George Washington University law professor John F. Banzhaf III teaches a “unique world-famous course—’Legal Activism’—where students learn to become public interest lawyers by bringing their own legal actions.” He’s been doing some version of this course since the 1970’s, and there is now a long list of victories.
He and his students are widely known for bringing hundreds of innovative public interest legal actions including one of the leading Supreme Court environmental law suits, forcing the Cosmos Club to admit women, persuading the FTC to require “corrective advertising,” preventing dry cleaners from charging women more than men to launder their shirts, suing Spiro T. Agnew to recover the bribes he received, safety standards for school buses, clearer warnings on birth control pills, smoke detectors in airplane lavatories, auto bumper standards, new police procedures for dealing with wife beaters, the end to a scheme to defraud veterans, greater roles for blacks on television, clearer labeling of foods, and many other victories.
The Spiro Agnew case was launched in 1976. On April 28, 1981, the New York Times reported on their victory.
A Maryland judge ruled today that, despite his years of denials, Spiro T. Agnew took thousands of dollars in bribes from contractors while he was Governor of Maryland and Vice President.
The judge then ordered Mr. Agnew to repay the state $147,500 in kickbacks, with interest of $101,235, for a total of $248,735, money that Judge Bruce C. Williams of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court held ”belongs to the people of Maryland.”
Agnew appealed the case twice, both times unsuccessfully, and in 1983 he wrote a check for $268,482 to Maryland State Treasurer William S. James.
In truth, Agnew’s corruption scheme predated his term as the governor of Maryland. It began after his 1962 election as the executive of Baltimore County. Unfortunately for Agnew, the corruption in Baltimore County continued unabated and spurred a 1973 investigation by U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland George Beall. Mr. Beall quickly uncovered evidence of Agnew’s crimes.
What happened next should look pretty familiar and be of great interest to people who are wondering what’s next for President Trump.
Much like how Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen became a cooperating witness after his offices were raided, the government secured the cooperation of a witness who was eager to provide evidence against Agnew.
Agnew had not been county executive since December 1966, and any misdeeds done then would be past the statute of limitations. As part of the investigation, Lester Matz’s engineering firm was served with a subpoena for documents, and through his counsel he sought immunity in exchange for cooperation in the investigation. Matz had been kicking back to Agnew five percent of the value of contracts received through his influence, first county contracts during his term in Towson, and subsequently state contracts while Agnew was governor.
When Agnew got wind of the fact that a U.S. Attorney was poking around in his past, he attempted to use the Attorney General to cover his tracks and sought assurance that he was not personally under investigation.
In February 1973, Agnew heard of the investigation and had Attorney General Richard Kleindienst contact Beall. The vice president’s personal attorney, George White, visited Beall, who stated that Agnew was not under investigation, and that prosecutors would do their best to protect Agnew’s name.
However, there were documents that verified Agnew’s corruption and the witness was willing to testify that he had continued making payments to Agnew even after he assumed the vice-presidency. He also said he could provide proof of this.
In June, Matz’s attorney disclosed to Beall that his client could show that Agnew not only had been corrupt, but that payments to him had continued into his vice presidency. These later payments would not be barred by the statute of limitations; Agnew could be prosecuted. On July 3, Beall informed the new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and at the end of the month Nixon, through his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, was informed. Agnew had already met with both Nixon and Haig to assert his innocence.
As with Michael Flynn, Agnew had not been honest when confronted by the president’s chief of staff and before long the word came down that he was actually a target of the investigation.
On August 1, Beall sent a letter to Agnew’s attorney, formally advising that the vice president was under investigation for tax fraud and corruption. Matz was prepared to testify that he had met with Agnew at the White House and given him $10,000 in cash. Another witness, Jerome B. Wolff, head of Maryland’s road commission, had extensive documentation that detailed, as Beall put it, “every corrupt payment he participated in with then-Governor Agnew”.
With his denials no longer operative, Agnew at first attempted to stick to his guns and attacked the investigation.
Richardson, whom Nixon had ordered to take personal responsibility for the investigation, met with Agnew and his attorneys on August 6 to outline the case, but Agnew denied culpability, saying the selection of Matz’s firm had been routine, and the money campaign contributions. The story broke in The Wall Street Journal later that day. Agnew publicly proclaimed his innocence and on August 8 held a press conference at which he called the stories “damned lies”.
