EXCLUSIVE: How Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew ran America’s most brazen political scandal of bribery and extortion out of the White House – but it went unnoticed in the shadow of Watergate, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reveals in new book

  • Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz have new book, Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up & Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the WH
  • Vice President Spiro Agnew ran a bribery scheme that extorted businessmen for a fat cut of funds appropriated for public works projects
  • Agnew had practiced pay-for-play as a one-term governor in Maryland and continued running the undercover bribery and extortion scheme in Washington
  • Nixon named Agnew vice president in 1968 and greed, corruption and criminality infected both offices of the president and vice president 
  • Angew was not immune from prosecution, and signed a deal to plead no contest to tax evasion, pay a fine of $10,000 and serve no prison time 
  • He was forced to resign and years later wrote a book hat he bought a gun after learning that Nixon intended to send the CIA to assassinate him  
  • ‘This was a scandal so brazen that had it not occurred at the same time as Watergate, it would likely be remembered as the most astonishing and sordid chapter to visit the White House in any time’, write authors Maddow and Yarvitz 

The year was 1973 and one of the most brazen scandals in American history was being played out in the shadow of Watergate by a vice president directing a criminal enterprise from within the White House.

Greed, corruption and criminality had infected not only the office of President Nixon, but Vice President Spiro Agnew was running a full undercover bribery and extortion scheme that extorted businessmen for a fat cut of funds appropriated for public works projects.

The details of Vice President Agnew’s schemes are laid bare by MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz in their new book, Bag Man, The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House.

The authors write of the scandal, ‘It was the federal government for sale and there was no shortage of hot seats in Washington during Nixon’s second administration.’

Vice President Spiro Agnew ran a bribery and extortion scheme that extorted businessmen for a fat cut of funds appropriated for public works projects in the 1960s and 70s. He’s pictured announcing his resignation 

Nixon named Spiro vice president in 1968 and greed, corruption and criminality infected both offices of the president and vice president

Agnew had practiced pay-for-play as a one-term governor in Maryland and continued running the undercover bribery and extortion scheme in Washington where he got to work steering federal contracts to businessmen with the most cash.

As governor, he expected a kickback of three to five percent of county contracts and continued the corrupt scheme on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Bag Man, The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House is out Tuesday, 12/8

‘This was a scandal so brazen that had it not occurred at the same time as Watergate, it would likely be remembered as the most astonishing and sordid chapter to visit the White House in any time’, write authors Maddow and Yarvitz.

The cash payoff to Agnew was made in a white envelope stuffed with crisp one hundred dollar bills delivered by a ‘bag man’ to the vice president in his office in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House.

The ‘bag man’ was the ‘buffer between businessmen paying the cash kickbacks and the one receiving the monies.

He had only to call Agnew’s office and tell his secretary that he had ‘info’ for the vice president.

When it was hand delivered only to Agnew, the vice president put his index finger to his mouth motioning to not say a word while pointing to the ceiling where there might be a hidden bug.

Agnew then opened his top desk drawer and slipped in the envelope.

Baltimore, Maryland, was a county already riddled with crime when Spiro Agnew entered local politics as a county executive.

He was aggressive and word had gotten out in Baltimore that any engineering firms hoping to land big county projects had to ‘schmear Spiro’.

The game was pay-to-play.

The kickback was a move learned on day one of ‘gangster and corruption school: I make sure you get the contract, you then pay me (cash, please) a portion of what that contract is going to pay you. You win, I win, the taxpayers can suck it’.

Kickback bonus checks were paid out to the company executive who deposited it in his bank account. He then withdrew cash and paid off whoever was taking bribes for county or government projects.

Spiro T. Agnew, ‘Ted’ to his friends, was no career politician but the son of Greek immigrants who put him through law school after military service.

‘He was vociferously politically incorrect’, could play nasty and cared less who he offended.

That only made him more attractive to the Republican Party. 


Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz have new book, Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up & Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the WH

No one outside of Maryland knew who Agnew was and when he was chosen as Nixon’s vice president in 1968, it surprised everyone including Agnew himself as well as Republican party leaders

He had won one political race in his career and served as a Baltimore county executive from 1962-66.

No one outside of Maryland knew who Agnew was and when he was chosen as Nixon’s vice president in 1968, it surprised everyone including Agnew himself as well as Republican party leaders.

He had served a rather undistinguished term as governor and no one took notice until Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, sparking state riots.

Agnew called up the Maryland National Guard, 1,200 city police officers and 400 state troopers and when the lot of them weren’t able to quell the unrest, he turned to President Johnson and asked for 2,000 active duty U.S. Army soldiers.

With six dead, 5,000 in jail and Baltimore in flames, Agnew attacked black leaders for blaming others for the ills in their own community.

Inflamed black leaders declared he was ‘as sick as any bigot in America,’ ‘seriously ill’ and ‘playing a game called mental masturbation’.

With his bigoted tirade and ‘attack mode default setting’, Agnew appealed to the Republican conservative base and to Nixon.

Now that he was moving up in the party, he decided to take revenge on the fourth estate by stirring up hate campaigns and anti-Semitism.

He knew how to play nasty with confrontational taunts and lack of any filter against race and ethnicity – as well as suggesting that petty criminals should be shot.

