Spiro T. Agnew Resigns Vice Presidency in Disgrace Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Spiro T. Agnew was indicted for accepting bribes from contractors while he was Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland, and U.S. vice president. The specific charges included conspiracy, extortion, bribery, and tax fraud. To avoid a trial, he pleaded no contest to one charge of income tax evasion and resigned as vice president. Agnew’s resignation set in motion, for the first time in U.S. history, the provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Summary of Event

In 1973, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland, headed by George Beall, began investigating political corruption in Baltimore County, which had been experiencing the serious problem since 1963. In 1963, A. Gordon Boone, Democratic speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, had been convicted of mail Mail fraud;A. Gordon Boone[Boone] fraud involving a savings and loan scandal. During the mid-1960’s, several Baltimore County employees and asphalt suppliers were caught on payoff charges. In 1972, former U.S. senator Daniel Brewster was convicted of taking a bribe. [kw]Agnew Resigns Vice Presidency in Disgrace, Spiro T. (Oct. 10, 1973) Agnew, Spiro T. [p]Agnew, Spiro T.;resignation of vice presidency Bribery;Spiro T. Agnew[Agnew] Beall, George Richardson, Elliot Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Spiro T. Agnew[Agnew] Agnew, Spiro T. [p]Agnew, Spiro T.;resignation of vice presidency Bribery;Spiro T. Agnew[Agnew] Beall, George Richardson, Elliot Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Spiro T. Agnew[Agnew] [g]United States;Oct. 10, 1973: Spiro T. Agnew Resigns Vice Presidency in Disgrace[01460] [c]Corruption;Oct. 10, 1973: Spiro T. Agnew Resigns Vice Presidency in Disgrace[01460] [c]Government;Oct. 10, 1973: Spiro T. Agnew Resigns Vice Presidency in Disgrace[01460] [c]Politics;Oct. 10, 1973: Spiro T. Agnew Resigns Vice Presidency in Disgrace[01460] [c]Law and the courts;Oct. 10, 1973: Spiro T. Agnew Resigns Vice Presidency in Disgrace[01460]

Beall’s investigation initially targeted Democrats Mandel, Marvin Marvin Mandel, Spiro T. Agnew’s successor as governor of Maryland, and Dale Anderson, who followed Agnew as county executive. Beall assured U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials that the probe would not involve Agnew. Beall’s attorneys interviewed numerous Baltimore County employees and contractors and subpoenaed many documents. Prosecutors learned that Baltimore County employees received kickbacks from contractors who provided public services. The contractors secured their work by paying cash to those county agencies, usually around 5 percent of the value of a job. The contractors concealed the cost of the bribes by recording phony bonuses to employees. Faced with certain prosecution for income tax Tax evasion;Spiro T. Agnew[Agnew] evasion, bribery, and tax fraud, Maryland engineering and architectural executives began cooperating with Beall’s office in exchange for leniency.

In May, 1973, the Attorney’s Office discovered that Agnew had accepted substantial bribes while he was a Baltimore County executive, Maryland governor, and U.S. vice president. Agnew was not wealthy before assuming office and considered his salary too low. He believed that his public position required him to adopt a standard of living beyond his means and that his political ambitions compelled him to build a financially strong political organization.

I. Hammerman, I. H. H. Hammerman III, a Baltimore real estate developer and investment banker, and other witnesses, told prosecutors about Agnew’s involvement. The Attorney’s Office said it had evidence of cash arriving to Agnew under disguised names of “papers” and “information,” of a representative’s signal for payments by offering “congratulations,” and of a kickback-splitting arrangement with two of his closest friends. One contractor delivered ten thousand dollars cash in a sealed white envelope to Vice President Agnew. Agnew received bribes from consulting engineers, including Allen Green and Lester Matz, in exchange for business contracts. A financial institution gave him lucrative state bond issues.

In June, Beall gave newly appointed attorney general Elliot Richardson a preliminary report of the allegations against Agnew. Richardson encouraged Beall to pursue the investigation regardless of politics, government position, personal concerns, or professional apprehension. He was dismayed by the investigation’s implications after learning the amount of evidence the Baltimore prosecutors had against Agnew. They then told Richard Nixon what they had found. Nixon wanted Agnew confronted with all the evidence and at least twice asked the vice president to resign.

Beall hand-delivered to Agnew a confidential letter dated August 1, warning the vice president that he was under investigation for conspiracy, extortion, bribery, and tax fraud and gave him an opportunity to explain his actions to the U.S. attorney. The letter detailed how Agnew had collected graft from contractors as a county executive, governor, and vice president. Agnew refused to cooperate with Beall’s office, denouncing the investigation and proclaiming his innocence. He did not expect to be indicted and vowed not to resign.

