4 More Examples of American Political Corruption

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Getty Images

When federal prosecutors filed charges against Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich earlier this week, it may have felt like just another chapter in the state's unseemly political history. However, even though Illinois and Chicago have long been synonymous with political graft, corruption is obviously more than just a Midwestern problem. In fact, a surprising number of American elected officials have been on the wrong end of convictions stemming from their time in office. So if the evidence against Blagojevich is as damning as it seems, at least he's got some company in the annals of history.

1. Budd Dwyer

After a 15-year legislative career split between the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the Pennsylvania Senate, Dwyer became the Treasurer of Pennsylvania. During Dwyer's tenure as treasurer, Pennsylvania's state employees accidentally paid too much income tax, and once the irregularity came to light, the state started looking for a firm to help figure out how much each employee should be refunded. Eventually, the $4.6 million contract for the job went to a California computer firm that gave Dwyer a $300,000 kickback.

Prosecutors uncovered the scheme, and after several co-conspirators in the case arranged plea bargains and testified against him, Dwyer was in a tough place. He refused a plea deal that would have given him a relatively light sentence and continued to profess his innocence. A jury found him guilty, though, and he faced up to 55 years in prison. However, by state law Dwyer kept his job until his sentencing. He called a press conference on January 22, 1987, to address the situation. Although many reporters thought he might be announcing his resignation, a visibly agitated Dwyer instead read a long, rambling statement criticizing the judge in his trial and maintaining his innocence. He then gave three notes to his aides, pulled out a handgun from a manila envelope and shot himself in the head in front of live television news cameras.

2. The Abscam Bunch

In 1978 the FBI started a sting operation called Abscam to expose political corruption. Various FBI agents would act like Middle Eastern businessmen who wanted to arrange political favors for fictitious sheik Kambir Abdul Rahman. The agents would meet with various members of Congress and the Senate and try to swap cash for political asylum and other favors for the sheik.

Of course, the FBI videotaped each of the meetings, and the tapes show a picture of almost comical corruption and greed. In one notable example Richard Kelly, a Florida congressman, stuffed $25,000 cash into his pockets then nervously asked the agents, "Does it show?" Kelly later claimed that he wasn't taking bribes; he was actually conducting an investigation of his own into this matter. He simply took the cash because "I didn't want to blow my cover." Believe it or not, prosecutors didn't buy it.

By the end of the investigation, Abscam had nabbed six congressmen and one senator, as well as a handful of local officials. Most of the convicted legislators resigned their seats, although Michael Myers, a Pennsylvania Democrat, had to be expelled from the House of Representatives. Several of the corrupt politicians, including Kelly and New Jersey Senator Harrison Williams, spent time in jail for taking the bribes.

Not every lawmaker came off quite so terribly in the investigation, though. Larry Pressler, a Republican senator from South Dakota, immediately bristled when offered a bribe to do the sheik a favor. The tapes memorably show him saying, "Wait a minute, what you're suggesting may be illegal," and he quickly notified the FBI of the chicanery. As a result of his integrity, Pressler became a celebrated figure of political virtue.

3. The Clark County (Nevada) Commissioners

If you're going to be crooked, at least let your crimes involve some gratuitous nudity and dancing to old Def Leppard songs. In 2003, the FBI teamed up with the DEA and the IRS to raid Las Vegas-area strip clubs as part of a corruption investigation. The probe was known as Operation G-Sting. (Never let it be said that FBI agents don't have a sense of humor.) Over the course of the investigation, it became clear that several officials on the Clark County Commission, which oversees the unincorporated areas of Clark County, had been taking cash bribes from strip club owner Michael Galardi in exchange for using their political influence to push strip-club-friendly policies. (Galardi wanted the bribed commissioners to fight new policies that were designed to curb sexual activities in the gentlemen's clubs.) In the end, four commissioners were convicted of conspiracy, wire fraud, and extortion. All paid fines, and some received up to four years in federal prison, a locale notable for its lack of strip clubs.

4. Spiro T. Agnew

It must have taken some serious gall to be so corrupt that even the Nixon White House couldn't stomach your exploits, but Spiro T. Agnew somehow reached that rarefied level. Agnew served as Nixon's vice president, but things took a turn for the worse in 1973. The United States Attorney's office in Baltimore started investigating Agnew for a range of crimes including extortion, bribery, and tax evasion committed during his tenure as Baltimore county executive and governor of Maryland. Eventually, Agnew faced indictments on these charges, and true to his bulldog role in the Nixon administration, he fought back tooth and nail. He claimed that not only were the charges untrue, but a sitting vice president couldn't be indicted. If anyone wanted Agnew out of office, he contended, they'd have to impeach him.

