Absolute power corrupts absolutely. But for an American politician looking to make some money, even a little power will do quite nicely.
The history of American politics is lined with public officials lining their pockets.
To create a truly elite list of America's most crooked politicians, we limited our search to financial scandals (if we added sex scandals, you'd be here all day). And because practically every public official has at some point battled allegations of corruption, our list—ranked by the money stolen in 2016 dollars—includes only proven or admitted misconduct.
Prepare to be outraged as you enter our Hall of Shame.
Scandal: New Orleans Shakedown (2004-2010)
Money: $500,000 / worth $600,000 today
He became the public face of a battered city after HurricaneKatrina hit New Orleans in 2005. But when the city recently marked the tenthanniversary of the storm, Ray Nagin was nowhere to be seen. That's because theformer mayor is serving a ten-year federal prison sentence for corruptionbefore, during, and after Katrina. What his scam lacks in dollars compared tosome of the other Great American frauds, it makes up for in audacity. At a timewhen his city needed help the most, Nagin used the disaster as a revenuesource. He installed an associate as the city's "chief technology officer,"gaining control over millions of dollars in no-bid city contracts for thingslike computer systems and crime cameras. And Nagin used his position as mayorto steer redevelopment business to a granite company he owned with his sons.Perhaps worst of all, he let his city down during its darkest hour.
A disaster can be a prime breeding ground for corruptpoliticians. Some disasters, like hurricanes, are natural. Others, like the$160 billion savings and loan crisis in the 1980s, are manmade. Takingadvantage of that disaster were five politicians, but they're almostuniversally referred to as one, and that's next on our list.
Scandal: Savings and Loan Crisis (1989)
Money: $1.3 million / worth $2.5 million today
Far from the warm and friendly institutions depicted in It'sa Wonderful Life, savingsand loans by the 1980s had become cesspools of risky investments andcorruption. None was worse than Charles Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan inCalifornia, which collapsed in 1989 leaving thousands of investors penniless.How did Keating get away with it for so long? Five U.S. senators intervenedwith regulators on his behalf in exchange for lavish campaign contributions.The Senate Ethics Committee issued a formal reprimand to California DemocratAlan Cranston, and criticized Democrats Dennis DeConcini of Arizona and DonaldRiegle of Michigan for acting improperly. Democrat John Glenn of Ohio andRepublican John McCain of Arizona were cleared of wrongdoing but the committeeformally criticized them for poor judgment. McCain, the only member of theKeating Five still in office, has said the affair taught him a painful lessonabout conflicts of interest.
The Keating Five were all Senators. But the other side of thecapitol—the House of Representatives—is hardly free of crooks.
Scandal: Bribery and Corruption (2004-2005)
Money: $2.4 million / worth $3 million today
A decorated Navy flying ace with dashing good looks and thenickname "Duke," it seemed like Randall Cunningham of California had it all whenhe came to Congress in 1991. But like so many crooked politicians, it wasn'tenough. As a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, theRepublican congressman had a line on some of the most lucrative governmentcontracts, and he used that to his advantage—big time. There was the defensecontractor who purchased Cunningham's San Diego home for nearly twice itsmarket value, then allowed him to live rent-free on a yacht. There were otherfavors, cash payments, a Rolls Royce, and more. In 2005, Cunningham pleadedguilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes, making him arguably the mostcrooked congressman in history. He served an eight-year prison sentence andtoday reportedly lives in Arkansas.
While Washington may be teeming with crooks, some of the wildestscams occur in state capitals. Our next two crooked politicians hail fromstates that have raised graft to practically an art form.
Scandal: Racketeering and Extortion (1991-1997)
Money: $3 million / worth $4.6 million today
The four-time governor of Louisiana once famously boasted thatthe only way he could lose an upcoming election was "if I'm caught in bed witheither a dead girl or a live boy." He seemed equally invincible in the courts,beating 24 different corruption cases against him since the early days of hiscareer in the 1970s. But on the 25th case, his luck ran out. In 1998, afederal grand jury indicted him for a scheme to extort millions of dollars inpayments for casino licenses in the state. Edwards was convicted on 17 countsand spent more than 8 years in prison. But he wasn't done with public life justyet. In 2014, at age 87, he tried to stage one more political comeback. Withhis 35-year-old wife Trina and their one-year-old son by his side, Edwardsannounced he was running for Congress. It wasn't meant to be however, and withhis loss, the most colorful career in Louisiana politics came to an end. Or didit?
Scandal: Shoebox Scandal (1965-1970)
Money: $800,000 / worth $4.8 million today
No list of crooked politicians would be complete without a visitto Illinois, where four governors since 1968 wound up in prison. But perhapsthe most brazenly corrupt Illinois public official was Secretary of State PaulPowell, once quoted as saying, "There's only one thing worse than a defeatedpolitician, and that's a broke one." For Powell, those were words to live by.Illinois residents applying for driver's licenses in the 1960s would make theirchecks payable not to the state, but to "Secretary of State Paul Powell."Naturally, Powell took that literally. Add in a healthy dose of Illinoispatronage, and Paul Powell was set for life. When he died of a heart attack in1970, investigators found $800,000 in cash in his Springfield hotel room, muchof it stuffed in shoeboxes. A few months later, Illinois Senator AdlaiStevenson III famously quipped, "Paul Powell left behind some pretty bigshoeboxes to fill."
