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.

The Lavender Scare: When the U.S. Government Persecuted Employees for Being Gay

President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many people have heard of the Red Scare, an episode of persecution of suspected communists in the 1940s and 1950s, but they’re less familiar with a scare of a different hue. Over the same period, and into the 1990s, officials investigated and fired government employees for being gay or lesbian—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Lavender Scare.”

Thousands of people were pushed out of government jobs, whether they worked at the State Department or other agencies, as federal contractors, or in the military, because of their perceived sexuality—and, in some cases, because of guilt by association. Most remain anonymous, part of a chapter in LGBTQ history that is frequently ignored.

"The Pervert File"

The Lavender Scare was the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. During the Great Depression and World War II, many gays and lesbians left their rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere, including in Washington, D.C. Government jobs provided excellent pay and benefits, and in a city, people could build community. But trouble lay ahead.

The first rumblings began in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police instituted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” explicitly targeting gay men in Washington, D.C. public parks for harassment. Patrols focused on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions. Men were arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home—but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a “pervert file.” By February 1950, 700 men had been apprehended, 200 of whom were arrested. According to historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, the typical detainee was a 25-year-old government clerk.

The parks program appeared against the backdrop of “sexual psychopath” laws. Passed across the country starting in the 1930s, these laws criminalized LGBTQ people and promoted forcible treatment [PDF] for their sexual expression, which was viewed as a mental disorder. Nebraska Republican Arthur Miller, who authored D.C.’s now-repealed “sexual psychopath” law in 1948, became one of the most vitriolic individuals in attacking gay federal employees: “There are places in Washington where they gather for the purpose of sex orgies, where they worship at the cesspool and flesh pots of iniquity,” Miller said in a blisteringly homophobic floor speech in early 1950.

Miller wasn't the only one speaking out about the perceived menace. In his now-infamous speeches on the Senate floor in February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy explicitly linked communism and homosexuality, arguing that LGBTQ people were particularly susceptible to communist recruitment because of their "peculiar mental twists."

McCarthy's speeches—and a revelation by deputy undersecretary of state John Peurifoy that the State Department had recently fired 91 employees for being gay—led to a public outcry. Within a month of McCarthy taking to the Senate floor, a Congressional investigation led by senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill laid the groundwork for hearings on the issue. Those ultimately resulted in a bipartisan December 1950 report: “Employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” led by Democratic senator Clyde R. Hoey.

The report, which drew upon extensive interviews with federal agencies and the military, concluded that gay people should not be employed by the government because they were "generally unsuitable" and because they constituted a security risk. The unsuitability was said to stem from the fact that "overt acts of sex perversion" were a crime under federal and local laws, as well as the assertion that "persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society generally." Furthermore, the report said, gay people "lack the emotional stability of normal persons" and "indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility." This lack of moral fiber was said to make gay people, who might be blackmailed for their activities, particularly "susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent."

In a callback to the park stings of the 1940s, the report successfully recommended changes to D.C. criminal procedure that forced men suspected of “perversion” into court when they were caught by law enforcement, effectively outing them. The report also pushed government entities to develop clear policies and procedures for terminating gay and lesbian employees—a recommendation that would have tremendous consequences.

"As Dangerous as the Communists"

Kenneth Wherry
Kenneth Wherry
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The government seized on the idea that being gay was a security risk. As Senator Wherry put it, "Only the most naive could believe that the Communists' fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends." In a 1950 newsletter, Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson cited “sexual perverts” as a government peril that was "perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists" [PDF].

Inspired in part by the Hoey Report, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive order 10450 in 1953, listing “sexual perversion” as grounds for identifying someone as a security risk. The document made it possible to aggressively pursue people like Airman Second Class Helen Grace James. James has described being followed and watched during her days in the Air Force, even during activities as innocent as eating a sandwich with a friend or going to the bathroom. The feeling of constant scrutiny affected her mental health and her sleep. "We were scared all the time," she told the Criminal podcast.

Once James was arrested in 1955, the Army threatened to go to her parents and friends with news of her sexuality, saying James was "a threat to the nation and a bad person," she explained to Criminal. "I finally said, just write down whatever you want to write down and I'll sign it."

After being discharged, James fled the East Coast. "[I] had no money, no support at all. I couldn't tell my family, I couldn't tell my friends," she said. "I had hoped to make a career of the Air Force, I loved it." Being kicked out of the Air Force, she felt, was a stain on her military family. She fought for years to change her undesirable discharge to an honorable one; she was finally successful in 2018.

James suffered in silence for years, but Frank Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1957, he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for being gay. In his Supreme Court petition three years later, he called the government's policies on homosexuality “nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos … an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!” His case may have been the first explicitly involving LGBTQ rights to make its way before the court, which denied his appeal. Kameny went on to become a prominent member of the gay rights movement, and was a founder of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization that collects and preserves important archival material related to LGBTQ history.

All in all, an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare. President Clinton effectively overturned parts of Executive Order 10450 in 1995, but the government didn't apologize for the discrimination until the administration of Barack Obama.

