.
On the Nixon tapes, you can hear Nixon ask about Sen. Beall, “Is he a good boy?” Completely independent of Watergate, Nixon, Agnew and the inner circle of most trusted White House advisers made a robust effort to obstruct the Agnew investigation.
Agnew wanted the U.S. attorney to fire the prosecutor, Barney Skolnick, who Agnew said was a Democrat. Much strategizing went into the best scheme to stop the investigation. Agnew himself had personally lobbied Sen. Beall many times to ask him to lean on his little brother. When that failed, the plotters decided to use later-President George H.W. Bush to reach out to Sen. Beall. Bush was then chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Bush participated in this criminal scheme and tried to influence Sen. Beall but Beall would not go along.
When the obstruction effort failed, Nixon turned on Agnew. Nixon began to see Agnew as a threat to himself and wanted Agnew to resign. Agnew refused – he actually wanted to be impeached. He worried more about criminal indictment and doing jail time than impeachment, which he thought he might beat.
Things totally fell apart between Nixon and Agnew. Agnew believed Nixon was threatening to have him murdered and he wrote about that repeatedly. He publicly worried he might have a convenient accident.
Agnew pled to a felony count of tax evasion. The IRS had also been investigating Agnew and his unusual spending. It turned out Agnew had a secret life with mistresses, sports cars and jewelry he bought. Prosecutors could have brought multiple criminal indictments against him but for the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, immediately getting Agnew out of the line of succession to the presidency was the highest priority.
Back then, no one knew if you could indict a sitting vice president. Initially, Agnew, like Nixon, took the position that they could not be indicted because of their positions.
Agnew never showed a shred of remorse. Until the end and after, he argued his innocence, saying he was railroaded by the Justice Department and the press. He never stopped stoking his supporters. Even after Agnew’s resignation, his hardcore supporters believed he was a victim.
Under the terms of his resignation, Agnew did no jail time nor did he have to pay back bribe money. He did have to resign the vice presidency immediately, and prosecutors placed in the record a 40-page statement that detailed the factual allegations against Agnew.
It was not until years later in 1981 that a taxpayer lawsuit brought by George Washington University law students forced Agnew to pay back the state of Maryland $268,482 for the kickbacks he had received.
Denying everything, smearing prosecutors, obstructing justice and screaming witch hunt did not ultimately work. The problem for Agnew was that in spite of his best efforts, he could never bury his crimes or explain them away.
(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)