The lawyer for Rod R. Blagojevich urged jurors last week to acquit his client of corruption charges, in part because Mr. Blagojevich, the chatty former governor of Illinois, was simply too dull to carry out the devious schemes of which he stands accused. No one would say he is “the sharpest knife in the drawer,” his lawyer, Sam Adam Jr., told jurors during closing arguments.
In the annals of public corruption cases, that would be a novel, though not entirely unprecedented, defense. Official corruption is much in the news lately — including an upcoming House ethics trial against Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York and expected ethics charges against Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California. So it might be worth revisiting a few politicians who appear to have gotten away with their misdeeds, and some who nearly did.
The folksy Illinois secretary of state, Paul Powell, was under no suspicion of wrongdoing when, in 1970, he died in a hotel room he was sharing with his personal secretary.
After moving beyond the tawdry circumstances of his death, investigators discovered cash in every nook of Mr. Powell’s life: hundreds of thousands of dollars in shoe boxes, bowling ball bags and his office safe. He was eventually found to have taken kickbacks from employees, bribes from lobbyists — and more than $200,000 in coins.
“He had a daily or weekly habit of walking down to the basement of the Capitol and confiscating piles of coins from the vending machines,” said Kim Long, author of “The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals and Dirty Politics.” William Hale Thompson served as mayor of Chicago for all but four years from 1915 through 1931, an era marked by Al Capone and Prohibition. He had been born wealthy, and upon his death in 1944, his lawyer valued the estate at $150,000. But when state agents opened two safe deposit boxes in his name, they found $1.5 million in cash, the equivalent of about $18.6 million today.
Of course, no trip through the landscape of public corruption would be complete without a brief stop in New Jersey.
Harold G. Hoffman, a former New Jersey governor and congressman who died in 1954, enjoyed a largely unblemished career in politics. But he apparently was riddled with guilt near the end. Mr. Hoffman left his daughter a letter, to be opened upon his death, detailing a lifetime of corruption, including embezzling up to $50,000 a month when he was commissioner of motor vehicles and $300,000 from a bank. He said he had always hoped to pay the money back and asked his daughter “to do what you know must be done.”
Among politicians who got caught, some escaped more serious consequences simply by resigning. James John Walker, known as Jimmy, resigned as New York City mayor in 1932 rather than face removal from office and possible indictment on corruption charges.
Spiro T. Agnew, the vice president under Richard M. Nixon, resigned in 1973 amid a federal investigation into bribery and extortion. He had pocketed tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks while governor and a county executive in Maryland. Forced out of office, he was allowed to plead no contest to a single charge of income tax evasion. He was sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation, fined $10,000 and went on to become a successful business consultant.
Others escaped justice quite literally. James Williams Tate, a Kentucky state treasurer known as “Honest Dick,” disappeared in 1888, just before it was discovered that he had embezzled $150,000 from state funds. Newspapers followed rumors of his whereabouts abroad, including in China, Japan and Brazil. “He wrote home to his wife for a year and then his letters ceased entirely, and now it is stated by his friends, who should know, that he is dead,” The New York Times reported in 1890.
Then there was David Friedland, a state senator from New Jersey, who disappeared after staging a fatal scuba diving accident in 1985 as he was awaiting sentencing for fraud. In 1988, he was caught on the Maldives, a chain of islands in the Indian Ocean, where he had built a successful chain of dive shops, and served about nine years of a 15-year sentence.
“He was really too successful,” said one federal investigator. “If he had elected to become low profile, he might still be at large.”
Obviously, not every official who gets investigated is charged, and not every official who is charged is guilty. Prosecutors have wide discretion in selecting cases. Michele Hirshman, a former chief of the public corruption unit in the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, said she had focused on cases that uncovered a significant betrayal of the public’s trust.
She added that prosecutors faced special challenges in proving such cases, like needing insiders to reveal the motivations of those involved. It turned out that Mr. Powell, the Illinois official who kept his cash in shoe boxes, was not shy about his motivations, though his crimes were not discovered until he was dead.
“There’s only one thing worse than a defeated politician,” he once said. “That’s a defeated and broke politician.”