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Spiro Agnew and “Bagman”

Spiro Agnew and “Bagman”

by William H. Benson

February 21, 2019

     News of two separate scandals rocked the White House and stunned the American people in 1973.

     The first was President Nixon’s coverup of his election committee’s burglary at the Watergate Hotel, and the second was Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s criminal scheme to accept kickbacks, actual cash payments, from contractors who Agnew had lined up to receive contracts for county and state and Federal government-funded projects: for roads, streets, water and sewer plants.

     The kickbacks extended back to the 1960’s, when Agnew served as Baltimore County’s Executive. Then, once elected Maryland’s governor, Agnew continued to receive cash payments, and when he moved into his office in the White House’s West Wing, bagmen brought him sealed envelopes stuffed with cash, outright criminal action.

     Agnew had no knowledge of and did not participate in the Watergate coverup, and Nixon was unaware of Agnew’s crimes until the spring of 1973, four years after the two entered the White House.    

     The American people may remember details about Nixon’s scandal, but they are vague about Agnew’s crimes. “Didn’t he resign for something?” Rachel Maddow, host at MSNBC, hopes to rectify that lack of clarity with her recent podcasts, “Bagman.”

     Maddow reveals the truth that Nixon’s Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, forced Vice-President Spiro Agnew to plead no-contest to one felony charge of income tax evasion, and to resign, rather than face a rock-solid case that included some forty counts of “criminal conspiracy, bribery, and extortion.”

     Agnew submitted his resignation to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on October 10, 1973, on the same day that he appeared before a judge in a courtroom. Agnew though refused to admit any guilt.

     One wonders why Elliot Richardson agreed to accept a plea bargain for a lesser crime, income tax evasion, when the prosecutors had documents, testimonies, and hard evidence of bribery.

     Maddow reveals that the Attorney General’s first priority was to remove Agnew from the line of succession to the presidency, in case Nixon should face impeachment and removal. Few in the Justice Department, or the Federal government wanted Spiro Agnew sitting in the Oval Office.

     The heroes in Maddow’s story are three young Federal prosecutors in Maryland—Barney Skolnick, Tim Baker, and Ron Liebman—and their supervisor, George Beall, the Federal attorney in Maryland then. Their homework and evidence convinced Elliot Richardson of Agnew’s guilt.

     Rachel Maddow found another egregious detail, unknown until now. She listened to Nixon’s tape recordings, and heard Nixon, Agnew, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman form a plan to obstruct justice.

     These White House officials decided to ask George H. W. Bush, then the chair of the Republican National Committee, to approach J. Glenn Beall—George Beall’s brother and a Maryland Senator—to lean on George Beall and insist that he stop the government’s investigation into Agnew.

     Senator Glenn Beall took the high road and refused Bush’s request.

     After Agnew resigned, the Federal judge ordered Agnew to pay $160,000 in taxes on the bribes he had received but not included on his tax return. The judge also insisted that Agnew pay a $10,000 fine, but jail time the judge suspended. The bar association then disbarred Agnew from practicing law.

     And where did Agnew get the money to pay the taxes and the fine, after he had spent the bags of cash on “mistresses, sports cars, and jewelry?” A friend, Frank Sinatra, loaned him the money.

     Jonathon Baird, a columnist at the Concord Monitor—Concord, New Hampshire’s newspaper—listened to Maddow’s podcast and asked, “How does a corrupt government official under criminal investigation maintain his or her grip on power?”

     Baird answered, “On TV, I saw Roger Stone describe the game plan: ‘Admit nothing, deny everything, and counterattack.’ Stone was not the first in American politics to advocate such a game plan. Forty-five years ago, then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew pioneered the modern plan.”

     Indeed, on the day Agnew appeared in court, he denied any guilt and blamed his accusers. In his 1980 memoir, “Go Quietly . . . or else,” he said, “it wasn’t shakedown stuff; it was merely going back to get support from those who had benefitted from the Administration.”

     In other words, he believed he was raising campaign contributions from those who had received state contracts. But, the truth was, it was bags of cash that he received, and not checks made out to an election committee.

     On August 9, 1974, ten months after Agnew resigned, in the face of almost certain impeachment, President Richard Nixon also resigned.