With the news that 42 year old Seth Andrew, who served as an education advisor in the Obama White House, has been charged by federal authorities with scheming to steal $218,005 from a public charter school network that he founded, it’s a stark reminder that corruption and crime is not just something you hear about happening in Third World dictatorships.
Unfortunately, American politics have seen its fair share of unscrupulous, unethical, and downright crooked people. Individuals, and sometimes groups, who instead of serving the public good, ultimately only serve their own interests and greed. Here we take a look at some of the most corrupt public officials in America who tried to line their own pockets.
Randy “Duke” Cunningham
Our first entry goes to someone who on the surface would appear to have everything going for them as they entered Congress in 1991, a 20 year decorated Navy flying ace and Vietnam veteran, however, Randall ‘Duke’ Cunningham of California had other things intentions once he was appointed to the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, intentions to make himself some serious money.
As a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Cunningham had access to some seriously lucrative government contracts that he would use to his considerable advantage. It all came to light when it was discovered that a defense contractor, Mitchell Wade, founder of the defense contracting firm MZM Inc. had purchased Cunningham’s house for nearly twice its market value then allowed him to live rent-free on his yacht, one Cunningham named the “Duke Stir”.
Randy “Duke” Cunningham (cont.)
That was just the beginning of Cunningham’s money making schemes. He received other favors, cash payments, gifts such as a Rolls Royce, Persian rugs, and even a $2,000 contribution for his daughter’s college graduation party. It would all catch up with him eventually, however, when on November 28, 2005, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion, conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud in federal court in San Diego.
If he chose to fight the charges and lost he could have spent the rest of his life rotting in jail, however, his lawyer acknowledged that the government’s evidence was so overwhelming that his client had no choice but to plead guilty. In taking a plea deal accepting he had taken $2.4 million in bribes, he got eight years and four months in prison. He was released on June 4, 2013, but his story wouldn’t end there as on January 13, 2021, Cunningham received a pardon from President Donald Trump.
Edwin W. Edwards
Described as brash and arrogant, Edwin W. Edwards had faced decades of accusations of corruption for the simple reason that he was actually corrupt. However, it would take the legal system 25 attempts to finally secure a conviction against the four-time governor of Louisiana who famously once said that the only way he could lose an upcoming election was “if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
The suspicions around Edwards first truly reared its head when in 1997 an FBI surveillance videotape showed former Congressman Cleo Fields stuffing large amounts of cash, around $20,000, in his pockets, cash given to him by Edwards in what he would later describe as an innocent business transaction between friends with a humorous explanation. That ‘humorous explanation’ never appeared.
Edwin W. Edwards (cont.)
However, it would be what happened the following year that would see the dodgy dealings of Edwards come fully to light. It all began crashing down after Texas for-profit prison entrepreneur Patrick Graham told authorities he had given Edwards $845,000 in conjunction with a scheme to locate a private juvenile prison in Jena in La Salle Parish.
It would be his handling of Louisiana casino licenses that would be the final nail in his coffin when then owner of the San Francisco 49ers, Edward J. DeBartolo, Jr., admitted bribing Edwards $400,000 to secure his assistance in securing a riverboat casino license. Edwards was found guilty on seventeen of twenty-six counts, including racketeering, extortion, money laundering, mail fraud, and wire fraud, despite insisting he had done nothing wrong.
When the devastating Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the citizens of the city showed the kind of togetherness and stoic resolve that proves America really is indeed the home of the brave. It would be an easy assumption to make that the mayor of the city would be front and center, leading the city out of disaster, but not if you are the 60th Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin.
At a time when the city needed him most, Nagin had his beady eyes not on the struggling inhabitant of his city, but on the millions of dollars in no-bid city contracts for things like computer systems and crime cameras. In order to get his hands on this much needed redevelopment cash, Nagin installed his friend Greg Meffert as the ‘chief technology officer’ in order to gain control of the funds.
Ray Nagin (cont.)
Nagin also used his position as mayor to direct some of the redevelopment business to a granite company he owned with his sons. Thankfully, after the storm left New Orleans, another storm arrived and Nagin was investigated by authorities. On January 18, 2013, Nagin was indicted on 21 corruption charges, including wire fraud, conspiracy, bribery, money laundering, and filing false tax returns related to bribes from city contractors.
