In the United States, politics and scandal seem to go hand in hand. For much of American history the only aspect of disgraceful public sector behavior that changed was the media’s gradual process of reporting conduct that was previously discreetly ignored. For the better part of two centuries, mistresses, substance abuse, and domestic dysfunction remained off limits by gentleman’s agreement. Corruption involving bribery and conflicts of interest also was deemed an integral part of the Washington political environment that only got reported if it reached outrageous or blatant dimensions.
With the advent of Watergate and the increasingly tabloid nature of the American media, suddenly political scandal became the most emphasized aspect of the public sector. However, although individuals like Monica Lewinsky and Scooter Libby became household names, other scandalous antics flew under the radar. Only the most salacious or embarrassing situations became the obsessive focus of the entire media. Just because behavior was not widely reported in the mainstream media didn’t mean that equally outrageous or unethical behavior did not occur. Frequently, transgressions that were subtle or not easily understood by the public escaped scrutiny or failed to spark widespread outrage.
The digital age and a change in the business of media occurred long after some of the most bizarre and corrupt American political scandals were perpetrated. From the very first days of the US Government, prominent men have engaged in the same types of conduct that currently fascinate and outrage the American people. Here is a list of some of the lesser-known, but still egregious, US political scandals you have never heard of.
15. The Skeleton In Alexander Hamilton’s Closet
In the summer of 1791, an attractive 23 year old named Maria Reynolds knocked on the front door of the Philadelphia home of Alexander Hamilton, the current Secretary of the Treasury and one of the most powerful and prestigious politicians in the United States. Maria explained that her husband had abandoned her, that she was in great distress and needed financial help. Since his wife was present in the home, Hamilton hastily made an appointment to visit Reynolds at her apartment later that eventing, assuring her that he would help. When he visited with her that night, they began an affair that would last throughout the summer of 1791, while his wife and family were out of town, in Albany.
In December, Maria’s husband James began blackmailing Hamilton, who sent him money. The unscrupulous Reynolds was eventually arrested on an unrelated financial matter and when Hamilton refused to help him, he provided evidence to Hamilton’s political opponents, including James Monroe, that attempted to implicate Hamilton in both sexual misconduct and financial impropriety. Monroe and other individuals met with Hamilton in December of 1792, confronting him with Reynolds’ allegations. Hamilton admitted the affair but denied the more serious charge of financial fraud. He asked Monroe, as a gentleman, to not publicly discuss his assignation but did provide him with letters written to Maria Reynolds.
Monroe would eventually send these letters to his ally and Hamilton’s bitter enemy, Thomas Jefferson. Ambitious to run for President himself in 1800 and knowing that Jefferson and his allies would leak details of his affair, Hamilton, in 1797, decided to write a 100 page pamphlet, discussing the allegations in detail. The revelations were a disaster and eliminated any potential for Hamilton to run for national office. Hamilton would be killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. Ironically, Burr served as Maria Reynolds’ attorney when she divorced James Reynolds.
14. Wilbur Mills and “The Argentine Firecracker”
Wilbur Mills was a graduate of Harvard Law School who was elected to Congress, from Arkansas, in 1938 and eventually became the head of the prestigious Ways and Means Committee for the longest period in US history. By 1974, Mills was respected as more powerful than the President based on the budget and financial decisions he legislatively supervised.
At 2 AM on October 7, 1974, congressional police stopped a Lincoln Continental that was speeding next to the Capitol’s Tidal Basin. Inside they discovered a chauffeur, three young women and Wilbur Mills, who immediately began remonstrating them. Mills was bleeding from the nose and was apparently involved in a physical altercation with one of the women, Annabel Battistella, a South American burlesque dancer who performed under the stage name of Fanne Foxe, the “Argentine Firecracker.” Police retrieved her from the shallow waters of the Tidal Basin, packed everyone back into the car and sent them on their way.