While people in Illinois may have come to expect that theirelected officials may turn out to be crooks, voters in many other parts of thecountry still have high expectations for the people they elect. That can make afall from grace all the more stunning. Next on our list is a case in point.
Scandal: Detroit's Crime Boss Mayor (2002-2008)
Money: $4.5 million / worth $5 million today
Considered a rising Democratic star and celebrated as the "HipHop Mayor" after he took office as Detroit's 68th mayor in 2002, Kwame Kilpatrickquickly set about building a criminal enterprise in City Hall. Some of hisantics may have even helped set the stage for Detroit's historic bankruptcy in2013. Profiled in a 2014 episode of AmericanGreed, Kilpatrick wasdogged by scandal almost from the start, from rumors of a wild party at histaxpayer-funded residence, to hundreds of thousands of dollars in unexplaineddeposits to his personal bank account. In 2013, a federal jury in Detroitconvicted Kilpatrick on 24 counts in what prosecutors called an "astonishing"scheme to establish a "pay-for-play" system, fleecing city contractors andtaxpayers for his personal gain. Kilpatrick, who is serving a 28-year prisonsentence, has appealed his case to the Supreme Court.
The next three crooked politicians on our list were allpresidents. After all, the highest office in the land can offer some prettyhigh returns for a president willing to go that route.
Scandal: Teapot Dome (1921)
Money: $400,000 / worth $5.3 million today
Warren Harding was never personally implicated, and most of thedetails emerged after his death. But Teapot Dome forever sullied the reputationof America's 29th president.Widely considered the granddaddy of American political scandals, the scheme wasfairly tame and straightforward by today's standards. The real villain isHarding's Interior Secretary Albert Fall, a member of the so-called "Ohio Gang"of confidantes Harding brought with him to Washington. Accused of acceptingnearly $400,000 in bribes in exchange for oil leases in Wyoming, Fall becamethe first former cabinet member in history to be sent to prison for crimescommitted while in office.
Scandal: Watergate (1972-1974)
Money: $500,000 to $1 million / worth $2.8 million to$5.6 million today
Legend has it that when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodwardand Carl Bernstein were investigating the burglary at Democratic NationalCommittee headquarters in Washington's Watergate complex, the confidentialsource known as "Deep Throat" told them to "follow the money." Deep Throat—whoturned out to be Associate FBI Director Mark Felt—never actually uttered thosewords. But Watergate, the only scandal to topple a U.S. president, definitelyhad money at its heart—along with a dizzying array of dirty tricks. To cover upthe break-in, President Nixon funneled as much as half a million dollars incampaign funds to the Watergate burglars. And he is heard on one of theinfamous White House tapes barely flinching over the prospect of raisinganother million in hush money. "You could get it in cash," he says. Nixonresigned in 1974, days after the House Judiciary Committee approved the firstof three articles of impeachment. Among other things, it accused him ofauthorizing payment of "substantial sums of money" to silence witnesses.
Scandal: Whiskey Ring (1871-1875)
Money: $3 million / worth $63.7 million today
Corruption was so rampant in the 18th U.S. president's administration thatit came to be known as "Grantism." That means there are plenty of Grantscandals to choose from. But the most notorious one—and the one that cameclosest to the President himself—involved a scheme to siphon millions ofdollars in whiskey tax revenues from the U.S. treasury. The conspiracy wasvast, involving revenue agents, distillers, and politicians. The president wasnot directly involved—in fact he ordered the raids that eventually broke up thering. But he conveniently waited until after his 1872 re-election to do so. Hemay also have lied to cover up the actions of his personal secretary, OrvilleBabcock, who was one of 350 people indicted in the scandal but was eventuallyacquitted, in part because the President personally vouched for him.
While the presidency can offer seemingly unlimited opportunitiesfor the committed crook, the top name on our list proves once and for all thatjust like all politics, all fraud is local. In fact, when adjusted forinflation, no politician in American history—from presidents on down—has comeeven close to this one's take. So without further ado, here is America's mostcrooked politician.
Scandal: Tammany Hall / The Tweed Ring (1869-1877)
Money: $6 million to $200 million / worth $129 million to $4.3 billion today
William Magear Tweed was a prodigious crook, elected to Congress before he turned 30. But the real money was at home in New York, where he would soon return to begin his climb to the top of the city's powerful Democratic machine known as Tammany Hall. Boss Tweed became a wealthy man—and one of the city's biggest land owners—thanks to some fairly basic scams, such as allowing over billing by favored contractors, rampant patronage, and accepting plenty of well-placed bribes and kickbacks. But in one of the early triumphs of investigative reporting, a series of reports by the New York Times beginning in1871 helped bring down the Tweed Ring. Tweed was eventually convicted on hundreds of criminal charges, and New York City successfully sued him for $6 million.But the money, believed to be a fraction of what he and his cronies actually stole, was long gone. He died in jail at age 55, secure in the knowledge that he stole more than any American public official before…or since.
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