Spiro T. Agnew's former attorney testified today that Agnew admitted eight months before resigning as vice president that he had taken cash payments from close associates and said the practice had been going on "for a thousand years."
George W. White, testifying in the trial here of a civil lawsuit against Agnew, asserted that he visited the then vice president in February 1973, to question him about allegations by Jerome Wolff, I.H. (Bud) Hammerman II and Lester Matz that Agnew had been taking payoffs in a long-standing kickback scheme.
White testified he told Agnew, "Ted, this is terribly serious. You've got to level with me. I've got to know."
He testifed that Agnew reponded, "It's been going on for a thousand years. What Jerry [Wolff] and Bud [Hammerman] told you is true. Matz is grossly exaggerating the amount of money involved. He only gave me $2,500."
White's testimony marks the first time since Agnew's resignation that anyone has asserted that Agnew admitted to the allegations that drove him from office.
White has been constrained from ever revealing the contents of his conservations with Agnew by the confidentiality that surrounds lawywer-client discussions. But Circut Court Judge Bruce C. Williams, who is presiding over the taxpayer case, ruled earlier this week that Agnew himself had waived that confidentiality when he wrote about the conversation in his autobiography. "Go Quiety . . . or Else." Williams then ordered White to testify.
Because of other comments Agnew made about White in his book, White has sued Agnew in a $17 million defamation lawsuit.
When Agnew's attorney, T. Rogers Harrison, questioned White today about whether he was "hostile" to Agnew, White denied it. But the lawyer did acknowledge that he was "angry, sad and embarrassed" about the comments in Agnew's book.
White's testimony came on the third day of proceedings in this civil lawsuit that in a sense has become the public trial Spiro T. Agnew never got when he was confronted in 1973 with allegations that he had received kickbacks first as governor of Maryland and then as vice president.
Instead, on Oct. 10, 1973, Agnew resigned and in federal court in Baltimore pleaded no contest to a single criminal charge of income tax evasion. Agenew later paid federal and state authorities about $170,000 in taxes, penalities and interest on unreported income for the years 1967 through 1972.
But during his historic Baltimore court appearance, Agnew denied that he was guilty of anything but the single charge of income tax evasion for 1967. He said that he had never conducted his public duties in a way that would harm the public interest and asserted that his acceptance of "contributions" while governor of Maryland" was part of a long-established pattern of political fundraising in the state."
"At no time have I enriched myself at the expense of the public trust," Agnew declared.
Indeed, in his autobiography Agnew describes what appears to be the same conversation that White testified about today, but Agnew's accout is quite different.
According to Agnew's book, when White confronted him with Matz's and Wolff's allegations that Angew had received kickbacks, Agnew responded, "That's certainly not true. In the past, they have made campaign contributions, but those certainly weren't kickbacks; the money didn't go to me personally."
Agnew, however, who now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., will not appear at this trial to testify under oath. His attorney has said Agnew would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination if called to testify.
The lawsuit being heard in Annapolis was initiated by three Maryland taxpayers who are attempting to collect for the state more than $170,000 in payments that Agnew and Wolff, who served as state roads commissioner when Agnew was governor of Maryland, allegedly received in kickbacks from engineers. The taxpayers maintain that any money Agnew received because of his public office belongs to the state and must be returned.
Today, White testified that his February 1973 conversation with Agnew in Newport Beach, Calif., was spurred by a meeting with Wolff the month before at a Baltimore County bar association function. White was then personal attorney, longtime friend and confidante to Agnew.
At that time, federal prosecutors had just begun an investigation of alleged kickbacks to officials in Baltimore County, where Agnew had been county executive between 1962 and 1966. Agnew at that point was not a target of their probe.
But in January 1973, Wolff approached White, according to White's testimony, saying, "I'm a desperate man. I've got to see him [Agnew]."
White testified that because Agnew was on a trip, the next day Wolff came to White's office and told him that he was involved in the investigation and that he was "terribly worried" that if he were forced to testify he "would have to admit there had been a system whereby he, Mr. Agnew and Mr. Hammerman had been dividing up payoffs" for contracts. Wolff described a system in which Hammerman, a longtime friend of Agnew's collected the kickbacks and then divided them up wit half going to Agnew and the other half being split by Wolff and Hammerman, according to White.
White testified that his response to the revelations was, "Jerry, you're making me sick."
That same January day, shortly before Wolff arrived at his office, White had received a visit from Lester Matz, a Baltimore County engineer, whom White described in his testimony as "wild and excited" that day.
White testified that Matz told him that he, too, was involved in the federal investigation, and that for years, while Agnew was county executive, then governor and finally vice president, Matz had been "making payments, kickbacks in connection with contracts his company was getting."
White testified that Matz told him he had given Agnew between $20,000 and $30,000 while he was vice president.
White said that later that day he summoned Hammerman, Agnew's longtime friend and political fundraiser, to his office.White testified that when he questioned Hammerman about Wolff's story of kickback collections and splits of the payoffs with Agnew, Hammerman "admitted it."
White said he told Hammerman, a wealthy developer and mortgage banker, "I always thought you could write a check for a million dollars. Why in hell would you get mixed up in this?"
"His answer was -- I'll never forget it -- 'Somebody had to do it,'" White testified.
Hammerman, Wolff and Matz were later to become key witnesses in the federal case against Agnew, giving sworn statements that outlined a kickback scheme allegedly involving the vice president.
Harrison, Agnew's lawyer, is expected to argue that the government, in effect, recognized the money Agnew allegedly received as income by collecting taxes on it in 1974. The government cannot now say, he will argue, that the money is actually public funds that should be returned.
Final arguments in the bench trial are schedule for Monday.