• U.S.

THE VICE PRESIDENCY: Agnew’s Case Goes to the Grand Jury

6 minute read
TIME

The charges of political corruption against Vice President Spiro Agnew grew more serious last week. Although he has publicly dismissed them as “damned lies,” he was notified that the Justice Department considers them of sufficient gravity for a federal grand jury in Baltimore to be allowed to hear the evidence against him. The jury probably will begin doing so this week.

While Justice Department officials refused to comment on the development, other sources close to the case confirmed that Attorney General Elliot Richardson had decided that the grand jury should look into the matter. They warned, however, that this does not necessarily mean that Richardson or the Justice Department’s prosecutor in the case, U.S. Attorney George Beall, have decided to ask the grand jury to indict Agnew. TIME has learned that the Justice Department is, in fact, leaning toward a unique course: rather than seeking an indictment, it may ask the grand jury after hearing the case to issue a report (technically a “presentment”) on its findings and to transmit it to the House of Representatives as the basis for possible impeachment proceedings against the Vice President. The jury in this event would be acting as a preliminary investigative body.

Jurisdiction Fight. Such a course would be designed to avoid a protracted legal struggle over the constitutional question of whether a Vice President must be impeached before facing any criminal charges in the courts. But TIME has learned that such a clash may be imminent anyway. Agnew’s lawyers intend to fight any such action as illegal, on the constitutional argument that the grand jury has no jurisdiction over the Vice President unless or until he is first impeached by the House of Representatives and removed from office after a trial in the Senate.

Soon after the grand jury begins hearing any evidence against Agnew, his attorneys will file a motion in federal district court seeking a restraining order to block any such testimony. It presumably will ask District Judge Walter E. Hoffman, who was appointed to oversee the Maryland grand jury’s work, for the order. Even if the jury does not seek to indict Agnew, and its proceedings are designed to gather evidence for transmittal to the House, the Agnew lawyers will contend that this unprecedented action would be a breach of the Constitution’s separation of power between the branches of Government.

Thus the courts may soon be faced with having to decide another basic constitutional issue in which there are no clear precedents, as in the struggle for access to the President’s Watergate-related tapes. There have been no prior decisions on whether grand jury proceedings are proper against a sitting Vice President. Although there is no indication that President Nixon is in danger of indictment, one of his arguments against the Watergate grand jury’s demand for the tapes was similar to the expected Agnew claim: that the grand jury has no authority to touch the President unless he is first impeached and removed from office. Legal scholars differ on whether the President and Vice President are in precisely the same position under the law on this point.

The Baltimore grand jury is not expected to ask the Vice President to testify before it. If asked, however, Agnew will refuse, since he is challenging the grand jury’s authority over him. But the jury is expected to call various Agnew associates, as well as contractors, consultants and developers who won contracts from Baltimore County at a time when Agnew was County Executive and from the State of Maryland when Agnew was its Governor. Some have told federal prosecutors that they made or handled regular payoffs to Agnew in return for the profitable work. One reason for calling them before the grand jury is to see if they will stick to their stories under oath.

Apart from his constitutional defense, Agnew will eventually contend in the case that he never received any such money for his personal use. If these men did make any payments, he will argue, it was in the form of political campaign contributions that were handled by his fund raisers. If any favoritism was shown such donors, he will insist, it was done by his various subordinates in government, not by him.

Many Reports. Agnew last week refused comment on a flurry of reports that he has received free food and liquor, a reduction in the rent of his apartment, and even cash from friends. First, CBS-TV reported that the Agnews received a special “celebrity” rate on the apartment they formerly occupied in Washington’s Sheraton-Park Hotel, owned by a subsidiary of ITT. (It turned out that they paid between $850 and $900 a month on an apartment that normally rents for $1,900.) Then the New York Times reported that the Agnews regularly got free food from Joseph H. Rash, vice president of the Food Fair supermarket chain. The Wall Street Journal reported that Agnew frequently received liquor and wine from J. Walter Jones, a wealthy Maryland political associate of Agnew who is also a target of the Maryland grand jury, and some $15,000 in cash from Harry Dundore, av retired tool manufacturer and longtime Agnew friend.

Officials for the Sheraton-Park defended the Vice President’s rent discount as routine 1br national celebrities whose residence at the hotel would enhance its reputation and attract more business. (Others who got similar discounts, according to the hotel, included Hostess Perle Mesta, television’s Lawrence Spivak, former Democratic National Chairman Larry O’Brien, former Treasury Secretary John Connally and former Chief Justice Earl Warren.) Rash said his gifts were “strictly on a personal, family, nonpolitical basis.” Neither Dundore nor Jones would comment. Agnew’s press secretary, J. Marsh Thomson, said he would not comment “on anything in the realm of gifts exchanged between friends.”

While clearly petty compared with the political-corruption charges, such gifts do raise serious ethical questions. President Eisenhower’s top aide, Sherman Adams, resigned in 1958 after it became known he had accepted gifts including a vicuna coat from Industrialist Bernard Goldfine. Abe Fortas resigned in 1969 from the Supreme Court when it was revealed that he had accepted $20,000 from a foundation headed by Financier Louis Wolfson, for which he was an adviser.

TIME has learned that federal investigators are examining the $15,000 gift to the Vice President from his friend, Dundore, to be sure that it is not a deliberate ruse to explain personal funds in Agnew’s bank accounts that he could not otherwise account for. They have no reason to believe that Dundore would be a party to any such scheme, or that Agnew would, either, but they want to make sure.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com