His next gambit was an effort to use his office as a shield from prosecution while accusing the Department of Justice of acting improperly by engaging in leaks. He also held his own version of a MAGA rally in an effort to shore his support with the Republican base.
Under increasing pressure to resign, Agnew took the position that a sitting vice president could not be indicted and met with Speaker of the House Carl Albert on September 25, asking for an investigation. He cited as precedent an 1826 House investigation of Vice President John C. Calhoun, who was alleged to have taken improper payments while a cabinet member. Albert, second in line to the presidency under Agnew, responded that it would be improper for the House to act in a matter before the courts. Agnew also filed a motion to block any indictment on the grounds that he had been prejudiced by improper leaks from the Justice Department, and tried to rally public opinion, giving a speech before a friendly audience in Los Angeles asserting his innocence and attacking the prosecution.
Walter Dellinger served as head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel and as acting U.S. solicitor general during Bill Clinton’s administration. He points out in Monday’s Washington Post that Agnew had one genuinely powerful card to play.
President Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate scandal was simultaneously exploding, and Nixon seemed to be imploding. If Watergate took down the president, it was imperative that Agnew be out of the line of succession. The urgency of the situation, and the imperative to avoid having a corrupt felon take over the presidency, gave Agnew enormous bargaining power. And he used it.
As the likelihood that Nixon would be removed from office increased so, too, did the need to get Agnew out of the line of succession. Knowing this, Agnew was able to strike a shockingly lenient deal in which he would plead no contest to a single year of tax evasion, pay a $10,000 fine, and receive three years of unsupervised probation.
On October 9, 1973, Agnew informed Nixon that he would resign. The next day he appeared in federal court in Baltimore and entered his plea. It was his last day as the nation’s vice-president. Nixon followed him out the door ten months later.
In his post-political career Agnew began an international consultancy that in retrospect seems like a precursor of the work Roger Stone and Paul Manafort would begin in the mid-1980’s.
To earn his living, he founded a business consultancy, Pathlite Inc., which in the following years attracted a widespread international clientele. Describing his business methods, Agnew said: “I have one utility, and that’s the ability to penetrate to the top people.” One deal concerned a contract for the supply of uniforms to the Iraqi Army, involving negotiations with Saddam Hussein and Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania.
For his part, Nixon continued to defend Agnew.
… Nixon claimed that he had had no direct role in the processes that had led to Agnew’s resignation and implied that his vice president had been hounded by the liberal media: “He made mistakes … but I do not think for one minute that Spiro Agnew consciously felt that he was violating the law”.
Perhaps history never repeats itself, but it certainly seems to rhyme, and we can see many parallels between Agnew’s case and the current investigations against President Trump. Wired magazine now numbers seventeen separate lines of inquiry that at least marginally implicate the president. And we are again discussing many of the same issues. Can the president be indicted while in office? How do we treat the statute of limitations on his crimes? Has the president committed tax fraud? Has he improperly received donations and other political favors in return for official acts and changes in U.S. policy? Did the president attempt to suborn obstruction of justice by improperly trying to influence high-ranking members of the Department of Justice?
Other methods are recognizable, too. At first, the president tried to hide behind the fact that he wasn’t officially considered a target of the investigation. Now Trump relentlessly attacks the investigators, accusing them of leaking and of bias. He holds rallies before his loyalists, decrying his treatment.
Perhaps the ultimate solution here will be similarly recognizable. Rather than engage in a prolonged impeachment process that will humiliate congressional Republicans and put them in an impossible position, they might convince Trump that he can face a less uncertain and perilous future by copping a lenient plea in return for stepping down.
If Trump does not win reelection, he will discover that the statute of limitations has not run out on many of his crimes. Does he really want to deal with that prospect?
I suspect that the best solution for all involved here will be a voluntary end to his presidency. He still has that bargaining power today, but it may vanish once Robert Mueller divulges what he’s learned.
In a few years, maybe Prof. Banzhaf’s students can get us some of the restitution we all deserve.