The press got a hold of the story but Mills minimized the event by stating that he had learned his lesson and would no longer “Go out with foreigners who drink champagne.” A few weeks later he was re-elected, but he eventually was involved in another incident when he came onstage at Boston’s Pilgrim Theater (pictured above) and was introduced to the crowd, clearly deeply intoxicated. After this fiasco, he was stripped of his Ways and Means position, entered rehab, and did not stand for re-election. He died in 1992, spending his post-congressional years as an advocate for Alcoholics Anonymous.
13. Warren Harding’s Presidential Love Child
It’s hard to believe that Warren Harding jammed as much scandal as he did into one of the shortest Presidential tenures in history. Harding’s administration is known for “The Teapot Dome Scandal” which sent his Secretary of the Interior to jail, the first cabinet member ever to go to prison, a continuation of the utter corruption that marked his previous Senatorial career. But Harding didn’t confine himself to political misbehavior. He conducted numerous affairs, including one with a twenty year old girl named Nan Britton that he deflowered in a New York hotel. Harding would continue his relationship with this women, having sex with her on his Senatorial office couch.
Britton would eventually become pregnant with Harding’s child, a child he acknowledged by providing financial support during his lifetime. This support allowed Harding to continue his relationship with Nan Britton, allowing for intimacy in a closet off of the Oval Office, among other places. The younger woman wasn’t the only female interest in Harding’s life, he conducted numerous other documented affairs with various other women. It seems the only woman that Harding had no interest in was his wife, Florence. Of her he said: “there isn’t one iota of affection in my home relationship. … It is merely existence, necessary for appearance’s sake.”
Warren Harding died in the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, California allegedly from a heart attack on August 2, 1923. Because his wife refused to allow an autopsy and had him immediately embalmed, his death has always been suspicious. Unfortunately for Nan Britton, Florence Harding cut off any support and denied any connection between her husband and Nan’s daughter. Claiming that she was broke and had no other recourse, Nan wrote a book entitled “The President’s Daughter,” revealing her relationship and the identity of Harding’s daughter. She was viciously excoriated but ultimately DNA tests conducted on her ancestors and the Harding family almost 100 years later proved that Nan Britton’s child was fathered by Warren Harding.
12. A Cash Bribe From Howard Hughes Lead to Richard Nixon’s Resignation
Because businessman Howard Hughes was involved in numerous enterprises involving US Government contracts, he routinely showered politicians with cash. Richard Nixon was the recipient of $100,000 after being elected President in 1968. Because the money was used to spruce up Nixon’s Key Biscayne home, it was an illegal bribe. But Hughes played both sides of the Washington political fence, hiring Lawrence O’Brien, a Washington lobbyist with longtime ties to the Democratic party. In 1972, O’Brien was designated as the chairman of the Democratic presidential campaign.
The Nixon campaign was aware of O’Brien’s connection to Hughes. Afraid that the Democrats would make information public about the $100,000 cash payoff, Nixon operatives decided to electronically determine Democratic intentions. Twice, individuals from the Committee to Re-Elect the President, some with CIA connections, would burgle Democratic committee offices at the Watergate Hotel. The first attempt to tap Lawrence O’Brien’s phone was unsuccessful. On June 17, 1972, the second attempt resulted in the arrest of five individuals in the offices of the DNC. It took two years, but, after an initial investigation of the burglary and the men behind it spiralling into obstruction of justice and perjury on the part of the White House, Richard Nixon would be forced to resign.
11. The Iran-Contra Affair And The Odyssey of Fawn Hall
It never hurts to attach a pretty face to a political scandal. Such was the case with Fawn Hall and the Iran-Contra affair. Fawn was employed as the secretary to Oliver North, a ringleader in the Iran-Contra scheme to sell arms to the radical government of Iran and use the proceeds to fund the “Contras”, an insurgent guerrilla group fighting the leftist Sandanista government in Nicaragua. As Congress specifically forbade such aid, North and other members of the Reagan administration were eventually intensively investigated in what became a major scandal.
