In Palm Springs There's No Guilt by Association—almost No One Sees Spiro Agnew
Eight years ago, when Agnew made a deal with federal prosecutors to quit the Vice-Presidency, plead nolo contendere to one count of tax evasion and pay a $10,000 fine, he believed he could avoid any court action. But an irate George Washington University professor, John F. Banzhaf III, had his law students search the books for three years until they found in English common law a basis for the suit against Agnew. They argued that taxpayers could reclaim bribes for the state treasury.
Agnew's reputation in the business world will suffer little from the decision. As an international consultant, he is still welcomed as a statesman in countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. One of the nicest things Richard Nixon ever did for Spiro, a friend explains, was dispatching him to the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire staged by the Shah in 1971. In tents pitched near the Persian ruins at Persepolis, Agnew became fast friends with international royalty.
At home in Palm Springs, Calif., too, Agnew is surrounded by wealth and power. But at 62, he shuns the limelight he once coveted. "Things will never be the same and I have accepted that," he wrote in Go Quietly...or Else, a 1980 outpouring of self-defense and self-pity. "I am happy now but there is a small black cloud that intrudes on my happiness at unpredictable times."
During his trial Agnew was overseas on business, according to a spokesman for his Maryland-based consulting company, Pathlite Inc. "He travels around the world with a briefcase full of deals," says an acquaintance. "In some places American companies dealing with foreign governments find it advantageous to have someone like Spiro Agnew open the door for them."
His income is substantial: For example, according to court records he earned $80,000 in one 1976 deal, for negotiating a $32 million contract for a U.S. firm to build 19 schools in Saudi Arabia. For a while after his fall, Agnew claims to have been destitute. He was saved by loans of more than $200,000 from Frank Sinatra (to whom he gratefully dedicated his autobiography). The money went to pay his $10,000 court fine and back taxes of upwards of $150,000—and to support his family. "As time went by and my business improved," Agnew has explained, "I earned an adequate income and paid back the last of the Sinatra loan in 1978."
By then Agnew and his wife, Judy, 60, had moved to an expensive house about a half mile from Sinatra's desert compound. The Agnews' spread is in the exclusive Rancho Mirage community called The Springs, a 378-acre development with 600 homes, an 18-hole golf course and 10 tennis courts—all hidden behind a white block wall covered with pink oleander that glows in the sun. The Palm Springs area is full of celebrities—Bob Hope, Gerald Ford, Red Skelton and Lucille Ball—but Agnew rarely socializes with anyone but Sinatra and composer Jimmy Van Heusen. One source close to Ford says that the ex-President finds Agnew so distasteful that he actively avoids his company. But the feeling is not unanimous. "I have never laid eyes on Agnew, and I get around a lot," says Allene Arthur, society editor of the Palm Springs daily, the Desert Sun. "Socially, he would be considered quite an acquisition because he's a big name, he's a celebrity. It's not that he's not invited to social events, but that he's not accessible." Agnew explained that shyness in his book. "When people stop and stare at you," he wrote, "you know some are thinking, There goes Agnew, the guy who was kicked out of the Vice-Presidency.' "