The Under-Discussed Corruption Scandals Between 1961-2016

Each corruption scandal included much greater harm to Americans than just a few people in power getting rich.
President Richard Nixon and President Ronald Reagan (Official Photos)

President Richard Nixon and President Ronald Reagan (Official Photos)

The previous four articles in this Rantt series on political corruption have demonstrated that Republican administrations have been significantly more corrupt than Democratic administrations, that there are reasonable hypotheses to explain this reality, that there are multiple agencies within the government tasked with investigating and responding to corruption, and that the Mueller investigation is an efficient example of this work. This article offers a few further reflections on US political corruption during the last 56 years, and its impact.

In her 1999 book, The Corruption of American Politics, journalist Elizabeth Drew writes,

I use the words “dangerously low” not out of any overblown hysteria but because such low trust <of government> during good economic times suggests that something serious has been at work on the public’s attitude. Lack of trust creates the risk of susceptibility to demagoguery, or of abuses of the democratic process.

The situation has worsened considerably, but precedents abound.

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Reflecting On Corruption

There are many more questionable practices than ever turn into indictments. There were many resignations, firings, as well as pardons for practices that ranged from stupid to outright criminal where no one was indicted or went to trial. Many cases are simply: Mr. X’s conduct was revealed, Mr. X resigned.

In her May 30, 2018 broadcast, Rachel Maddow calls having a government position a “Get out of jail free” card. Prosecutors decide that a negotiated resignation is an easier, less expensive, and offers a more assured result than indictment and trial. Some cases lead to indictments, convictions, punishments. Other egregious violations of public trust end with the target of investigation cashing in their “get out of jail free” card.

Of course, some practices that bring down a public figure would never draw attention to that person if they were not a public figure. In this sense, perhaps the “Get out of jail free” card is sometimes fair. Does it, therefore, sometimes outweigh that quaint old notion that those in public service should be held to a higher standard?

Brief visits to the scandal landscapes of George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan give context to our current challenges.

George W. Bush Administration – a few memories

There were so many Bush 43 scandals. Wikipedia lists 36, such as outing CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson as revenge against her husband; the Abramoff bribery scandal; the Yellowcake forgery; paying journalists for good press; the Bernard Kerik affair; Lawyergate; NSA warrantless surveillance… just getting started. Of course, the greatest impact was the drummed up Iraq invasion with 155,000+ civilian dead, more than 4500 US war dead, and $3 trillion estimated costs. Even this list pales compared to SourceWatch’s details on the Bush Presidency. By comparison Wikipedia lists only seven Obama era scandals. (If you also believe in alien invasions or the universe and all in it were created in six Earth days, you can find sources for many more Obama scandals.)

Here is a Bush 43 White House email scandal that is… amusing.

The Bush White House (including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Senior Advisor Karl Rove, Chief of Staff Andrew Card and 84 others) used Republican National Committee web servers for the majority of their emails. In the investigation that unfolded, 51 of the staff could produce no emails required by Congress. Congress requested as many as 5 million emails that were unavailable, lost or deleted. It was later reported that as many as 22 million emails were lost by the Bush administration. This affected Congressional oversight and investigation of Bush scandals including the Valerie Plame Wilson leak, lies leading up to the Iraq War, and the firing of US Attorneys. All of this was long after enactment and in clear violation of the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

How quickly we forget the good old days. Lock her, him, them, whoever up.

Now everyone has learned the lesson. Mr. Trump campaigned on Hillary’s emails: “lock her up” was not ambiguous. Which is why the private emails and WhatsApp messages of White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, and the private server emails of Ivanka Trump, and the unsecured phone of the Commander in Chief must – just must! – be totally different with absolutely no national security implications. Must be.

Richard M. Nixon – sundry observations

Watergate was only part of the Nixon corruption.