Reluctantly, in exchange for immunity, Fawn Hall testified about her involvement in the theft and destruction of government documents related to Iran-Contra, a process involving shredding so much paper that at one point the shredder jammed. Revelations that she had secreted sensitive papers in her boots and undergarments and her declaration that “Sometimes you have to go above the written law,” left her appearing haplessly naive and unsophisticated regarding the behavior of her boss, Oliver North, and other members of the Reagan administration. The uproar over her appearance and testimony lead her to briefly pursue a media career in Washington, DC, but this lead nowhere and Fawn Hall eventually moved to Los Angeles.
While pursuing a modeling career, Hall became romantically involved with Danny Sugerman, the former manager of The Doors and other rock music groups. The couple married, and Hall became addicted to crack cocaine, a development which required a stint in rehab in 1994. Sugerman died of cancer in 2005 and shortly thereafter Hall sold their Hollywood Hills home for 2.5 million dollars. The last public mention of Hall’s whereabouts was an article in the Washington Post in 2014, stating that she lived quietly in West Hollywood and worked at “Book Soup,” a bookstore on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
10. If You’re Bill Clinton, Exposing Yourself Is Not Sexual Assault or Harassment
The details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal are generally understood by the American people. Less well-known are the circumstances surrounding Bill Clinton’s involvement with Paula Corbin Jones, who sued Bill Clinton over an incident that occurred on May 8, 1991. Working at a Little Rock convention while an Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones was asked by a state policemen if she would like to meet Governor Bill Clinton in his upstairs hotel room. Escorted to the room by the state policeman, when she arrived, Bill Clinton unzipped his pants and asked her to perform oral sex on him. Jones fled and ultimately filed a lawsuit against by now President Clinton.
After four years of litigation, including a Supreme Court decision that allowed the suit to proceed, female Federal District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright, on April 2, 1998, threw out Jones’ lawsuit seeking damages based on sexual harassment and emotional distress. Quoting from her 39 page decision, Judge Wright maintained “While the alleged incident in the hotel, if true, was certainly boorish and offensive, the governor’s alleged conduct does not constitute sexual assault.” Based on this premise she ruled that “There are no genuine issues for trial in this case.” Although Jones provided specific sworn testimony that made it clear from anatomical abnormalities that the alleged incident did occur, the judge essentially ruled that this didn’t matter.
This decision did not end the Paula Jones lawsuit. On November 13, 1998, Clinton agreed to pay her $850,000. Based on proceedings undertaken by the Arkansas Bar Association, Bill Clinton agreed to being disbarred for a period of five years. Bill Clinton still does not have a license to practice law, having never officially gotten his license reinstated by the Arkansas Bar.
9. The Mysterious and Forgotten Death of Former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller
On January 26, 1979, former Vice-President Nelson A. Rockefeller died from what was initially announced as a heart attack. But the more a family spokesman explained about Rockefeller’s death, the more curious the entire event became. Initially said to have died at a family office space at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, it was soon disclosed that the 70-year-old Rockefeller actually died at a town house on 54th Street. He was allegedly in the company of a chauffeur and security guard when an ambulance was summoned by a female neighbor.
Within days, the story changed again. This time, it was stated that Rockefeller was in the company of his 25 year old “aide” Megan Marshack and they were working on the manuscript of an art book when Rockefeller, a former four-term Governor of the state of New York and one of the wealthiest and most powerful politicians in America, was stricken. Soon, another twist: Marshack didn’t call an ambulance, instead she called Ponchitta Pierce, a 36 year old acquaintance and New York City television reporter. Supposedly, an hour had passed after Rockefeller’s heart attack before a call to summon for help. Although it has never been officially admitted by any family member, Nelson Rockefeller and Megan Marshack were involved in “undeniably intimate circumstances,” at the time of his death, according to a long time aide.
Marshack’s compensation quickly raised eyebrows, a $60,000 salary four times what her previous position paid and a $45,000 interest free loan used to purchase her apartment two block’s from Rocky’s town house. The loan for the apartment, furnished with antiques from the Rockefeller art collection, was forgiven in the former Vice-President’s will. The Rockefeller family was able to squelch any official inquiry, refusing an autopsy and quickly cremating the former Governor’s remains. Although the public quickly drew some obvious conclusions, Megan Marshack disappeared from public sight and has never spoken about the incident.
