The Rise and Fall of Spiro T. Agnew

“The mere happening of an accident does not justify an inference of negligence,” said the handsome, six foot-plus, strong-voiced adjunct professor of Tort Law at the University of Baltimore Law School. It was in the Fall of 1961. I was in my first year of law school. Spiro T. Agnew was one of my instructors.

Agnew was scholarly, imposing, immaculately dressed and prepared for every class. At the time, he was an on-the-rise politico. I got the impression that he was very happy to have the teaching gig. I’m proud to say I got an “A” in that course.

As an aside, I was then a deputy clerk in the Baltimore City courthouse, living in an small apartment on Fort Avenue in Locust Point, with a wife and a child on the way. I got my job via the old-boys’ clubhouse politics. To that end, a tip of the hat to the efforts of the Southside City Councilman, the late Michael “Iron Mikc” McHale, and the then chair lady of the Maryland Censor Board, the one and only Mary Avara. Bless their memories.

Getting back to Agnew. He was a middle-of-the-road Republican and a soon to be the County Executive for Baltimore County, (1962-1966). By most accounts, he did a solid job in that position. Agnew’s many friends called him “Ted.”

Fortuitous political events were to catapult this son of a Greek-born father into the office of governor of the state of Maryland (1967-69). Then, just as quickly, into six years as Richard M. Nixon’s Vice President (1968-1973) – only a heart beat away from the presidency itself. As Veep, however, Agnew’s politics soon shifted to the Far Right side of the scale. He regularly castigated antiwar protesters and the liberal media as “Un-American.”

Enter Agnew’s mega-speed fall from grace! It ended in his total public humiliation. The Feds had compelling evidence that he had taken bribes from Maryland-based consulting engineers to secure state contracts when he was both a county executive and governor. The bribe-taking continued as Vice-President in the Executive Office Building, just down the street from the White House.

The U.S. prosecutor who brought Agnew down was the Hon. George Beall, then the U.S. Attorney for Maryland. Mr. Beall was a popular figure in local legal circles. He died recently, at age 79, on January 15, 2017, in Naples, Florida.

Agnew faced with the inevitable (read serious prison time) entered into “a deal” to resign from his office on October 10, 1973. He pled “no contest” to a charge of tax evasion before U.S. Judge Walter E. Hoffman and paid a $10,000 fine.

Agnew’s earth-shaking resignation took place in the then-Federal Court House in Baltimore, located at Calvert & Fayette Streets. I was then an Assistant City Solicitor, in City Hall, under Mayor William Donald Schafer. I’ve always regretted missing that historic proceeding, since I had a case in Annapolis on that day.

Rep. Gerald Ford (R-MI) took Agnew’s place as V.P. on December 6, 1973. When Nixon (“I’m not a crook!”) resigned because of the notorious “Watergate” scandal. Ford on August 9, 1974, became president.

(As the fates would have it, I met then-V.P. Ford at a Heisman Trophy Award dinner in NYC, on December 13, 1973. The awardee that year was John Cappelletti of Penn State. We shared our recollections about his former House of Representative colleague – the Baltimore legend – the late Rep. Edward Garmatz (3rd-D).)

Ponder this: But for the discovery of the sleazy bribery scandal, it would have been Agnew assuming the highest office in the land. It doesn’t come any closer then that.

Disbarred from the practice of Law, Agnew spent much of his later years either on the West coast or at his residence near Ocean City, MD. He reportedly made a living as a international business consultant. Supposedly, Agnew once told a confidant, that kickbacks have been “going on for a thousand years.” A poor excuse for sure for continuing a legacy of corruption.

Most of Agnew’s local cronies had long since abandoned him, including lawyers that he had appointed to the Bench. On the celebrity circuit, all of his former fair-weather buddies, many from Hollywood, took a hike, save one, the crooner – Frank Sinatra.

I also couldn’t help but notice how fast some were, whom Agnew had enriched with those under the table deals, “to rat him out,” in order to save their own hides. According to court records, his co-conspirators were: Lester Matz, Allen Green, Jerome B. Wolfe and I.H. Hammerman 2d. As a final indignity, Agnew was ordered, in 1981, to repay the state $248,735, the amount of the kickbacks, with interests, that he had pocketed in the scheme.

Agnew died in political exile on September 17, 1996, at the age of 78. He was a veteran of both WWII and the Korean War and deserves some credit for his service to the Republic. Agnew is buried in a cemetery located in Timonium, MD.

The tragedy of Agnew’s rise and fall has all the makings of a tale right out of Greek mythology. The Maryland Court of Appeal labeled his self-destructive behavior “morally obtuse.” It could be argued that the Fates had claimed in Agnew yet another victim of man’s insatiable ability to deceive himself.

The current administration of Donald Trump in Washington would do well to learn from Agnew’s fall from grace. Something tells me, they won’t.

Bill Hughes is the author of Baltimore Iconoclast