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The fall of Spiro Agnew

By
MIKE FEINSILBER
Former Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew arrives at the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court in Annapolis, MD, on December 18, 1973 to attend a disciplinary hearing called for him by the Maryland Bar Association. (UPI Photo/amk/Files)
Former Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew arrives at the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court in Annapolis, MD, on December 18, 1973 to attend a disciplinary hearing called for him by the Maryland Bar Association. (UPI Photo/amk/Files) | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Oct. 13, 1973 (UPI) - After 65 days of fighting the government of the United States with a blitzkrieg of bluff, Spiro T. Agnew surrendered Wednesday and admitted that at least some of those "damned lies" were true.

This was humiliating for a proud man who had been swept by luck and circumstance from commonplace ambitions to within reach of bidding for the presidency. He had been caught in that most ordinary of political crimes, cheating on his income taxes.

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He resigned the vice presidency, pleaded "no contest" to a single count of tax evasion, and accepted three years probation and a $10,000 fine.

The Agnew affair has dimensions beyond a personal tragedy. It appears likely to weaken further, beyond Watergate, the people's faith in their leaders and their government and to cripple President Nixon even more in his own recurring struggle to regain control of events.

In the aftermath:

Nixon appears more vulnerable, if only because the Agnew affair showed that even those at the zenith are not beyond the reach of prosecution.

Coming atop last summer's Eagleton affair, the Agnew case focuses attention again on a weak link in the democratic structure, the casual manner by which presidential nominees are given near absolute power to dictate the selection of their running mates for self-serving purposes and under the most frantic of circumstances.

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Even though Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson argued that it demonstrated how the American system within carries a self-correcting capacity, the Agnew case probably strengthened the widespread conviction that politics attracts dirty practitioners.

For some, it raises questions over whether there exist two standards of justice, one for the powerless and one for the strong. Accused in 40 detailed pages of having pocketed well over $85,000 in kickbacks, Agnew was given lighter punishment than others get for stealing a car.

Richardson insisted on one condition in the deal struck between Agnew and the Justice Department. He demanded publication of a full accounting of the evidence against the vice president.

The result was a document which says that one of Agnew's first acts as governor of Maryland in 1967 was to establish a method of systematic extortion from consulting engineers awarded government contracts.

On the July night in 1968 that Richard Nixon, risen from the politically dead, won nomination for the presidency, he did not know whom he would select as a running mate. Most counseled that he pick a liberal, like Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, to pacify the moderates of his party.

But Nixon, knowing what sort of campaign he intended to wage, sought someone acceptable to the South.

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"I know Ted Agnew well," he told reporters the next day, after he had shocked the convention with his decision.

"We have had long and tough discussions," he said. "We have examined each other's ideas, debated issues and tested each other. He has real depth and genuine warmth.

"Having watched his performance as governor of Maryland for two years, I was deeply impressed by his tremendous brain power, great courage and unprejudiced legal mind. He has vigor, imagination and above all he acts. Under pressure, he is one of the best poised and controlled... he has the attributes of a statesman of the first rank."

Spiro T. Agnew was born in Baltimore, son of a Greek immigrant who lost his restaurant in the Depression and was reduced to peddling vegetables from a truck. Spiro studied chemistry for two years; saw combat in Europe in World War II, and returned to study law at nights.

A Republican lawyer advised him to get out of the crowded Democratic Party if he was politically ambitious. For his work in Republican campaigns, he was rewarded with appointment to the zoning board in rapidly growing Baltimore County.

A Democratic split opened the way to his election as county executive, highest office in the county of 600,000. When his four-year term ended, the Democrats had reunited and his chances of reelection looked slim. So, he shot higher.

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A three-way split in the Democratic gubernatorial primary left perennial office-seeker George P. Mahoney, with the slogan, "Your Home is your Castle - Protect It," as the Democratic candidate for governor in 1966. By contrast, Agnew was the moderate candidate. He won 90 per cent of the vote in Baltimore's Negro wards.