8. Elizabeth Ray, The Congressional Secretary Who Couldn’t Even Type
In 1976, Wayne Hays, was a fourteen-term member of the US House of Representatives and the powerful chairman of the House Administration Committee. He was also feared by his colleagues as “the Meanest Man in Congress.” In the summer of 1976, Hays married a secretary who worked in his office after divorcing his wife of twenty-five years. He made the mistake of not inviting another member of his staff, 27 year old Elizabeth Ray. After Ray marched into Hays’ congressional office and demanded to know why she hadn’t been invited to the wedding, the congressman had Capitol police kick her out of his office. This apparently angered Ray so much that she contacted Washington Post reporters and explained that she had been on Hays’ payroll for two years as a secretary but admitted:”I can’t type. I can’t file. I can’t even answer the phone.” She openly admitted that she was hired to be Hays’ mistress.
Hays at first denied the charges and also denied the relationship with Ray. However, after compromising tape recordings made by Ray were played for reporters and details about their interactions became public, Hays acknowledged the affair. The national press and much of official Washington were delighted when Ray provided embarrassing details about the arrogant and unethical Hays:
“After hurried dinner dates, which typically begin in one of the Key Marriott restaurants around 7 p.m., Hays and Ray usually adjourn to her Arlington apartment.
‘He never stops in the living room,” she says. “He walks right into the bedroom and he watches the digital clock. He’s home by 9:30.”
When public scrutiny and an ethics investigation began, Wayne Hays resigned from his committee chairmanship and Congress. He died in 1989. Ray wrote a book, attempted an acting career and (surprise!) appeared in Playboy.
7. FDR Wasn’t Alone When He Died At Warm Springs
Franklin D. Roosevelt had issues in his marriage way before he was elected President. In 1918, his wife Eleanor discovered love letters sent between her husband and her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, while FDR served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Mercer was fired, but it didn’t end the relationship. When Eleanor offered a divorce, FDR declined, believing that it would end his political career. His mother, a wealthy and domineering presence in their lives, also threatened to disown him.
Eleanor agreed to stay married but she insisted that they have separate bedrooms and that FDR never see Lucy Mercer again. Mercer got married a year later but that didn’t stop her from interacting with Roosevelt, especially during the war, when Eleanor Roosevelt was frequently out of Washington and involved in her own endeavors. Even Roosevelt’s daughter helped him arrange clandestine visits with the now Lucy Mercer Rutherford. After Lucy’s husband died in 1944, the relationship with Roosevelt intensified. She traveled from her home in Aiken, South Carolina to visit Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia where FDR had built a small cottage to take advantage of the heated mineral springs for polio treatment.
On April 12, 1945, Lucy Mercer was staying at the Warm Springs house and observing FDR as he posed for his portrait by the stone fireplace in the home. He suddenly complained of a terrific headache and lost consciousness. He was pronounced dead two hours later. Lucy Mercer immediately packed and left the cottage. Although Eleanor Roosevelt quickly became aware of Lucy Mercer’s presence, it would be twenty years before any historian mentioned this relationship, which was never publicly acknowledged by the Roosevelt family. Lucy Mercer Rutherford died in 1948 of leukemia and was buried next to her husband.
6. Andrew Jackson And The Petticoat Affair
President Andrew Jackson appointed John Eaton as his Secretary of War in 1829. Eaton’s wife, Peggy, already had a reputation for inappropriate behavior based on marrying Eaton, on January 1, 1829, shortly after the death of her first husband. This husband, John Timberlake, died under mysterious circumstances and gossip alleged that he committed suicide in despair over his wife’s affair with Eaton, conducted while the wealthy Eaton helped Timberlake with his debts and professional position in the Navy.
A concerted effort to socially blackball and ostracize the Eatons’ was orchestrated by the wife of Vice President John Calhoun, Floride. This boycott included other cabinet members’ wives who refused to invite the Eatons to social events, publicly snubbed the couple, and refused to call at the Eaton home, an accepted political formality of the day. Already hostile towards Washington officials based on how they had treated his deceased wife Rachel (who he believed to have died from the stress of similar treatment based on the details of their purportedly bigamous marriage), Andrew Jackson became enraged at the members of his cabinet engaging in this behavior.