Fellow Travelers

Frank Kameny attending Pride on June 12, 2010
LGBTQ activist and Lavender Scare target Frank Kameny attending a Pride event in 2010

Although not a well-known period in history, The Lavender Scare has had a cultural afterlife. It was the subject of a 2017 documentary, and a key element of a 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers, which followed a youthful civil servant, a forbidden affair, and the terror of living a double life in 1950s Washington. The book was adapted into an opera first staged in 2016, complete with a set inspired by the overbearing style of 1950s brutalist architecture.

“The piece wants to memorialize those people whose lives were lost, or jobs were lost,” Peter Rothstein, who directed the Minnesota Opera production, tells Mental Floss. Many members of the LGBTQ community aren’t aware of the Lavender Scare, or don’t know about its full extent, something Rothstein discovered when he started to research in preparation for the production. “I thought I was kind of up on my queer history. I was like 'whoa!' The scope of it.”

While stereotypes about gay men and musical theater abound, Rothstein notes that musicals play an important role in America’s cultural history and climate. Many recent works, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamiltonhave explored historical and cultural identity—and with Fellow Travelers, Rothstein says, the medium was particularly apt. “There’s a huge subtext of men not able to articulate for themselves, because they haven’t really been given language to describe their emotional, sexual specificity," he explained.

This neglected piece of queer history reflects a time when shame kept many people silent. Thankfully, historians such as Johnson are collecting stories before survivors of this generation fade away. As they uncover more tales of careers—and lives—ruined, perhaps the Lavender Scare will begin to take on more of a role in mainstream history books.

19 Facts About the 19th Amendment

getty images
getty images

On August 18, 1920, American women finally secured the right to vote. Calling the victory hard-won would be an understatement: Denounced by many, the 19th amendment had an ugly, uphill road to ratification. 

1. In 1797, New Jersey temporarily granted voting rights to unwed women.

New Jersey's original state constitution, adopted in 1776, declared that “all inhabitants” who were “worth 50 pounds” could vote. Because some found this wording rather vague, clearer legislation was drafted, and in 1797, the State Assembly explicitly granted unwed female New Jerseyans suffrage.

For the next 10 years, single women were permitted to cast ballots. Married women weren’t given this privilege because their husbands legally controlled every piece of property they owned, so they failed the “50 pounds” requirement. In 1807, the Assembly passed a new law that forbade anyone but “free, white male citizens” who were at least 21 and paid taxes from voting. 

2. The Wyoming Territory led a nationwide charge for suffrage. 

Today, it’s called “The Equality State,” and in 1869, it really earned that nickname. During this pivotal year, a bill sponsored by Councilman William Bright was approved by the Territorial Legislature. “[Every] woman, of the age of 21 years," the document read, "residing in this Territory, may at every election to be holden under the law thereof, cast her vote.”

Though suffragists cheered this news, some feared that the celebration would be short-lived. Just two years after women were given the right to vote, Wyoming was one vote short of repealing the act. But eventually, women’s right to vote became so entrenched in Wyoming that when it applied for statehood, Congress threatened to deny it unless Bright’s bill was revoked—but the local legislature wouldn't back down: “We will remain out of the union [for] 100 years rather than come in without the women.” Congress caved, and Wyoming, with all its female voters, became 44th state in 1890.

3. The 19th Amendment was first proposed (and defeated) in 1878.  

“The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” So read an amendment that California Senator Arlen A. Sargent put forth for discussion on January 10, 1878, at the urging of his friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Hearings were held by the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, but they weren’t encouraging. While advocates voiced their support, several committee members busied themselves by reading newspapers or staring off into space. The bill was rejected, though it would be re-introduced every year for the next 41 years.

4. Before 1920, voting rights differed across state lines.

In January 1919, suffrage laws varied considerably: 15 states allowed women to vote in all elections, while 21 barred them from certain contests (for instance, women in Texas could cast ballots only during primaries). The remaining 12 prohibited women voting altogether. 

5. Teddy Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" party campaigned on women's enfranchisement. 

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “I believe in women’s suffrage, but … I do not regard it as a very important matter.” But he made women's suffrage a central issue while seeking a third term. When William Howard Taft’s 1912 re-nomination dashed Roosevelt’s hopes of running again as a Republican, he launched the Progressive Party, which incorporated suffrage into its official platform

One day into the campaign, T.R. made history. At the party’s convention, social reformer Jane Addams became the first woman to ever second the nomination of a major presidential candidate. “It was a spectacular proceeding,” opined Woodrow Wilson backer Charles W. Elliot, “but in exceedingly bad taste, because a woman has no place at a political convention.”

6. William Howard Taft had mixed feelings about suffrage for women. 

As Big Bill told The Saturday Evening Post in 1915, he favored a gradual approach to granting female voting rights. Taft believed that “the immediate enfranchisement of women would increase … the hysterical element of the electorate.” However, if such a reform could be “delayed until a great majority” desired it, the change would “be a correct and useful extension of the democratic principle. The benefit will come slowly and imperceptibly.”