Polish American voters were ‘Polacks’ and a Japanese American newspaper reporter was a ‘Fat Jap’.

He hardly cared and had built his political brand around the concept that ‘he was an outsider who had never been a card-carrying member of the patrician establishment’. 

It became a feature of his candidacy that he didn’t care who he offended and that only solidified his support even more with his Republican base.


 U.S. attorney George Beall (right), Barney Skolnik, and Ron Liebman (left)were assigned to investigate corruption cases full time, working with IRS agents

Attorney General Elliott Richardson was in the job for 39 days and now overseeing criminal investigations into Nixon and Agnew

Agnew was still simmering over the negative press he received as a candidate for the vice presidency.

‘I was governor of Maryland, the brightest governor in the East. Then Richard Nixon picked me as his running mate and the next morning I’m the dumbest son of a bi**h ever born’, Agnew whined.

‘Nixon, a man with a big resume and reputation for political genius and the tenacity of a rat terrier’ had served two terms as Eisenhower’s vice president and then ‘flop sweated his way through a debate’ with JFK in ’60’.

With the Watergate scandal simmering but about to explode and grabbing headlines with actual break-ins in 1972, Agnew was looking at a second term as vice president as well as front runner for the ’76 republican presidential nomination – if Nixon survived the heat in Washington.

Political corruption in New Jersey and Illinois captured headlines in the ’60s and ’70’s and was ‘yawn-inducingly common’ in Baltimore County. But three prosecutors working out of the Justice Department’s Baltimore office – U.S. attorney George Beall, Barney Skolnik, and Ron Liebman were assigned to investigate corruption cases full time, working with IRS agents.

They were looking for pools of corruption cash pocketed by local elected officials who awarded construction contracts to engineering and architectural firms.

Agnew came up as ‘the last man holding the job that prosecutors were discovering was a hive of corruption’.

And he was starting to sweat.

Agnew was forced to resign and years later wrote a book hat he bought a gun after learning that Nixon intended to send the CIA to assassinate him

‘This was a scandal so brazen that had it not occurred at the same time as Watergate, it would likely be remembered as the most astonishing and sordid chapter to visit the White House in any time’, write authors Maddow and Yarvitz

Attorney General Elliott Richardson was in the job for 39 days and now overseeing criminal investigations into Nixon and Agnew.

Deep in the discovery of Watergate tapes and rumors that Nixon was drinking heavily and experiencing sudden chest pains, on learning of possible charges against his vice president of bribery, extortion and tax evasion, Nixon uttered, ‘Oh God’.

Agnew tried to shut down the investigation with Nixon’s help and the pair of them decided to tap George H.W. Bush to put the pressure on Beall’s brother, Senator George Beall to kill the probe.

Nixon desperately wanted Agnew out of the line of succession to the presidency but the Senator wasn’t responding to any pressure by Nixon despite the president’s help in getting him elected.

There are tapes that H.R. Haldeman secretly recorded daily while serving as Nixon’s right hand man that confirm that tap on Bush.

Nixon sent Agnew on a goodwill world tour and then watched in horror as Agnew turned that into a trip to the world’s finest fairways on taxpayer dollars.

‘He played golf every damn day,’ Nixon raged and even considered appointing Agnew to the Supreme Court just to get him out of the ascendancy – a clear sign that Nixon was out of his mind.

Agnew licked his wounds at Frank Sinatra’s spread in Palm Springs while the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division met with Nixon and recommended a prison sentence for his vice president for criminal bribery and extortion.

Agnew went on the attack accusing Justice of misconduct, leaking information to the press and successfully ‘turning the public gaze from his malfeasance to alleged malfeasance at Justice’.

The vice president was not immune from prosecution while in office as Agnew had attempted to establish and finally signed a plea deal with the federal government for no prison time, no mug shot and no fingerprints.

The charge – a single count of tax evasion if Agnew pleaded no contest. The fine was $10,000 and 3 years unsupervised probation. He was now a felon and forced to resign his office in disgrace. 

The vice president was not immune from prosecution, and signed a deal to plead no contest to tax evasion, pay a fine of $10,000 and serve no prison time. He was forced to resign in disgrace 

Years later, Agnew wrote in a book that he bought a gun after learning that Nixon intended to send the CIA to assassinate him with a fake suicide.

The authors write that it sounded cooler to say that and maybe sell more books.

Out of office, Agnew spent his money on mistresses, sports cars, expensive gifts, jewelry and traveled with 21 secret service agents costing the taxpayer $45,000 a month.

After burning through any monies from golfing pal Sinatra, he turned to Prince Fah’d of Saudi Arabia, and proposed that the crown prince support him in a campaign against the American Jew.

Still simmering, he called it ‘unremitting Zionist efforts to destroy me’ and claimed there was a Jewish conspiracy ‘to bleed me of my resources’.

All he was asking for from Fah’d was a cool $200,000 a year for three years.

That request made him an American anti-Semite for hire.

Out of the game and running out of money and still whining about never being paid enough, Agnew bought a house in Ocean City, MD where he died in 1996. 

‘The upside of the story is the determined young federal prosecutors who uncovered the crimes of a politician at the very top, and faced down a torrent of threats to their persons and to their investigation and refused to stop until the truth emerged’.

‘If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because history really is here to help’, conclude Maddow and Yarvitz. 

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