Jackson was also incensed because he felt that Calhoun was exploiting the situation for political reasons involving states rights and the threats of secession by southern members of the government. Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s Secretary of State and a widower who could avoid taking sides in the Eaton controversy, offered to resign to allow Jackson to essentially fire his cabinet. The incident cemented Van Buren’s status as the Vice-Presidential candidate with Jackson in 1832, encouraging Jackson to drop his now-bitter rival Calhoun. Van Buren was elected Vice President as Jackson’s running mate and used this position as a stepping stone to the Presidency in 1836.
5. Bobby Baker, One of LBJ’s Good Ol’ Boys
Bobby Baker came to the US Senate as a fourteen-year-old page in 1942. Baker met Lyndon Johnson when the Texan was first elected to the US Senate in 1948. Of their meeting, Baker would recall:
“John Connally took me in to introduce me to Senator-elect Johnson, Johnson jumped up and he said, ‘Mr. Baker, they tell me you’re the smartest son of a bitch over there.’ I said, ‘Well, whoever told you that lied.’ I said, ‘I know all of the staff on our side. I know who the drunks are. And I know whose word is good.’ He said, ‘You’re the man I want to know.’ So we became great friends…”
Baker eventually became secretary to the Senate Majority Leader Johnson in the late fifties and worked closely with LBJ. He worked in an environment of cash contributions and no campaign regulation:
“My rule was if you’re five percentage points ahead, I cut the money off. But if you are tied, or something, I tried to get all the money I could for that particular senator. That was one of the reasons that Senator Johnson was so successful is that those people who you had a chance to elect, you would get money to, and as a consequence they were very grateful. But once again, you are selling your office. … It made my job much easier because a man that you have helped when he is running for his life, and he’s run out of money, and you send him $50,000, boy he is grateful…. We had no rules.”
Unfortunately, Bobby Baker also engaged in business dealings independent of his Senate position. He eventually came under congressional investigation in 1963 for bribery and conflict of interest based on his involvement with securing government contracts for a vending machine company financed by Las Vegas gambling interests. He resigned, hoping that his resignation would end the investigation. It did not, and initially it looked as if Baker’s association with LBJ might get the Vice-President removed from the Presidential ticket of 1964. The Kennedy assassination ended any continued investigation of Johnson but Bobby Baker was eventually sent to prison. In 1978, he wrote a bestselling memoir about his antics in Washington.
4. The East German Spy Who Had Relationships With Two Presidents
Ellen Rometsch escaped from East Germany at the age of nineteen in 1955. Posted with her husband, a West German soldier, to Washington DC, she began working at the Quorum Club, a fashionable DC bar situated near the US Senate offices. Here she made the acquaintance of Congressman Gerald Ford, already an influential member of Congress. When J. Edgar Hoover was unable to get details of the Warren Commission investigation of President John F. Kennedy, he pressed Ford for specifics. When Ford refused to cooperate, he was confronted with tape recordings of his intimacy with Rometsch. Already attempting to keep his wife’s drug dependency and alcoholism a secret (something else Hoover knew about), Ford served as Hoover’s informant for the duration of the Warren Commission’s tenure.
Ellen Rometsch was also involved with John F. Kennedy in meetings arranged by the aforementioned Bobby Baker, after receiving a request from a Kennedy go-between. Because of Rometsch’s alleged ties to East German intelligence, Republican lawmakers initially discussed a public investigation of the President’s conduct, an investigation that was squelched by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, with help from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover went to Capitol Hill and informed key lawmen that they should drop the matter unless they wished to be subjected to the same public scrutiny. The US Government expelled Ellen Rometsch and her husband in August of 1962. No official investigation of her involvement with American political figures ever took place.