It must have sounded like a swell plan to Agnew, but there was a catch: none of it was true. The solicitor general penned a brief saying that the VP could in fact be indicted, and it turned out that Agnew had accepted $29,500 in bribes to push through a construction company's project. Nixon and company weren't much help since they had their hands full with the burgeoning Watergate scandal and didn't like Agnew that much in the first place. (Nixon allegedly once quipped that he kept Agnew on his ticket in 1972 because "No assassin in his right mind would kill me. They know if they did that they would wind up with Agnew!")

In the end, Agnew worked out a deal with federal prosecutors where he would resign the vice presidency and plead no contest to one charge of tax evasion for not declaring the bribe as income. In a relatively plum deal, Agnew paid a $10,000 fine (which covered the taxes and penalties) and received three years of probation for the crime. Who was the real beneficiary of all this corruption? Gerald Ford, who took Agnew's place as vice president and eventually became president following Nixon's resignation.

Agnew, for his part, was still as brash as ever. A civil court ruling in 1981 revealed that he had actually accepted a whopping $147,500 in bribes while serving as Maryland's governor, and $17,500 of the cash actually didn't come to him until he was already serving as Vice President. Agnew eventually had to make $268,000 in reimbursements to the state for the bribes and interest, but he even tried to play that to his own advantage. Agnew, who was living in California at the time, gamely attempted to use this reimbursement as an income tax deduction; California's tax courts politely disagreed.

8 Centuries-Old Etiquette Rules for Talking Politics

Three Lions/Getty Images
Three Lions/Getty Images

It can sometimes be easy to forget that a civilized political discourse is possible—especially around the holidays, when family members with vastly different viewpoints gather around one table. Doing your best to rise above the fray? Nineteenth century etiquette experts were full of (surprisingly) timeless pieces of advice for discussing issues with friends, colleagues, and family members. Keep this list handy this holiday season, and remember: Politics can get ugly, but the drawing room conversation doesn't have to.

1. EDUCATE YOURSELF BEFORE YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH.

"It is very needful for one who desires to talk well, not only to be well acquainted with the current news, and modern and ancient literature of his language, but also with the historical events of the past and present of all countries. He must not have a confused idea of dates and history, but be able to give a clear account, not only of the chief events of the recent Rebellion, but also of those of the Revolutions of the past century, and of the period of the Roman Empire, its rise and fall, and of the various important events which have occurred in England, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey, and Russia."

From Daisy Eyebright’s A Manual of Etiquette With Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding, 1873

2. KNOW WHERE YOU STAND …

"Retain, if you will, a fixed political opinion, yet do not parade it upon all occasions, and, above all, do not endeavor to force others to agree with you. Listen calmly to their ideas upon the same subjects, and if you cannot agree, differ politely, and while your opponent may set you down as a bad politician, let him be obliged to admit that you are a gentleman."

From Cecil B. Hartley’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette, 1875

3. … BUT DON’T BE A KNOW-IT-ALL.

"Never, when advancing an opinion, assert positively that a thing 'is so,' but give your opinion as an opinion. Say, 'I think this is so,' or, 'these are my views,' but remember that your companion may be better informed upon the subject under discussion, or, where it is a mere matter of taste or feeling, do not expect that all the world will feel exactly as you do."

From Florence Hartley’s The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1860

4. ESPECIALLY NOT AT PARTIES.

"A man is sure to show his good or bad breeding the instant he opens his mouth to talk in company … The ground is common to all, and no one has a right to monopolize any part of it for his own particular opinions, in politics or religion. No one is there to make proselytes, but every one has been invited, to be agreeable and to please."

From Arthur Martine’s Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness, 1866

5. KNOW WHEN TO CHANGE THE SUBJECT.

"Whenever the lady or gentleman with whom you are discussing a point, whether of love, war, science or politics, begins to sophisticate, drop the subject instantly. Your adversary either wants the ability to maintain his opinion … or he wants the still more useful ability to yield the point with unaffected grace and good humor; or what is also possible, his vanity is in some way engaged in defending views on which he may probably have acted, so that to demolish his opinions is perhaps to reprove his conduct, and no well-bred man goes into society for the purpose of sermonizing."

From Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness

6. KEEP YOUR COOL, TOO.

"Even if convinced that your opponent is utterly wrong, yield gracefully, decline further discussion, or dexterously turn the conversation, but do not obstinately defend your own opinion until you become angry … Many there are who, giving their opinion, not as an opinion but as a law, will defend their position by such phrases, as: 'Well, if I were president or governor, I would,' — and while by the warmth of their argument they prove that they are utterly unable to govern their own temper, they will endeavor to persuade you that they are perfectly competent to take charge of the government of the nation."

From A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette

7. AND DEFINITELY DON’T TAKE SIDES.

"In a dispute, if you cannot reconcile the parties, withdraw from them. You will surely make one enemy, perhaps two, by taking either side, in an argument when the speakers have lost their temper."

From A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette

8. TRY NOT TO CRITICIZE POLITICIANS … IF THERE ARE POLITICIANS PRESENT.

"It is bad manners to satirize lawyers in the presence of lawyers, or doctors in the presence of one of that calling, and so of all the professions. Nor should you rail against bribery and corruption in the presence of politicians … or members of Congress, as they will have good reason to suppose that you are hinting at them."

From Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness

This piece originally ran in 2016.

5 Politicians Who Got Elected Despite Being Dead

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Alex Wong, Getty Images

During the 2018 midterm elections, a man named Dennis Hof—a Nevada reality TV star, brothel owner, and author of the book titled The Art of the Pimp—ran for the Nevada state legislature and handily won a seat representing the 36th Assembly District. There's just one problem: Hof is dead. He passed away just three weeks before the election. (County officials will appoint a replacement.)

While Hof's situation is rare, it's not unprecedented. Here are a few recent examples of people who refused to let death stand in the way of electoral victory.

1. MISSOURI SENATOR MEL CARNAHAN

Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan famously won election to the Senate in Missouri in 2000—38 days after passing away in a plane crash that also claimed the lives of his son and a campaign advisor. Carnahan beat incumbent Senator John Ashcroft—who would soon move on to serve as U.S. Attorney General for President George W. Bush. Carnahan’s wife, Jean, filled his spot in the Senate until a 2002 special election.

2. TRACY CITY MAYOR CARL GEARY

In early 2010, voters in the small town of Tracy City, Tennessee, handed Carl Geary an overwhelming victory in the city’s mayoral race—ousting incumbent Barbara Brock by winning more than 70 percent of the vote. Geary was unable to accept, of course, because he’d died of a heart attack a month before the election.

To some voters, Geary's victory seemed to be a tribute of sorts; to others, it was a lesser-of-two-evils decision. In a Telegraph story on the vote, Geary’s wife Susan is quoted as saying, “The day he passed away, people were calling with condolences and saying, 'We're still voting for him.'”

“I knew he was deceased," said another voter. "I know that sounds stupid, but we wanted someone other than [Brock].” Strangely, Brock had been appointed mayor less than two years earlier, when the sitting mayor died of a heart attack.

3. WINFIELD MAYOR HARRY STONEBRAKER

Missouri voters were at it again in 2009 when the town of Winfield’s recently deceased incumbent mayor Harry Stonebraker won a fourth term with a staggering 90 percent of the vote. According to the NY Daily News, Stonebraker’s death from a heart attack only seemed to bolster the popularity he’d already garnered (one year earlier, he won praise when he helped citizens recover from a flood that had ravaged the town).

For his part, Stonebraker’s opponent, a town alderman named Bernie Panther, was completely unable to convince people that he was a better option than their dearly-departed hero—and received only 23 total votes.

4. U.S. REPRESENTATIVE PATSY MINK

Patsy Mink was a trailblazing politician who served the state of Hawaii for 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. According to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, in 1964 Mink became “the first woman of color elected to the national legislature and the first Asian-American congresswoman.” After a stint serving in the President Carter’s administration and as a member of the Honolulu city council, Mink returned to the U.S House of Representatives in 1990—serving until she died of pneumonia weeks before election day in 2002. A few weeks after receiving a state funeral, Mink was honored once again when the voters of Hawaii re-elected her to Congress—a seat that was re-assigned a few months later after a special election.

5. CALIFORNIA STATE SENATOR JENNY OROPEZA

During the 2010 midterms, California state senator Jenny Oropeza easily won re-election—despite having passed away two weeks earlier from complications caused by a blood clot. Although the illness left her largely absent from the campaign trail, the incumbent still managed to claim victory by a 58 percent to 36 percent margin.

A version of this story ran in 2010.

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