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.

Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Alex Wong, Getty Images

There are few political appointments quite as important as a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, justices serve for life. In the modern era, that often means more than three decades on the court—thanks to increased lifespans, justices appointed in the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years that judges served in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the constitution was written. But why do justices serve for life, anyway?

Well, for one thing, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t exactly specify that justices and the court are in a “’til death do us part” relationship. Article III says that judges (of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” So technically, a judge could be removed if they no longer meet the “good behavior” part of the clause, but there are otherwise no limits on their term. In practice, this means they have their seat for life, unless they are impeached and removed by Congress. Only 15 federal judges in U.S. history have ever been impeached by Congress—all lower court judges—and only eight have been removed from office, though some have resigned before their inevitable removal.

The only Supreme Court justice Congress has tried to impeach was Samuel Chase, who was appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan Federalist vehemently opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so, either in his role as a lower court judge or once he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1804, the House of Representatives, at then-president Jefferson’s urging, voted to impeach Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bench instead of ruling as a non-partisan judge. However, he was acquitted of all counts in the Senate, and went on to serve as a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The point of giving justices a seat on the bench for the rest of their lives (or, more commonly nowadays, until they decide to retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from the kind of partisan fighting the Chase impeachment exemplified. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of Congress and the president. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that the justices are insulated from political pressure and that the court can serve as a truly independent branch of government.

Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, in theory allowing them to focus on the law rather than politics. Justices might be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts. Some data, for instance, suggests that many justices actually drift leftward as they age, no doubt infuriating the conservative presidents that appointed them.

The lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches,” and “nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence, as permanency in office.” Without lifetime job security, he argued, judges might feel obligated to bow to the wishes of the president, Congress, or the public, rather than confining their work strictly to questions of the Constitution.

While lifetime appointments may be a longstanding tradition in the U.S., this approach isn’t the norm in other countries. Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages if not hard-and-fast term limits for high court judges. UK Supreme Court justices face mandatory retirement at age 70 (or 75 if they were appointed before 1995), as do judges on Australia’s High Court. Canadian Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75, while the 31 justices of India’s Supreme Court must retire by the age of 65. Meanwhile, the oldest justice now on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is currently 85 and kicking. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest justice in U.S. history, retired in 1932 at age 90.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never had term limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Term limits, advocates argue, could combat partisan imbalances on the court. Presidents wouldn’t get to appoint justices purely based on whether someone died while they were in office, and the stakes for political parties nominating a justice would be slightly lower, possibly leading presidents and Congress to compromise more on appointments. One popular suggestion among political analysts and scholars is to impose an 18-year term limit, though critics note that that particular plan does bring up the potential that at some point, a single president could end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court.

In any case, considering such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, being on the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifetime commitment.

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Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and More Featured on New Album Inspired By the 27 Amendments

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

Since 2016, Radiolab's More Perfect podcast has taken what is typically viewed as a dry subject, the Supreme Court, and turned it into an engrossing podcast. Now, fans of the show have a whole new way to learn about the parts of U.S. history which textbooks tend to gloss over. 27, The Most Perfect Album, a new music compilation from Radiolab, features more than two dozen songs inspired by each of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, from freedom of religion to rules regulating changes to Congressional salaries.

More Perfect assembled an impressive roster of musical talents to compose and perform the tracklist. They Might Be Giants wrote the song for the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in people's homes. It goes, "But the presence of so many friendly strangers makes me nervous, and it does not mean that I'm not truly thankful for your service."

For the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Dolly Parton sings, "We carried signs, we cursed the times, marched up and down the street. We had to fight for women's rights with blisters on our feet." Less sexy amendments, like the 12th Amendment, which revised presidential election procedures, and the 20th Amendment, which set commencement terms for congress and the president, are also featured. Torres, Caroline Shaw, Kash Doll, and Cherry Glazerr are just a handful of the other artists who contributed to the album.

The release of the compilation coincides with the premiere of More Perfect's third season, which will focus on the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can check out the first episode of the new season today and download the companion album for free through WNYC.

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