3. Barney Frank Survived A Serious Scandal Early In His Career
Long before he became one of the most powerful members of Congress, passing landmark legislation regarding the financial services industry, Barney Frank was involved in a bizarre sex scandal involving male prostitutes at his Washington apartment. The situation came to light in 1989, four years after Frank met male hustler and felon Stephen Gobie and two years after Frank fired him as his personal assistant and housekeeper. Gobie first met Frank when the congressman answered a personal ad for a male escort. He had an extensive criminal record involving drug sales and vice convictions, was on probation when Frank hired him, and would be arrested again after Frank fired him in August of 1987.
In 1989, broke and thinking he could generate publicity for a book or film project , Gobie approached several DC media outlets asking for money in exchange for his story. Ultimately, he gave an extensive interview to The Washington Times, presuming it would catapult him to extensive media attention. The most damaging accusation made by Gobie was that Barney Frank knew that Gobie was operating a male prostitution operation from his home. He also attended a bill signing at the White House and played on Frank’s Congressional softball team.
Barney Frank admitted hiring and financially supporting Gobie, but denied that their ongoing relationship was sexual or that public or campaign funds were used. He flatly denied knowing about the ongoing prostitution in his apartment and explained that he was informed of this activity by his landlord. An ethics investigation of Frank led to a reprimand vote, the more serious charge of censure or expulsion was rejected by the House of Representatives. Ironically, the move to expel Frank was undertaken by Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican who would be investigated by Congress after propositioning an undercover policeman in a Chicago airport bathroom. Barney Frank remained popular after the scandal, re-elected by huge margins until his retirement in 2013.
2. The Vice Presidential Pick That Doomed George McGovern
As a liberal Democrat from South Dakota, Senator George McGovern was already a long shot to defeat the popular and well-financed President Richard Nixon. However, a disastrous start involving the July selection of Senator Tom Eagleton as his Vice-Presidential candidate destroyed any realistic chance at the Presidency. This now obscure incident became the reason that candidates currently undergo extensive scrutiny and background checks before being tapped for the VP slot. The McGovern campaign had little time to choose a candidate to complete their ticket and when Senator Ted Kennedy declined to join McGovern, Eagleton became the pick after perfunctory discussions about his background. Senator McGovern’s entire vetting process consisted of the single question “Any skeletons in the closet?” Eagleton answered with a simple “no.”
Unfortunately, within days, rumors that, as a younger man, Eagleton was hospitalized for depression and treated with electro-shock therapy forced him to confront the story publicly. After a news conference in which he claimed to have been treated for nervous exhaustion but did admit to shock therapy, Eagleton still received unequivocal support from Senator McGovern who infamously stated that he supported his running mate “1,000 per cent.” But, eighteen days after his nomination, public and private pressure to withdraw became insurmountable and Eagleton withdrew from the ticket. McGovern never recovered from the damaging manner in which he handled both the selection of Eagleton and the manner in which his running mate was ultimately jettisoned. In November, McGovern and his new running mate, Sargent Shriver, would go on to suffer one of the worst defeats in US history.
1. The Bush Administration Lost $12 Billion In Cash After Shipping It To Iraq
In July, 2008, a Congressional subcommittee chaired by Congressman Henry Waxman began investigating the expenditure of funds during the operation of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The investigation quickly established that, as part of the post-war management of the the occupation, 12 billion dollars in cash was flown to Iraq. This money originated from seized Iraqi assets and Iraqi oil sales supervised by the UN. Flown in by C-130 transport planes, the cash consisted of 281 million notes and weighed 363 tons. It quickly became clear that there was virtually no oversight over how this money was disbursed and administration officials kept few if any records of how the money was ultimately spent.
Officially, the Bush administration didn’t seem concerned by the expenditure of these funds as they were not officially US taxpayer money. CPA head Paul Bremer testified: “These are not appropriated American funds. They are Iraqi funds. I believe the CPA discharged its responsibilities to manage these Iraqi funds on behalf of the Iraqi people.” Numerous events involving the theft, misappropriation, or even inability to account for hundreds of millions of dollars in individual disbursements were relatively routine. One transaction involving the payment of money for security personnel was labeled “TBD” (To Be Determined). Ultimately, many in Congress would conclude that all of the 20 billion dollars spent by the CPA while governing Iraq would never be properly documented.