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4 More Examples of American Political Corruption

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

abscam-time.jpgIn 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

agnew-life.jpgIt 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.

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New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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