7. Not all suffrage opponents were men. 

Alice Hay Wadsworth was among the most prominent women to denounce what became the 19th Amendment. Wadsworth was the former president of the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage and the wife of Senator James Wolcott Wadsworth, Jr., Republican of New York. An infamous pamphlet published by the association claimed that “90 percent of women either do not want it or do not care,” and that new voting rights would mean “competition with men instead of cooperation.” 

8. Suffrage advocates threw a White House picket protest. 

Activist Alice Paul had little trouble getting under President Woodrow Wilson’s skin. She broke new, nonviolent ground by establishing a group called the Silent Sentinels, which began protesting outside the White House on January 10, 1917. Over the next 2.5 years, they spent six days a week holding up pro-enfranchisement signs with such captions as “How long must women wait for liberty?” and “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” 

9. The suffragists' hunger strikes forced Wilson to act. 

Eventually, policemen began arresting Silent Sentinels—including Paul herself—for “obstructing traffic.” While incarcerated, she organized a hunger strike, which drove guards to begin force-feeding captive activists. And it got worse: Guards denied the protestors water, one of the protestors was manacled to the bars and nearly placed in a straitjacket and gagged for talking to her fellow inmates, and three emerged from the ordeal so weak that doctors feared for their lives. Wilson’s stance on enfranchisement shifted from tepid support to total advocacy. 

10. Wilson tried to pass national suffrage in 1918, but fell short. 

With World War I still raging, Wilson officially endorsed what later became the 19th amendment. One day after he released a statement to this effect, the House passed the measure. Riding high on that victory, Wilson addressed the Senate in person, saying, “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Despite these passionate words, the amendment didn’t break through, falling short just two votes. A few months later, Congress tried passing it again—and missed the mark by one vote in the Senate. 

11. One suffragette died for the cause.

On June 4, 1919, the Senate finally passed the amendment. Now, its life depended upon the states. Approvals from three-fourths of the states were needed for ratification.   

Aloysius Larch-Miller, the Oklahoma State Suffrage Ratification Committee’s secretary, was stricken with influenza during the winter of 1920 and told to remain in bed. But she went out to debate a prominent anti-suffragist at a local convention. Two days later, she passed away, and her death became a rallying cry for suffragists. Oklahoma eventually ratified the 19th Amendment.

12. One state representative guaranteed the 19th Amendment's success to please his mother. 

When Tennessee approved the bill on August 18, 1920, it became the 36th state to ratify, providing the necessary three-fourths majority. A 24-year-old state representative named Harry Burn, who previously opposed suffrage, had received a letter from his widowed mother, Febb Burn, on the day of the vote. She urged him to support the amendment. He voted yes, and led Tennessee to ratify by a margin of 49 to 47. Since the state senate had already passed it, the measure won out. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” Harry Burn noted, “and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.” 

13. Eight days after the 19th Amendment was ratified, 10 million women joined the electorate. 

On August 26, the 19th amendment officially took effect. As legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar points out, the sheer volume of brand new voters created by this legal action made it “the single biggest democratizing event in American history.” 

14. Multiple citizens have been cited as the first to vote under the new amendment. 

South St. Paul, Minnesota scheduled a special bond election at 5:30 a.m. on August 27 in which 87 women voted (but women could vote in these elections anyway; their votes just didn’t count—they were recorded for public interest). Nevertheless, it’s often reported that Mrs. Marie Ruoff Byrum of Hannibal, Missouri cast the first female ballot in post-amendment history in a local alderman race four days later. 

15. Rumors circulated that a woman might appear on the Democratic ticket in 1920. 

Prominent Republican May Jester Allen allegedly heard that the Dems were weighing a 35-year-old DNC committeewoman named Anna Dickie Olesen for their vice-presidential nomination. Instead, the nomination went to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

16. FDR became the first president whose mother was eligible to vote. 

Warren G. Harding’s mother, Calvin Coolidge’s mother, and Herbert Hoover’s mother had already died by the time their sons ran for president. Sara Roosevelt, on the other hand, lived to see her son win his third term in 1940.  

17. In 1922, some said the amendment was unconstitutional.

Because Maryland’s constitution reserved voting for men, Judge Oscar Leser and other anti-suffragists charged that the federal government had unlawfully infringed upon their state’s rights. In Leser v. Garnett, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected this and similar arguments against the 19th amendment, thus ensuring its long-term survival. Apparently Chief Justice William Howard Taft decided that the “great majority” were finally for it.

18. Mississippi didn't ratify the 19th Amendment until March 22, 1984. 

Other holdouts include Louisiana and North Carolina, which waited until June 11, 1970 and May 6, 1971, respectively. Still, Mississippi was the very last state to go through with ratification.

19. A statue celebrating Tennessee's role in the 19th Amendment's passage was unveiled in 2016. 

Sculpted by Nashville native Alan LeQuire, the monument depicts five suffragists: Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga, Sue Shelton White of Jackson, Frankie Pierce and Anne Dudley of Nashville, and League of Women Voters founder Carrie Chapman Catt. It stands on the Tennessee Performing Arts Center Bridge, near the state capital’s War Memorial building.

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