In office, he worked easily with the Democratic-dominated legislature. He kept a clean desk, delegated power easily and spent a few afternoons a week on the golf course. He started a "draft Rockefeller" movement for 1968, and was embarrassed when the New Yorker renounced presidential ambition without first notifying his enthusiastic booster in Annapolis. Within weeks, Nixon contacted Agnew.

Agnew's legal troubles arrived within a month of the second inauguration and at the very moment his advisers were debating whether Agnew, untainted by Watergate, would be hurt or helped politically in 1976 if he went to the aid of the beleaguered president.

In February, Agnew said later, he first picked up "rumors in the cocktail circuit" that a federal grand jury in Baltimore was investigating his past. He hired a lawyer.

In early summer, Agnew discussed the investigation with Nixon. So did Richardson. On Aug. 2, Agnew received a letter from prosecutor George Beall asking for his cooperation, but reminding him of his rights against self-incrimination.

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The grand jury in Baltimore had started looking into dealings between contractors and Agnew's Democratic successors, but it soon stretched back to cover Agnew's tenure.

According to the "exposition of evidence" which Richardson made part of the court record, witnesses before the grand jury testified that Agnew, shortly after taking office as governor, told his old friend, I.H. Hammerman, a wealthy businessman, "that it was customary for engineers to make substantial cash payments in return for engineering contracts with the state of Maryland."

Hammerman then informed Jerome B. Wolff, Agnew's road commissioner. Wolff agreed to shake down contractors, but wanted the kickbacks split in three equal shares. Agnew, the document says, insisted that he get half, with the other half split between the other two. They consented.

On Aug. 6, aware that news of the investigation was about to be published in the Wall Street Journal, Agnew astonished news agencies by having a brief statement telephoned to them.

It said he was under investigation, but innocent of wrongdoing and confident that the American system of justice would vindicate him.

Two days later, Agnew denounced as "damned lies" published stories about him. He vowed he would not resign.

On Aug. 14, he agreed to cooperate with Beall. On the 18th, he denounced "leaks" about him and demanded Richardson punish those responsible.

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The White House gave Agnew lukewarm support. On Sept. 5, Nixon expressed confidence in Agnew's integrity "during the period that he has served as vice president."

Eight days later, at the behest of J. Fred Buzhardt, special counsel to the president, "plea bargaining" talks began between the Justice Department and Agnew's lawyers.

But they subsequently broke off, apparently because the government was insisting that Agnew plead guilty, rather than "no contest," to at least one charge. Beall's prosecutors wanted him to have to serve at least a day in jail.

Agnew played a next-to-last card. He asked the House of Representatives to take his fate out of the courts by agreeing to investigate him for possible impeachment. Speaker Carl Albert and the Democrats turned him down.

The final card was more successful. Agnew's lawyers raised the constitutional argument that a vice president is immune from indictment while in office.

The Justice Department, while in another case insisting that Nixon's Watergate tapes were constitutionally out of reach of the courts, was compelled to argue that the vice president was within the courts jurisdiction. It was awkward.

The government probably was motivated to swallow hard and compromise in the face of Agnew's moves and the prospect of what Richardson was later to call in court "the anguish and uncertainty of a prolonged period in which the man next in line of succession to the presidency was fighting charges brought against him by his own government."

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The pieces of the negotiated accommodation fell into place tearlessly in courtroom No.3 on the fifth floor of the old post office building in downtown Baltimore.

A Secret Service agent at each side, Agnew stood before Judge Walter E. Hoffman.

"You know that you should not execute a waiver of indictment unless you do so freely and without promise of reservation?"

"I do, your honor."

"What plea is entered on behalf of the defendant?" the judge asked one of Agnew's three lawyers.

"On behalf of the defendant, your honor, I enter a plea of nolo contendere."

"Is that your plea, Mr. Agnew?"

"That is my plea, your honor."

"It is the full equivalent of a plea of guilty," said the judge.

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