When Agnew Resigned

BACK TRACKS

October 06, 1991|By CARLETON JONES

The narrow monument park bounded by Lexington, Fayette and Calvert streets in downtown Baltimore has long been known as Court Square, named for the courthouses that flank it.

Here two centuries of legal history have been made, from the days when the U.S. Supreme Court members rode a circuit to decide major cases to the present day. In these buildings the innocent and guilty plead for equal time.

One afternoon in the troubled month of October 1973, a drama was to be played out in the federal courthouse on the square's east side. It was a drama that will be noted in the history books as long as there is a Maryland and a Baltimore.

At 2:05 p.m. on Oct. 10, tight security was in force in the building. In one of the fifth-floor courtrooms, Spiro Agnew, vice president of the United States, resigned. He was in court to answer charges that he accepted contract kickbacks in 1967, when he was governor of Maryland. He denied committing any illegal acts, but admitted the acceptance of payments that were improperly reported on his income tax returns. In exchange, the government let him off the hook with a $10,000 fine.

A few minutes earlier, as required by law, the vice president's 14-word resignation was delivered to the office of the secretary of state in the White House.

In the nearly 200 years of the republic's existence, no vice president had ever resigned under a legal cloud. Only one -- John C. Calhoun -- had ever resigned. And he did it because he wanted to be a senator. Only one had ever gotten into serious legal trouble after his term of office. That was Aaron Burr.

Agnew's resignation followed one of the most furious weeks in the history of Maryland journalism. Virtually mountains of Maryland's political misdeeds were shoveled onto page one of the nation's newspapers. In such an environment, it was only a minor revelation that President Richard Nixon had paid income taxes of less than $1,000 for 1970 and 1971 while pocketing a $151,000 refund, according to a Rhode Island newspaper. Likewise, little interest was raised by an admission that Helen Delich Bentley, as federal maritime commissioner, had served as the conduit for a $20,000 campaign donation for Richard Nixon raised by shipping interests.

The scandal around Agnew began gathering force on Oct. 2 with the vice president insisting he wouldn't resign, a stance Nixon said was "altogether proper." A news photo early that week showed the vice president playing golf in sunny Palm Springs, Calif. A scant 48 hours later, Dale Anderson, Baltimore County executive, was indicted for tax evasion.

The Evening Sun published a list of 12 investigations and ongoing criminal court cases involving state officials and police in addition to the Anderson and Agnew affairs.

As rumors sizzled through Maryland, it seemed impossible that anything could push Agnew and the Maryland political uproar off the front pages. But something did. The Yom Kippur War between Israel and the Arab states broke out in midweek. But the Agnew story wasn't over yet. On the afternoon of Oct. 9, Agnew made an unreported visit to the White House to announce his decision to resign.

The next night, a few hours after he'd resigned, Agnew went to Little Italy for dinner and was photographed in Sabatino's. The Secret Service was with him and he seemed relaxed and happy. The president had told him he had faced the "great issues of our time with courage and candor."

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