Despite Nagin pleading not guilty in federal court to all charges, he was convicted on 20 of the 21 counts by jury on February 12, 2014 and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, and more than $585,000 in restitution and forfeiture. However, due to the increasing risks of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading in prisons, authorities released Nagin to house arrest on April 27, 2020.
Never mind famous gangsters like Al Capone, Illinois has seen its fair share of criminal politicians, so much so that since 1968, four Illinois governors have found themselves in prison. However, none have shown such brazen corruption like Democratic politician and Illinois Secretary of State from 1965 to 1970, Paul Powell, whose death didn’t reveal a life well lived, but one that had shoe boxes, briefcases and strongboxes stuffed with illicit cash.
When Powell died from a heart attack on October 10, 1970, in Rochester, Minnesota, few could have imagined what would be uncovered with his untimely passing. The annual salary for Powell’s government position was no more than $30,000 a year, so the questions being asked after they found his ‘nest egg’, soon pointing to the golden goose that had been laying them. And what a nest egg they found.
Paul Powell (cont.)
When searching his hotel suite residence at the St. Nicholas Hotel in Springfield, Illinois within days of his death, authorities found over $750,000 in cash stuffed into shoeboxes, briefcases and strongboxes, along with 49 cases of whiskey, 14 transistor radios, and bizarrely, two cases of creamed corn. Once they searched his office they found an additional $50,000. To put that into perspective, $800k in 1970 would now be around $5 million dollars in 2021 money.
Just how had he amassed such a considerable personal fortune? Well, in the 1960s Illinois residents applying for driver’s licenses would make their checks payable not to the state, but to “Secretary of State Paul Powell” so, it seems like Powell figured that if the checks were signed directly to him, he could just keep the money, which he most certainly did.
When Kwame Kilpatrick stood on the porch of his mothers home in 2001 and declared he was running to become Detroit’s 68th mayor, many saw him as a rising Democratic star, and after he was elected in 2002, he was hailed as the “HipHop Mayor”. However, a more appropriate moniker might be ‘Gangsta Mayor’ as once Kilpatrick took office, he set about building himself a criminal enterprise in City Hall worthy of any gangster flick.
Kilpatrick would start as he means to go on, as even in the early days of his tenure there was scandal as rumors circulated that he was having wild parties at his taxpayer-funded mayoral residence and that an exotic dancer called Tamara Greene “Strawberry” was allegedly murdered to prevent her from testifying about the Manoogian Mansion parties. Although the case still remains unsolved, the same model and caliber firearm used in her murder were those officially issued by the Detroit Police Department.
Kwame Kilpatrick (c0nt.)
As the city of Detroit was falling deeper and deeper into debt, Kilpatrick’s wealth was inexplicably getting considerably larger with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unexplained deposits making their way into his personal bank account. Despite the suspicions continuing to pile up against Kilpatrick, he was elected to a second term in 2005. Kilpatrick would eventually resign as mayor in September 2008 after being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, serving 99 days before being released on probation.
However, the walls would soon start closing in as in May 2010, Kilpatrick was sentenced to eighteen months to five years in state prison for violating his probation. By March 2013, the end was nigh as prosecutors convicted the former Mayor on 24 federal felony counts, including mail fraud, wire fraud, and racketeering, and he was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison. That might have been the end of the story for Kilpatrick but unfortunately, like a few others on this list, then President Trump commuted his sentence in January 2021 before leaving office.
While we could probably keep adding candidates for most corrupt officials ad nauseam, as sadly our country has had a long and ignominious history of public officials lining their pockets, but we thought it important to highlight some of the men who committed their crimes and disappeared from the headlines. And while laws have been crafted, like the 2011 Anti-Corruption Act, to put a stop to sticky fingered elected officials, it falls to us as voters to see past the hollow promises and baby kissing to uncover just what sort of person the candidate REALLY is.
It looks like political corruption will be with us for a while as there are still countless investigations currently looking at the business dealings and ‘charities’ controlled by the former president, his family and his cronies, and some have already exposed a web of corruption, conflicts of interests and money laundering red flags.
Only time will tell if the men and women in the previous administration used their positions in the center of American political life to enrich themselves and if the new Biden administration is a new beginning in political transparency or just the same bad eggs in a different colored shell.