January 24, 2019
Article inspired by Rachel Maddow’ Podcast – Bag Man
You don’t need to dig too far in history to figure out that current political atmosphere, is a twin of the Nixon era. Spiro Agnew’ Watergate is the image of current government in Washington. If the name sounds unfamiliar, Spiro Agnew was Vice President to President Nixon during the Watergate saga that brought down the Nixon administration.
In the summer of 1973, Martin London an Attorney and partner with a law firm in New York, was following the Watergate troubles when he received a call to come and defend a mystery client in Washington. The client, who turned out to be Vice President Spiro Agnew, was facing allegations of criminal conspiracy, bribery, extortion, and tax fraud. Agnew took kickbacks from contractors during his time as a Baltimore County Executive and Governor of Maryland. The briberies continued into his time as Nixon’s VP.
The day the story broke that Agnew had received envelopes of checks, the press was all over it and had a new scandal after just pursuing the Watergate chaos involving President Nixon. When the announcement came that a Federal investigation targeting Agnew was about to go public, Agnew’s defense was to call it a bias of the Justice Department desperate to persecute him unfairly and indict him in the press, to influence the grand Jury investigation.
Agnew attacked the investigation as a “witch-hunt” by politically motivated bad actors inside the Justice Department. As part of his war on the Department, Agnew in 1973, tried to mount a defense at the Annual Convention of Republican Women where he disqualified the investigation, as he received support from the Republican base with some shouting “Spiro is my hero.” There was disdain for the press as crowd at the convention became angry at the news media for what they considered unfair target of Agnew.
The Vice President attacked the head of the criminal division of the Justice Department and accused the division of allowing the publication of false information. He said he would not resign if indicted since part of his strategy was to smear the investigation in an attempt to convince the Republican base that the Justice Department and the press were out to get him.
At first, his strategy of shaming the Justice Department and the press seemed to work. Immediately after the convention, Agnew received sympathetic letters from many in the Republican base encouraging him to fight and telling him that Democrats were after him because they could not deal with the election loss. As a result of the overwhelming support from Republicans in Congress, he decided to destroy the investigations by going after the investigators.
Agnew’s legal team took a radical step of pursuing the leaks by the press in the courts. Because some of the articles published contained details supplied by anonymous sources, they asked the court to force individual reporter to testify under oath about their sources. Ten subpoenas were issued to ten reporters to testify about the origin of their information. The purpose of the pressure was to get the Justice Department prosecutors and the press off the Vice President.
The reporters fought back, “free the Agnew ten” phrase was born as they defended themselves against the subpoenas, claiming that the American Press Corps was under attack. The prosecutors and the press doubled down on their investigations forcing Republicans in Congress to galvanize support in a desperate move to protect Agnew and President Nixon. They believed Agnew was being railroaded and as a result, they moved to cast doubts on the investigation.
As it turned out, Agnew was not only looking to get votes and support from his base, he was also involved in the obstruction of justice by using his position and power as Vice President to make the investigations go away.
In the fall of 1973, a Grand Jury began hearing evidence that could link the Vice President to criminal charges. There was now a possible indictment of Agnew. President Nixon and Agnew had discussed shutting down the criminal investigation of Agnew by then Attorney General of Maryland George Beall. They hatched a plan to get to the Attorney General through his brother Glenn Beall a United States Senator. The idea was if Glen could talk to George he’d straighten it out and end the investigation of Agnew. The move became part of the criminal scheme and the attempt to obstruct justice that ended the leadership of Nixon and Agnew.
Carl Albert, the Democratic Speaker of the House in 1973, found that the Nixon and Agnew case was only getting worse, which could imperil the Presidency. He realized he could become President and turned to Ted Sorensen to help draft a memo on becoming President if Nixon is impeached. The idea of having two criminal occupants of the White House was fast becoming a reality.
In September of 1973, it was clear Agnew wanted to be impeached after discussing with his Attorneys and seeing a possible indictment though, he claimed that even with evidence from the Justice Department, he could not be indicted as a sitting Vice President. The issue of indicting a sitting President was in discussion then and still today.
Throughout the investigations, President Nixon supported Agnew but later turned against him when he discovered his presidency was in jeopardy, while Agnew begged for his own impeachment. The disagreement between Agnew and the President marked a nasty chapter of the Nixon era. In fact, Agnew accused President Nixon of plotting to kill him. He said he believed Nixon might have him killed.
Attorney General Elliot Richardson would later offer Agnew what he wanted, his resignation from the Vice presidency. Agnew wanted no prosecution or jail time as condition for his resignation so, in a secret meeting at a motel in Virginia, Agnew reached an agreement with Richardson in the presence of prosecutors and the Judge assigned to the case.
In order to get him out of the Vice Presidency, Richardson gave in to jail time for Agnew. Agnew was later prosecuted for tax evasion and sentenced to probation without spending a day in jail. He also lost his pension and license to practice law. It was the first time in history that a sitting Vice President appeared in court, pled to a felony and resigned.
As the story of Spiro Agnew was unprecedented in 1973, we are living it all over again in 2019. We are in another session of unprecedented times of the Trump administration. The question asked then was whether a President or Vice President could be indicted, the same is asked today. Agnew’s defense Lawyers argued that he was immune from prosecution but yet he decided to cut a deal that led to his resignation. The question is why he pled guilty if truly immune from prosecution?
“Agnew paid a very high price,” George Beall said at the time. “He forfeited the second highest office in the land… it was an important lesson for him and for the country. And it seems to me the lesson bears repeating… we should not hide our shortcomings in the closet.” (The Washington Post Jan 18, 2017).
Perhaps Mr. Beall was right that the story “bears repeating,” if you think about the current political situations of obstruction of justice, witness intimidation and disrespect for the rule of law in Washington.
Adeyemi Oshunrinade is an expert in general law, foreign relations and the United Nations. He is the author of ‘Wills Law and Contests,’ ‘Constitutional Law-First Amendment,’ ‘Criminal Law-Homicide’ and ‘SAVING LOVE’ available on Amazon. Follow on Twitter @san0670.
Photos: Washington Times & The Atlantic