There are countless presidential scandals in U.S. history, but very few of them have resulted in resignation or impeachment — which is precisely why MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was drawn to the story of Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's first vice president, who resigned in 1973.
Maddow notes there are many misconceptions concerning the former vice president — including the notion that his "big sin" centered on taxes.
"When I tried to sort of thumbnail in my mind what happened in the Agnew resignation, everything I thought about it was wrong," she says. "I had assumed that it was a Watergate-adjacent scandal, that the FBI was looking into Watergate-related crimes and they stumbled upon something in Spiro Agnew's taxes. ... All of those things were completely wrong."
Maddow and her former producer Mike Yarvitz created the podcast Bag Man to revisit Agnew's story. Though his resignation was officially linked to tax evasion, they say that Agnew had engaged in bribery that dated to the early 1960s, when, as Baltimore County executive, he demanded kickbacks in exchange for local engineering or architecture contracts. He continued the practice even after being elected governor of Maryland in 1967 and then vice president in 1969.
"He ... started that scheme in local politics and then he carried it right into the White House," Yarvitz says. "The men who were sort of streaming into his office at the White House were paying him money for contracts they had gotten in Maryland, and in some cases, he was trying to influence the awarding of federal contracts."
After the Justice Department began looking into Agnew's dealings, the vice president tried to pressure the U.S. attorney in charge of the case to halt the investigation — a response Maddow likens to the current administration's reaction to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to the Trump campaign.
"The parallels with what was going on in the Nixon and Agnew administration 45 years ago to the efforts by the Trump administration right now ... is uncanny," Maddow says. "The Agnew story is really helpful to understanding the way the system works when it confronts bad behavior by people in high office. We are capable of dealing with that as a country in a way that makes us proud of the people who are in public office who are dealing with it."
On the bribery scheme Agnew was being investigated for
Mike Yarvitz: Essentially, it was a scheme that he had concocted when he was Baltimore County executive, where he realized that he had the power to award some local contracts for engineering and architecture and he could singlehandedly decide who got the contract. And what he put together was a scheme that predated his time in that office, but he would arrange with these local contractors, engineers and architects that they would get the contract and in return they would kick back to him something on the order of 3 to 5 percent of whatever they were making off of that contract. And these were kickbacks that were delivered to him in cash, often in an envelope that was just brought to him and handed to him directly. In many cases he used a "bag man" as part of this scheme.
And it was a scheme that he started when he was Baltimore County executive that he then continued when he was governor of Maryland. Again, he used the state roads commissioner when he was governor, and basically it was a kickback scheme, it was a bribery and extortion scheme in which if you wanted a government contract in Maryland you would have to kick back money to Spiro Agnew. And it was brazen, and it was delivered in cash.
On how Agnew continued receiving bribes even after he became vice president
Yarvitz: When he was vice president he didn't have as much power to award contracts — that's a federal process. But when he became vice president he was still taking money for contracts that had ripened; essentially, that he had given out in Maryland as governor. So the men who were sort of streaming into his office at the White House were paying him money for contracts they had gotten in Maryland. And, in some cases, he was trying to influence the awarding of federal contracts — and he was successful in a number of cases at steering federal contracts to these businessmen in Maryland who wanted these jobs.
On unearthing recordings that revealed Agnew's secret plan to shut down the investigation into his bribery and extortion scheme
Yarvitz: An interesting part of us digging into this story was looking through the Nixon White House recordings, and obviously those recordings have been very picked over as it relates to Watergate, but not as picked over as it relates to the Agnew scandal. And what we found as we were listening through the recordings was this effort that Spiro Agnew developed behind the scenes with Richard Nixon and with [White House chief of staff] H.R. Haldeman and other White House officials, to try to shut down this investigation that was being led by the U.S. attorney in Maryland, a man named George Beall. And the way that Agnew tried to do it was by getting to George Beall's brother, who was a sitting Republican senator from Maryland named Glenn Beall. And what you hear in these tapes is this really elaborate plan that Spiro Agnew is discussing in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon and others to basically get to this Republican senator behind the scenes and have him essentially get word to his brother to shut down this investigation. ...
This was an obstruction effort that the prosecutors at the time didn't know about, and one of the surprising and amazing things to us as we were putting together this podcast was that even 45 years later they weren't aware of it. So their reaction now, to hearing about this effort to obstruct and end their investigation, it was a revelatory moment in putting together this podcast, which is that they were completely unaware, and the reason that they were is because ultimately the obstruction effort didn't work. George Beall, their boss, the U.S. attorney, was getting that pressure from his brother and he shut [the pressure] down. He didn't let it get to his federal prosecutors who were working on the case.
On the dilemma the country was facing, with two separate criminal investigations going on into both the president and the vice president
Rachel Maddow: I mean, theoretically, what that could have resulted in is Nixon leaving office or being forced from office because of the criminal scandal that was Watergate, him being succeeded immediately by a vice president who was under a completely separate criminal investigation, who was then also forced from office, relatively quickly, because of that same sort of criminal liability that his predecessor had faced — at that point would [a President Agnew] have even had a chance to nominate a new vice president who would then be confirmed by the Senate, who would then succeed him? Would you end up with the Democratic speaker of the House ascending to the presidency because all of these dominoes were falling too quickly for the line of succession to be restored fully? I mean, the prospect of the chaos at the top of the federal government was just unparalleled.
On why Agnew ended up being charged with only one count of tax evasion and served no time in prison
Maddow: It was Elliot Richardson, the attorney general, who decided that the priority could not be individual justice for Spiro Agnew, the criminal. The priority could not be Agnew being put in jail. It was Richardson who decided the priority for the country had to be Agnew out of the line of succession. That the most important and in fact the unitary goal of this prosecution, of this entire revelation these prosecutors had come to about Agnew, the unitary goal of it had to be his removal from office. He had to no longer be vice president, because that was more important to the country than whether or not he faced individual justice.
On the prosecutors grappling with the question of whether a vice president could be indicted
Maddow: The Office of Legal Counsel ... produced a sort of strange memo which said, "Well, the president can't be indicted, but the vice president can." Sort of an odd duck, that memo. But on the basis of that opinion, the attorney general and these prosecutors went to Agnew's legal team and said, "Hey, we can indict you and we intend to, and what do you have to trade for that?" And those negotiations went on for a long time, and they were complex and important but ultimately the deal that was reached was that Agnew would only have to plead no contest to one count. He wouldn't do any jail time, but he would have to resign immediately. ... He pled to tax evasion, but he didn't plead guilty; he pled no contest.
Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Dana Farrington adapted it for the Web.