A rare glimpse into the recent private business dealings of former vice president Spiro T. Agnew yesterday revealed his middleman's role - and $80,000 fee - in arranging a $4 million contract between a Maryland firm and the Saudi Arabian government.
Agnew received the fee in late 1976 from Atlantic International Corp., which allegedly has yet to be paid the money owed it by the Saudis for the construction of modular classrooms, according to the firm's president, C. William Reather, who testified yesterday in a federal bankruptcy court proceeding.
The board of directors of the corporation, which is not bankrupt but is seeking relief from creditors, is headed by J. Walter Jones, former Annapolis banker and close friend of Agnew's who was described by federal prosecutors as "bagman" for cash kickbacks paid the former vice president.
Agnew resigned the vice presidency in October 1973 after pleading no contest to income tax charges stemming from his accepting kickbacks from various firms doing business with the Maryland and Baltimore County governments. Jones was not indicted in the scheme but was later identified by federal prosecutors and in documents as the alleged intermediary for kickbacks that were paid Agnew between 1963 and 1968.
Last year, Jones was fined $5,000 and sentenced to three months in prison for soliciting an illegal corporate contribution to the 1972 Nixon-Agnew campaign.
Since his resignation in disgrace more than four years ago, Agnew has been in and out of the limelight, alternately shying away from publicity concerning some of his business ventures and, in the case of a noval he wrote, seeking it.
Yesterday, Agnew was reported by Stephanie Barry, his secretary at his Crofton, Md., office, to be "traveling extensively in the Middle East." She declined to be more specific or to discuss his association with Atlantic.
Glimpses of the former vice president's life style, indeed, have been brief. The latest look at his comings and goings, at least during 1976, emerged yesterday almost incidentally in the bankruptcy court proceedings.
In February, Atlantic had filed to be a debtor in possession" under federal bankruptcy laws, permitting it to continue in business after filing a plan to pay off current debts of $6.7 million. At yesterday's first meeting of the creditors, an attorney for one creditor asked Reather about rumors that Agnew was on the corporate payroll.
The bankruptcy judge's initial reaction to the question, according to the lawyer who asked it, was something on the order of, "Spiro who?" When the attorney further identified "Mr. Agnew," Reather responded that Agnew had received the $80,000 representing 2 percent of Atlantic's $4 million contract with the Saudis.
Further questions on the subject were cut off by the bankruptcy judge's ruling that the payment was too old to be relevant to the proceeding.
The $4 million contract was the second Atlantic had with the Saudis to construct and put in place modular structures to be used as schools in the Middle Eastern country. In court papers, Atlantic contends the Saudis owe it $7.2 million on both contracts.
Philip J. McNutt, an attorney for Atlantic, said yesterday the firm had received "some minor payments" from the Saudis. He said Agnew had helped secure both contracts, although he received only the one fee.
"His involvement was relatively minor, and he received a very small commission back in 1976," McNutt said. "He did act as a go-between to some small degree in attempting to procure these contracts."
Since his forced resignation from the nation's second highest office, Agnew's middleman role is known to have taken him to Greece, the Far East and the Middle East, representing various American firms.
His links to the oil-rich Arabs, and his sympathy to the Palestinian cause, began to generate controversy with the 1976 publication of his best-selling novel, "The Canfield Decision." On publicity tours for the book, Agnew expanded on what critics regarded as the anti-Israeli and anti-Semetic tone and content of the book.
It was during the same year that Atlantic chose Agnew to help obtain the Saudi Arabian contracts. "The obvious indication," lawyer McNutt said, "is the company felt he could be helpful in influencing . . . in acting as an agent and procuring the contract.
"It was a very simple transaction," McNutt said, insisting, "If the name was Joe Jones, it wouldn't bring any publicity."