In the winter of 1973, 46 years ago, the three of us were assistant U.S. attorneys in Baltimore starting a federal grand jury investigation of a corrupt Democratic county chief executive in Maryland. That investigation ultimately led to the prosecution of his corrupt Republican predecessor — the man who went on to become the state’s governor and then President Richard M. Nixon’s vice president, Spiro T. Agnew.
On Oct. 10, 1973, Agnew entered a plea to a criminal tax felony for failure to report the hundreds of thousands of dollars he’d received in bribes and kickbacks as county executive, governor and even vice president. All paid in cash, $100 bills delivered in white envelopes.
And he resigned.
From the beginning of our investigation, months before we had seen any indication that he had taken kickbacks, Agnew, along with top White House and administration officials and even Nixon himself, repeatedly tried to impede, obstruct and terminate the investigation in nefarious ways…
When newspapers began to report that he was under criminal investigation in the summer of 1973, Agnew aroused his base by screaming “witch hunt” and launching a vicious assault on the “lying” press, the “partisan” Justice Department, and the “biased” and “liberal Democrat” prosecutors in Baltimore.
If Agnew and Nixon had succeeded in derailing our investigation, the most corrupt man ever to sit a heartbeat away might have become the president of our country when Nixon was forced to resign less than a year later. But our investigation was protected — first, by our staunch and courageous boss, the late George Beall, the U.S. attorney for Maryland and a prominent Maryland Republican, and second, by the man who had become the new U.S. attorney general that spring, Elliot L. Richardson.
Shielded by Richardson, we were allowed to continue our investigation and to compile, with the invaluable assistance of dedicated Internal Revenue Service agents, the overwhelming evidence of bribes, kickbacks, payoffs and tax evasion that finally forced Agnew to resign and plead no contest to tax fraud in October.
During the plea negotiations, Agnew tried to restrict the information that would be released to the public as a part of his plea in federal court. Richardson, however, insisted on full public disclosure of all the evidence against him. This was nonnegotiable. As a result, at Agnew’s arraignment, we filed a 40-page document stating in detail all the evidence of his corruption. The next day, newspapers all around the country reprinted that document in its entirety. The American people learned exactly what had happened and why.
As we pursued our own investigation that summer, we watched along with the rest of the nation as the Watergate matter unfolded. Only 10 days after Agnew entered his plea and resigned on Oct. 10, 1973, Richardson himself was gone — refusing Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Instead, he resigned, becoming along with Cox the second casualty in the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Imagine what might have happened if Richardson had not been attorney general during the Agnew and Watergate investigations. Suppose Nixon’s first attorney general had been in charge? That was John N. Mitchell. Convicted and jailed for perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal.
Our nation is now in the middle of another investigation into a president and high officials in his administration and campaign. Every day, we hear attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt.”
So far, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has, under intense pressure, done an admirable and courageous job of protecting Mueller and his investigation. But soon we will have a new attorney general to oversee Mueller’s work and make the final decisions about his ultimate report and recommendations.
President Trump’s nominee, William Barr, is a man of integrity and prestigious credentials. He is certainly no John Mitchell. But what about his nonpartisanship, character, courage and independence? So far, at least, he’s no Elliot Richardson, either.
Barr has promised to allow Mueller to finish his investigation. But he once described the position of attorney general as “the president’s lawyer.” During his confirmation hearing, he declined to make the kind of firm commitments that Richardson made to the Senate in 1973 to protect the independence of the special prosecutor, such as deferring to the special counsel on all investigative and prosecutorial decisions. Most concerning is Barr’s refusal to assure the Senate that he will release Mueller’s full findings to Congress and the American people.
Admittedly, Richardson set the bar high. But aren’t his high standards exactly what we should demand of an attorney general?
If Barr remains unwilling to make the commitment that he will disclose Mueller’s final report to Congress and to the American people, then the Senate should refuse to confirm him or at least make clear that full disclosure is what it expects and, if necessary, will take steps to require.
Skolnik was assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland from 1968 to 1978.
Baker was assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland from 1971 to 1974.
Liebman was assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland from 1972 to 1979.