4 More Examples of American Political Corruption

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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.

December 11, 2008 - 1:00pm
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