Trust me! That’s what every politician is asking when you step up to cast your vote on Election Day. While the majority of officials may be stupid or incompetent or both, they at least seem to take their oath of office seriously. But scores of others have violated the public trust in shocking and outrageous fashion. Crimes ranging from fraud, embezzlement and accepting bribes all the way to manslaughter and sexual assault have been committed by elected representatives.
Watergate is synonymous with criminal acts committed by federal officials because it ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. The break-in, bugging and burglary at Democratic Party campaign headquarters at the Watergate office complex and attempted cover-up afterward resulted in convictions for 69 of the president’s men, although “Tricky Dick” was never formally impeached or charged with a crime.
The Watergate scandal tarnished the pure image of public officials, especially at the federal level. The fantasy that congressmen, senators or even the president would never commit a crime was blown away forever. Of course, crooked officials have been roaming the halls of the Capitol since the earliest days of the Republic, but after Watergate we were no longer surprised to hear about lawmakers breaking the law.
Even so, some crimes committed since Watergate were particularly memorable and outrageous. Here are 10 federal politicians with the worst criminal records.
10 Vice President Spiro Agnew; Income Tax Evasion
Vice President Agnew did not play a role in Watergate, but heightened scrutiny of all the president’s men led investigators to discover that as Governor of Maryland six years earlier, Agnew failed to report thousands of dollars of income on his federal tax return.
After two months of angry denials, Agnew finally fessed up to being a tax cheat. He resigned the vice presidency in 1973 just as the Watergate scandal started heating up.
9 Rep. William Jefferson; Bribery and Corruption
Talk about cold cash! The FBI was investigating the New Orleans Democrat for accepting $400,000 in bribes from companies seeking government contracts for construction projects. The cash was funneled through a company run by Jefferson’s wife and children.
The FBI raided Jefferson’s home in 2005 and discovered $90,000 in cash wrapped up in plastic bundles inside a freezer. Despite the scandal, he was re-elected in 2006. Jefferson was convicted in 2009 on 11 counts of bribery and was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
8 Rep. Randall “Duke” Cunningham; Bribery and Fraud
The California Republican was charged with conspiracy to commit bribery in connection with arranging sweet deals for building contractors. Cunningham was also charged with mail fraud, wire fraud and evading taxes.
Prosecutors revealed that Cunningham received $2.4 million worth of cash and other goodies that included a Rolls Royce, luxury home, antiques and a yacht. He pled guilty and gave up his seat in the House of Representatives. Cunningham received a 100-month prison sentence.
7 Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.; Fraud, Conspiracy, Making False Statements, Criminal Forfeiture
The Justice Department began investigating the son of the civil rights leader in 2011 for lavish spending and an opulent lifestyle that far exceeded his Congressional salary and personal assets. The investigation uncovered the misuse of $750,000 of campaign funds as well as mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy.
Jackson resigned from Congress in 2012, citing health problems. He later pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison in 2013.
6 Rep. Bill Janklow; Manslaughter, Speeding, Reckless Driving
Janklow was driving at least 70 miles an hour through an intersection where the speed limit was 55. A man driving a motorcycle ran straight into him, dying upon impact. He resigned from office in 2004 after being convicted of Second-Degree Manslaughter, Speeding and Reckless Driving, and was sentenced to 100 days in jail and three years’ probation.
5 Rep. Dan Rostenkowski; Corruption, Embezzlement, Mail Fraud, Witness Tampering
Rostenkowski was a fixture in Chicago politics for decades and an influential power broker as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in the 80s and early 90s. Then, it all unraveled. The Illinois Democrat was indicted for embezzling $700,000 in federal funds, keeping non-existent employees on his staff payroll, diverting cash to pay for gifts and personal vehicles, and tampering with a Grand Jury witness.
A highly publicized allegation of trading stamps for cash at the House Post Office was dropped when Rostenkowski pled guilty to a lesser charge of Mail Fraud. He was convicted on 13 of the 17 charges filed. He paid huge fines, served 15 months in prison and then spent two months at a Chicago Halfway House. Rostenkowski was pardoned in 2000 by outgoing President Bill Clinton.
4 Rep. Jim Traficant; Corruption, Bribery, Racketeering, Tax Evasion
Traficant was convicted of corruption charges in 2002. He was expelled from Congress, and later tried to recapture his seat by running as an independent candidate while serving his sentence in federal prison. Although he lost, Traficant captured 15 percent of the vote.
Traficant faced similar charges in the 1980s while serving as Sheriff of Mahoning County, and he beat the rap while representing himself flamboyantly in court. The same tactic didn’t work in Federal Court, and Traficant was convicted on 10 felony counts.
3 Rep. Raymond Lederer; Bribery
Lederer was one of seven congressmen convicted for accepting bribes in the infamous 1979 “Abscam” FBI sting in which fake Arab “sheiks” offered cash to 31 House members in exchange for favors. The sting became the focal point in the plot of the movie American Hustle in 2013.
Congressman Lederer was videotaped in a New York hotel room accepting $50,000 from FBI agents posing as a sheik’s representatives. He told the agents “I can give you me” in exchange for the cash.
Despite being implicated in the scandal, Lederer was re-elected in 1980. He was later convicted of bribery and received a three-year prison sentence and a $20,000 fine.
2 Rep. Michael Myers; Bribery
Before Michael Myers, the fictional ax murderer in the movie Halloween, and comic actor Michael Myers of Wayne’s World and Austin Powers fame, Pennsylvania Congressman Michael Myers was infamous for his role in the “Abscam” FBI sting.
Like his colleague Ray Lederer and five other U.S. representatives, Myers was videotaped accepting a $50,000 bribe from undercover FBI agents. Upon accepting a suitcase filled with cash, Myers was recorded saying the immortal line, “Money talks and bullshit walks.”
Rep. Myers was fined $20,000 and sentenced to three years in prison. He also became the first member of the House of Representatives to be expelled since 1861. Ohio Representative Jim Traficant was the next to be expelled, in 2002.
1 Rep. Mel Reynolds; Assault, Abuse, Obstruction of Justice
Reynolds isn’t the most well-known, but is arguably the slimiest felon among Chicago-area criminal politicians. He was indicted in 1994 for Sexual Assault and Criminal Sexual Abuse for forcing himself on a 16-year-old campaign volunteer. Additional charges of Obstruction of Justice and Solicitation of Child X-Rated Filmography were later added.
Reynolds denied the charges, claiming they were racially motivated. The jury disagreed, and Reynolds was convicted on all 12 counts. In 1995 he was sentenced to five years in prison.
Then in 1997, Reynolds was convicted on 16 additional unrelated counts of Bank Fraud. That would have added another 78 months of jail time, but outgoing President Bill Clinton commuted the Bank Fraud sentence.