Point to Point: Of Agnew, Surveyors and Kickbacks

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This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Spiro T. Agnew investigation, a probe that ended with his resignation as Vice President of the United States and his plea of nolo contendere to a charge of tax evasion in 1973. Agnew was a polarizing figure in American politics, whose meteoric rise took him from unknown county executive to Next-In-Line in less than six years. He is best remembered for his attacks on the press and on the political left, the turns of phrase he coined, and for his insistence (at least publicly) on a law and order society. He is also remembered as a man with his hand in other people’s pockets.

Bribes and kickbacks to politicians are nothing new, of course; for all his public posturing as a champion of the straight-and-narrow, Agnew apparently liked his palms greased as much as the next guy. But what is largely unknown (or forgotten) around the country, is that he was taking kickbacks from surveyors, engineers and architects, not rough-andtumble construction companies or developers. Surprised?

Spiro Who?
Ted Agnew was a product of modest means. Following his discharge from the Army after World War II, he wandered from job to job, attending law school at night. Upon graduation, he worked in various small law firms in the county seat of Baltimore County, hoping to get work from the explosion of development resulting from "white flight" out of Baltimore City. (Baltimore County nearly surrounds Baltimore City, but the two are separate political jurisdictions. Some estimates pin the drop in City population since 1945 at 40 percent–in other words, hundreds of thousands of people, and corresponding gains in the County.) Although raised a Democrat, Agnew switched parties so as to have less political competition, and he was appointed to a seat on the County Board of Appeals, hearing cases involving zoning and land use issues. In the meantime, his finances languished. After several years on the Appeals Board, a new County Executive dropped him from it, and he decided to run for County Executive himself.

Although they heavily outnumbered Republican voters at the time, in 1962 Baltimore County Democrats waged a vicious intramural fight with each other, the result of which was that the unlikely Republican (Agnew) squeezed into the County Executive’s chair.

Then the fun started. Chronically short of money, he complained to close associates that the pay from his public service was insufficient to maintain the outward appearances required of a County Executive. Who better to help rectify that situation than firms benefiting from the public till? At the same time, the principal of one of the local engineering/surveying firms, frustrated at being shut out of Baltimore County contracts, approached the newly elected County Executive to see if he could get some County work–and the rest, as they say, is history.

Agnew and close associates outside of government hatched a plan whereby architectural and engineering design contracts would cost 5 percent of the design fee as a kickback, while surveying contracts would cost 2.5 percent. Having little alternative, a number of county firms lined up for the privilege. The firm of that engineer/surveyor saw explosive growth. At the same time, those firms refusing to participate saw their County contracts dwindle.

Going Up
Maryland had traditionally been heavily Democrat, having only elected four Republican governors since the Civil War. By 1966, the County Democrat Party had mended its internal fences and the Republican County Executive had a slim chance of retaining his seat. In a strange twist of fate, the statewide Democrat vote for Governor was split deeply in two, as it had been in the county four years before, and the unthinkable happened: he jumped from County Executive to Governor. The kickback scheme implemented at the county level was reproduced statewide with the placement of one of the engineers central to the County plot as the Chairman of the State Roads Commission. Let the good times roll.

Thus began a more formal arrangement between Agnew, the new head of the State Roads Commission and a prominent real estate developer and confidant of the other two. Upon deciding which firms were in line to receive State Roads contracts, the State Roads Commissioner would inform the developer, who in turn would visit the offices of the firms in question (or arrange for them to visit him), and extort the money–cash only, no records. In time word got around that the real estate developer was the person to see when one sought state roads contracts. The developer suggested that the three split the kickback evenly, but Agnew insisted on getting half himself, with the other half being split by the other two. Having little choice, they acquiesced in the arrangement. The real estate developer kept Agnew’s share until the Governor asked for some money, and then would deliver the same in unmarked envelopes in the Governor’s mansion. The original engineer/surveyor, meanwhile, had discarded the practice of using the middlemen, and was delivering his cash payments directly to Agnew. Incredibly, he continued to do so even after Agnew had been elected Vice-President and had his office in the basement of the White House. At least one other engineer did the same. What were they thinking?

Some of the folks who paid off to get contracts insisted that the practice did not start (or stop) with Agnew, and the practice was not limited to Maryland. Greed knows no boundaries. We had a saying here in those days that "we had the best politicians money could buy." Even that wasn’t accurate, however. We had mediocre-to-poor politicians–and we paid for them in a number of ways.

So what did we learn? Politicians can rationalize corruption and consultants can (and will) play along with them, if the ends justify the means. Shame on us for assuming we’re above all that, and shame on them for thinking they’re worth it.

Joel Leininger is a principal of S.J. Martenet & Co. in Baltimore and Associate Editor of the magazine.

A 356Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE