Top Ten Political Scandals - Rolling Stone
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Top Ten Political Scandals

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The history of American politics is – depressingly, inevitably, often hilariously – a history of political scandals. From Teapot Dome to Watergate to the Keating Five, each generation of public servants has done its bit to squander the public trust and dive headlong into the swamp of venality, corruption, and moral decay. We've rounded up what we think are the top ten examples of the genre (note: we've skipped sex scandals in favor of more obvious abuses of the public interest). Click through to check out our selection – and let us know what we missed.


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Teapot Dome

Teapot Dome is the site of a Wyoming oil field, and the name of one of the largest American scandals before Watergate. President Warren G. Harding appointed his friend Albert Fall as Secretary of the Interior, and Fall persuaded the President to transfer naval oil reserves to his purview. He then secretly leased the exclusive rights to Teapot Dome to a friend's private oil company, without any bidding or competition. When the news broke in April 1922, the Senate began an investigation into Fall's actions.  Fall ended up as the first former cabinet officer to go to prison. [More]

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The Pentagon Papers

The Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the United States' political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 were commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967. They revealed that the U.S., under four presidential administrations, from Harry Truman to Lyndon B. Johnson, had lied to both Congress and the American public regarding the expansion of the war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In June of 1971, Daniel Ellsberg (left), a former U.S. Marine and military analyst touched off a constitutional crisis when he leaked the the documents to the New York Times, which published portions of the report. The Nixon administration won an restraining order against the Times, but this was quickly overthrown by the Supreme Court in a landmark decision for press freedom. [More]

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The biggest political scandal in U.S. history, the Watergate saga began with a 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee's Washington D.C. headquarters. The FBI discovered the burglars' ties to then-President Richard Nixon's re-election fundraising group, and the Senate Watergate Committee began investigating Nixon's role. During the Committee's hearings, it was revealed that the President's office tape-recording system may have recorded conversations implicating him in the break-in. The Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to turn over the tapes; he resigned on August 9, 1974, with the threat of impeachment looming. [More]

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Spiro Agnew Resignation

Spiro Agnew, who served under Richard Nixon, is the only Vice President in U.S. history to have resigned due to criminal charges. In 1973, during Agnew's fifth year in office, the U.S. Attorney's office in Baltimore, Maryland began investigating the VP for bribery, tax fraud, extortion and conspiracy. Agnew was charged in October for having accepted more than $100,000 in bribes during his time as Vice President and Governor of Maryland; he was allowed to plead no contest on the condition that he resign.

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The Keating Five

The Keating Five scandal involved five Senators – Alan Cranston, Dennis DeConcini, John Glenn, John McCain, and Donald W. Riegle, Jr. – and the chairman of Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, Charles Keating. Lincoln was under investigation by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board for risky investment practices, and at Keating's urging  the senators met twice with federal banking regulators on his behalf.  Not coincidentally, Keating made over $1 million in campaign contributions to the five men. In 1991, the Senate censured Sen. Cranston and reprimanded the others for "poor judgment. Keating spent five years in jail for his poor management of Lincoln, which collapsed at a cost to taxpayers of $3 billion. [More]

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ABSCAM, an FBI sting operation in the late 1970s involving phoney Arab sheikhs out to buy political favors ended up taking down, in 1980, a Senator, five members of the House of Representatives, one member of the New Jersey state Senate, members of Philadelphia's city council and an INS inspector.  the scandal – some cheered the FBI, while others accused the agency of unlawful entrapment. [More]

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The Reagan-era Iran-Contra affair had two parts: first, selling arms to Iran (despite an embargo with the country), in the hopes of freeing American hostages there; secondly, using the money generated by the sales to aid Contra militants battling the Nicaraguan government. When a Lebanese newspaper printed an exposé on the clandestine activities in November 1986, Reagan went on television and denied that any such operation had occurred; he retracted the statement a week later. An investigation by the Reagan-appointed Tower Commission determined that Reagan's hands-off management style had created conditions which made possible the diversion of funds to the Contras, but found no evidence linking Reagan to the diversion. (Just what Reagan knew and when he knew it is a matter of lively speculation to this day.) A number of Reagan officials were indicted and charged, but were pardoned by George H. W. Bush, Reagan's successor. [More]

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Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff lobbied in Washington for Native American gambling interests, billing their clients about $85 million and splitting the millions in profits. The men gave also lavish gifts and made campaign donations to a number of legislators to influence legislation. Abramoff also put money into the PAC run by former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, which led to DeLay's being charged for illegal laundering of campaign donations. In January, 2006, Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. [More]

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U.S. Attorney Firings – ‘Lawyergate’

 On December 7, 2006, George W. Bush's Department of Justice fired nine U.S. attorneys. Later congressional investigations found that the dismissals were made to gain political advantage. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales denied participating in discussions and memos about plans to carry out the firings, but records suggested he was involved. Nine high-level Justice Department officers resigned as a result of the scandal. [More]

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The Valerie Plame Affair

Also known as the "CIA leak scandal" and "Plamegate," The Valerie Plame Affair refers to the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA covert agent in a 2003 newspaper column by Robert Novak. Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, believed that the Bush administration leaked her status to Novak as payback for a New York Times op-ed in which he charged the adminstration with manipulating intelligence about Saddam's WMD program to justify an invasion of Iraq. A grand jury investigation did not result in the indictment or conviction of anyone for any crime in connection with the leak itself, but Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Chief of Staff of Vice President Dick Cheney, was indicted on one count of obstruction of justice, one count of perjury, and three counts making false statements and after a federal trial was sentenced to 30 months in prison, a fine of US$250,000, and two years of supervised release. President Bush commuted the sentence, but declined to grant a full pardon.

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