Richardson, who assumed command of the probe, believed that Agnew’s misconduct warranted a prison term and realized that Agnew stood only a heartbeat from the presidency. Richardson could have demanded prison time but opted to clear the line for the presidency. The Agnew scandal came amid numerous public charges of political misconduct against the Nixon administration. Nixon’s own income tax returns were contested. The tide of the Watergate Watergate scandal Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Watergate[Watergate] scandal surrounding Nixon rose amid public disclosures on national television before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Grave accusations of criminal misconduct dogged Nixon’s former legal counsel. Some of Nixon’s closest former aides were indicted, while two former cabinet members faced trials on criminal charges. The U.S. Supreme Court, U.S.;and Watergate scandal[Watergate scandal] Supreme Court ordered Nixon to hand over the tapes of conversations dealing with many disputed points in the Watergate criminal scandal. After the tapes were released, Nixon resigned in August, 1974.

With Nixon’s future clouded, Richardson plea-bargained with Agnew to prevent him from becoming president. The DOJ and the Internal Revenue Internal Revenue Service;and Spiro T. Agnew[Agnew] Service had gathered incontrovertible evidence that Agnew evaded paying $13,551.47 in federal taxes in 1967. On October 10, Richardson released in federal district court a forty-page document citing overwhelming evidence that Agnew had accepted more than $100,000 in bribes and kickbacks. Agnew’s attorneys and DOJ officials worked out a plea agreement for Agnew’s resignation. Agnew reluctantly accepted the terms and resigned as vice president the same day. His decision appeared based on personal rather than political or historical considerations. Nixon considered Agnew’s plea bargain advisable “to prevent a protracted period of national division and uncertainty.” Several of Agnew’s coconspirators received prison sentences. Federal prosecutors later indicted and convicted Baltimore County executive Anderson, Anne Arundel County executive Joseph Alfino, and Maryland governor Mandel on related corruption charges.

Also on October 10, Agnew walked into a federal courtroom in Baltimore and pleaded guilty to income tax Tax evasion;Spiro T. Agnew[Agnew] evasion. Judge Walter Hoffman fined Agnew ten thousand dollars and sentenced him to three years unsupervised probation. Agnew vehemently refuted the government’s allegations, except income tax evasion, but wanted to avoid a prolonged struggle before the courts or U.S. Congress. He firmly believed that the public interest required swift resolution of the case. Agnew denied accepting cash kickbacks from contractors while serving as county executive, governor, and vice president, and he insisted that Maryland state contracts were issued only to those qualified to perform the work. He denied that payments influenced his official actions or that he had enriched himself at public expense.

On October 15, Agnew told a national television audience that he resigned to restore confidence and trust to the vice presidency and insisted that he had done no wrong. Agnew blamed Nixon for his downfall, claiming the president sacrificed him to appease his Watergate Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Watergate[Watergate] Watergate scandal;and Spiro T. Agnew[Agnew] critics. Agnew’s resignation set in motion, for the first time, the provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, under which the president needed to nominate a successor subject to a confirmation by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Nixon named Republican representative Gerald R. Ford, Gerald R. Ford of Michigan as Agnew’s replacement.

Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, center, leaves court in Baltimore, just before resigning his office.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Agnew withdrew from politics, resided in Rancho Mirage, California, and Ocean City, Maryland, and brokered business deals for an international clientele. He continued to live and travel in style, seemingly flaunting the plea bargain terms and exhibiting no remorse. In May, 1974, the Maryland Court of Appeals disbarred Agnew. Seven years later, he was ordered to pay the state of Maryland $268,482 to cover the illegally earned kickbacks and interest. A civil court in 1981 determined that Agnew had solicited $147,000 in bribes while county executive and state governor, $17,500 of which he received as vice president.

Impact

Agnew became only the second U.S. vice president to resign and the only vice president forced out of office because of legal problems. Calhoun, John John Calhoun had resigned the vice presidency in December, 1832, because of a political split with President Andrew Jackson. The Agnew case proved that no U.S. citizen, including the vice president, is above the law. It also added fuel to the fire that was the Nixon administration, ensuring, in a way, his boss’s demise as well. The Nixon case, too, proved that no U.S. citizen is above the law. Agnew, Spiro T. [p]Agnew, Spiro T.;resignation of vice presidency Bribery;Spiro T. Agnew[Agnew] Beall, George Richardson, Elliot Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Spiro T. Agnew[Agnew]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Agnew, Spiro T. Go Quietly . . . or Else. New York: Morrow, 1980. Agnew’s memoir, in which he continues to press his innocence. The book’s title reportedly is a reference to a comment made by Alexander M. Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff, who Agnew said had planned to assassinate him if he refused to resign. Haig allegedly told him “to go quietly . . . or else.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beall, George. “A Prosecutor Remembers: Agnew’s Fall.” Baltimore Sun, August 3, 2003. The U.S. attorney who prosecuted Agnew discusses his role in the case against the vice president.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Richard M., and Jules Witcover. A Heartbeat Away: The Investigation and Resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. New York: Viking Press, 1974. An excellent study of Agnew’s fall from grace, relying on clear, pointed recollections of numerous firsthand witnesses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Elliot. The Creative Balance: Government, Politics, and the Individual in America’s Third Century. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1976. Richardson, the U.S. attorney general during the Agnew affair, discusses his role in the plea bargain that led to Agnew’s resignation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Witcover, Jules. White Knight: The Rise of Spiro Agnew. New York: Random House, 1972. An excellent, authoritative biography of Agnew by a veteran Washington, D.C., newspaper correspondent. Written before Agnew’s resignation.

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