People in the Nixon orbit, such as Jack Caulfield and Alfred Baldwin, initiated and carried out “dirty tricks” such as bugging of “enemies” communications, spying etc. They were never indicted. Nixon press people talked about false stories in ways that would feel very normal (and still creepy) in the 2017-2019 context. Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, said such things as “third-rate alleged burglary attempt,” “shabby journalism” “character assassination”. DeVan Shumway, press spokesperson at the Committee to ReElect the President, said of the Watergate story that was unfolding and press treatment: “not only fiction, but a collection of absurdities,” “I cannot believe these allegations to be anywhere near the truth,” “a star chamber proceeding,” and the charges were “outrageously false and preposterous . . . If the Times chooses to publish these unsupported statements, it will be a serious act of journalistic recklessness and irresponsibility.”

Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s Vice President, among many similar things, said: “There are people in our society who should be separated and discarded.” “Perhaps the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the government in Washington but in the studios of the networks in New York!” “An intellectual is a man who doesn’t know how to park a bike.” “Some newspapers dispose of their garbage by printing it.” “The criminal left belongs not in a dormitory, but in a penitentiary.”

However, demagoguery was not Spiro Agnew’s downfall. (It seemed to work all too well for him.) Investigated for conspiracy, extortion, bribery and tax fraud, he pleaded guilty to felony tax evasion, resigned the Vice Presidency – and avoided jail time.

The criminal right belongs not on a golf course, but in a penitentiary.

Bagman, Rachel Maddow’s 7-part podcast, recalls Spiro Agnew’s crimes committed in the White House, and before – and the White House tape-recorded involvement of the President, Richard Nixon; the Chairman of the Republican Party and future President, George H. W. Bush; and Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig, in conspiracy to obstruct justice in the matter of Spiro Agnew.

How many Nixon indictments and convictions were there? Various online sources said 76 indictments, 55 convictions, and 15 prison sentences. Others wrote, “69 government officials being charged and 48 being found guilty.”

We find eighty-five individuals and companies were indicted in the Nixon administration scandals, 78 convicted or pleaded guilty, and 24 had prison time. The full list is attached to the companion article GOP Admins Had 38 Times More Criminal Convictions Than Democrats, 1961-2016.

Corporations admitting illegal contributions (campaign finance law violations) to the Nixon campaign, which became part of the Watergate investigation, included:

  • American Airlines
  • American Shipbuilding
  • Ashland Oil Inc.
  • Ashland Petroleum Gabon Corporation
  • Associated Milk Producers
  • Braniff Airways
  • Carnation Company
  • Diamond International Corporation
  • Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company
  • Greyhound Corporation
  • Gulf Oil
  • LBC & W, Inc.
  • Lehigh Valley Cooperative Farmers
  • Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company
  • National By-Products, Inc.
  • Northrop Corporation
  • Occidental Petroleum Corporation
  • Phillips Petroleum Company
  • Ratrie, Robbins and Schweitzer, Inc.
  • Time Oil Corp Company

The Associated Milk Producers, Inc. (AMPI) contributed several hundred thousand dollars as part of a $2 million pledge to Nixon’s 1972 campaign to facilitate the administration raising milk price supports. Their goal was raising milk price supports by $100+ million, roughly $600 million in 2018 dollars, which became additional costs to taxpayers. Could one be pardoned for thinking this a Koch level of return on political investment?

It is worth recalling because the above list includes some of America’s most iconic blue-chip companies, with well-paid executives and Boards, and advised by first-tier law firms. These companies were breaking the law to tilt the playing field to their advantage – which has four possible results: 1) consumers pay more; 2) ordinary taxpayers pay more; 3) competition is harmed; and 4) regulations designed to protect the public, workers or the environment are weakened. Little more than a decade later, similarly powerful corporations were revealed by the FBI’s Operation Illwind to be corrupting Defense procurement during the Reagan administration.

Some investigations of the five special Nixon-era Watergate task forces did not result in indictments:

  • Antitrust issues regarding ITT, then a major corporation, were settled in ITT’s favor. Did a large ITT donation to the Nixon campaign affect that? No indictments. Nixon says in a tape, revealed long after the case, that it was a payoff.
  • Did mogul Howard Hughes bribe ($100,000) Richard Nixon through Nixon buddy Charles Rebozo? No indictments.
  • Did the Committee to ReElect the President (CRP, CREEP) and the National Hispanic Finance Committee, a CRP financial arm, attempt to use “the Government’s grant-making and contracting processes to obtain the support of members of the Spanish-speaking community for the President’s re-election”? No indictments.
  • Did campaign contributions have improper influence on government decisions in Justice Department antitrust matters, EPA enforcement proceedings, Price Commission and Cost of Living Council decisions, awarding of bank charters, decisions on airline routes and mergers, product safety standards, clemency? No indictments.
  • Were ambassadorial appointments paid for? Hint: Over $1.8 million (more than $11 million in 2018 dollars) 1972 campaign contributions were from persons holding Ambassador appointments. No indictments.

We never even knew, while Nixon was alive, that Presidential candidate Richard Milhous Nixon had sabotaged Vietnam War peace negotiations with back channel promises of a better deal for South Vietnam – prolonging the war, the deaths (estimated 21,000 American military, more than 500,000 Vietnamese, more than 100,000 Cambodians), and the injuries. One hopes there would not have been a presidential pardon for that.

And then there are the Clintons

Whitewater investigation. The Whitewater-Vince Foster-Madison Trust-Lewinsky investigation of Bill Clinton lasted 8 years 2 months. The findings were minimal. Still…. there are matters to consider before giving the Clintons a pass.

Two Watergate Independent Counsel (Kenneth Starr, 1998 and Robert Ray, 2000) reports to Congress included:

  • Referral to the Congress of findings relevant to possible impeachment and trial (and, arguably exceeding the Independent Counsel’s authority, advocating impeachment) for lying to a grand jury regarding Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and attempting to obstruct justice in a case brought against Clinton by Paula Jones.
  • Fully clearing President Clinton and Hillary Clinton of the original subjects of investigation: Whitewater, Madison Guarantee, White House Travel Office firings, the suicide of Vince Foster.
  • It leaves some doubt on others for which “insufficient evidence” to argue “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” was discovered. (Is there a time an investigation lasts or an amount of money spent investigating when all agree that “insufficient evidence” means unequivocally “not guilty”?)
  • A scathing critique that the Clinton White House resisted Independent Counsel efforts to obtain the information necessary to complete the investigation, and asserting that their resistance added years and millions of dollars cost to the investigation.

There were other Clinton administration investigations, including:

Espy investigation. Alphonso Michael (Mike) Espy was Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture, 1993-1994, and a 2018 Democratic candidate for the Senate in Mississippi. Donald Smaltz, Independent Counsel (Office of the Independent Counsel – OIC), brought indictments against Mike Espy and 19 other individuals and entities in an investigation that began in September 1994 and was closed in January 2001. The OIC also referred several matters, outside of its mandate, to the Justice Department and other jurisdictions. Smaltz’s Final Report lays out the history and concerns with public officials receiving gratuities from people or companies where their agency has power or influence. Here Smaltz gives two examples that raise eyebrows if not a whole lot of red flags:

When public allegations that Secretary Espy solicited and received gifts from agricultural interests he regulated first arose, the allegations raised a justifiable concern that Espy’s decisions were subject to improper influence. Did Espy’s receipt of more than $12,000 in gifts from Tyson Foods, Inc., the world’s largest meat and poultry processor, affect his decision on safe poultry handling label regulations that would have cost Tyson more than $30 million? Was the more than $14,000 that Sun-Diamond Growers of California, one of America’s largest agricultural cooperatives, spent to Espy’s benefit, a factor in his decision to support Sun-Diamond’s continued use of methyl bromide on its crops, notwithstanding the contrary recommendation of the Environmental Protection Agency? The American public should not have to entertain these questions, but Espy’s actions brought them front and center.

Ultimately, a jury found Secretary Espy not guilty of all charges, finding no connection between the gifts and the Secretary’s official decisions. The investigation did result in indictments and convictions. As Smaltz wrote:

In the end, it brought numerous indictments for unlawful gratuities, lying and concealment before federal agencies, fraud, and related offenses. These efforts resulted in 15 convictions (of which nine were concluded by pleas) and two successful civil prosecutions, although Espy himself was acquitted of all charges.

The list of gifts that Secretary Espy received is …interesting. If Scott Pruitt is ever indicted, perhaps a jury of his peers will also find him not guilty.

Cisneros investigation. An investigation into Clinton’s Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros understating to the FBI about payments to a mistress expanded to possible tax evasion. Cisneros resigned and eventually made a plea deal to a misdemeanor charge and fine. The investigation, however, lasted 9.3 years till August 13, 2004, when Barrett filed his report – or almost 10 and a half years till its publication was court cleared. Barrett sought to keep going to prove a Clinton administration cover-up. Others saw Barrett as hopelessly incompetent, completely out of bounds, and pursuing a case that never warranted it. In the end, the $21 million 10-year investigation produced only the Cisneros misdemeanor deal.

Oversight is fundamental, but politicization is very expensive.

President Clinton subsequently pardoned four people convicted as a result of the Whitewater investigations, nine people indicted as a result of the Espy investigation; and the one indicted as a result of the Cisneros investigation.

Mr. Trump has already made historically reeking pardons. That he’ll make more is a given. Want to wager that he will point to predecessors and claim it’s all the same?

Ronald Reagan

The Reagan administration had the biggest defense procurements scandal, and the incredibly dismal Iran-Contra affair, among other affairs. But a good place to end is with a small anecdote about a mostly forgotten scandal. A bad penny, to appropriately borrow a stale phrase, has a way of showing up. Here are the opening and closing paragraphs from a Los Angeles Times story (June 21, 1989) from the Reagan Housing and Urban Development scandal – a scandal about insiders, moving between government and business making fortunes at the expense of low-income families needing affordable housing.

WASHINGTON — A Republican political consultant acknowledged Tuesday that he used his influence to obtain a $43-million Department of Housing and Urban Development rehabilitation and rent-subsidy grant for a developer client, but he insisted that he acted “within the system.

The testimony by Paul Manafort …”

This LA Times story closes with:

Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) put it more bluntly, telling Manafort: “They could have cut out all this language and written: ‘The fix is in.’ “

In Conclusion

The government and people of the United States have a great armory of tools for fighting corruption and more crucially protecting democratic governance. The tools have never been perfect and there has been no golden age of universal respect, reverence and nonpartisan use of these tools. But the tools have been plentiful and redundant enough, and the people committed enough, that they have protected us while we have cared for them.

We are in a new environment. It is not without precedents, as this article highlights, but it is particularly dangerous. In the short term we are called to protect these tools against every assault. In the longer term, if we come through this time with our democracy intact, we will need to repair the damage done.

Sometimes wars and other awful events are unavoidable, or the good fight must be fought. Sometimes no particular corruption was present, just hubris and foolishness. Often, though, as reflecting on some of the examples in this article reminds us, corruption leads directly to deaths – as the 100s of thousands in the 2nd Iraq War, or the perhaps avoidable extension of the Vietnam War that is part of Nixon’s corruption legacy. Corruption results in higher prices for millions of consumers – for example, prescription drug prices. Corruption means polluters pollute. Corruption means tax dollars do not go where they can do some good, as in the Illwind and other fraudulent procurement schemes.

Political corruption is linked to the greatest challenges we face: the failure to address economic inequality; climate change denial and the sabotage of green alternatives; the devaluing of education; the attack on access to healthcare; the hatred of increased living wages; the erosion of workers’ protection and rights; the militarization of broader areas of civic life. Perhaps it is self-evident? If, as so many analysts fear, corruption is normalized by this Presidency, inevitably other functions of good governance and good community must fail.

This is the fifth article Rantt is publishing in this series:

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