10 Most Incriminating Secret Recordings

You might not recognize this man, but a recording of one of his phone conversations was detrimental to Lance Armstrong. ©ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Images

It probably comes as no surprise that people do things behind closed doors that they would never want to become public knowledge. But since the advent of easily concealable recording equipment, it's become much easier to catch someone in a controversy and broadcast it to the world.

Many a politician, royal family member, sports figure and other celebrity has been caught on audio or video saying or doing something they'd rather have erased from public memory, and some recordings have gotten people into real trouble.

Scandals caught on tape have caused everything from simple embarrassment to impeachment to jail time for the unlucky parties. From naughty royals to fallen politicians, here are 10 of the most incriminating secret recordings in recent history.

Romney's Fundraiser
2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's private fundraiser speech may have inspired donations, but it also may have cost him votes. incriminating-recordings-2-orig.jpg

Much to then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney's chagrin, a speech he made on May 17, 2012 at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in a private Boca Raton, Fla. residence was secretly taped. It was then released on the site Mother Jones in September 2012, not long before the 2012 election.

On the tape, Romney said things that he wasn't saying to the public on the campaign trail, and, after the backlash that followed, clearly would rather they had never heard. The comments that made the most news were regarding who he perceived as built-in Obama voters: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it ... And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not."

The tape, which caused an uproar and put the Romney campaign on the defensive, was made by Scott Prouty, who was bartending the event. He apparently taped the speech as a souvenir, but then decided to post a short clip from to YouTube where Romney described touring a factory in China. After being contacting by James Carter IV, Jimmy Carter's grandson, on behalf of Mother Jones reporter David Corn, Prouty provided the entire tape and the rest is history. Prouty remained anonymous until March 2013.

There's really no telling if the speech led directly to Romney's defeat at the hands of President Obama in 2012, but it can't have helped.

Rupert Murdoch's Meeting With Sun Employees
A protestor dressed as Rupert Murdoch during a February 2012 protest in London, England. ©Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

On March 6, 2013, News Corporation founder Rupert Murdoch and members of The Sun's leadership met with around two dozen Sun journalists, all of whom had been arrested during a police investigation into illegal practices at The Sun and other News Corporation publications. The meeting, at The Sun's headquarters in London, was secretly taped and leaked to the public online, as well as handed to the police.

The arrests occurred in relation to multiple investigations sparked by a scandal at another News International paper, News of the World, which was caught hiring people to hack into the phones of newsworthy people, including royals, celebrities, politicians and 13-year-old kidnap and murder victim Milly Dowler. There were also allegations that they deleted some of Dowler's voice mail to make way for new messages, causing confusion in the investigation into her disappearance. News of the World, which had operated since 1843, was shut down over the scandal, while investigations into similar practices at several papers began. Nearly a hundred arrests were made, and it turned out The Sun and other publications were apparently handing over substantial amounts of money to certain public officials on a regular basis.

Murdoch's comments during the meeting, rather than denying wrongdoing, seemed to confirm that bribery of public officials went on as a matter of course in the news business, saying, " ... I don't know of anybody, or anything, that did anything that wasn't being done across Fleet Street and wasn't the culture. And we're being picked on." To a journalist's question regarding the working practices having been inherited, Murdoch said, "We're talking about payments for news tips from cops. That's been going on a hundred years, absolutely. You didn't instigate it." In the course of the conversation, Murdoch also said, "It's the biggest inquiry ever, over next to nothing," [source: Hencke].

Phone Calls Between Lance Armstrong's Friends
Before the controversy: LeMond and Armstrong chatting during the fifth stage of the 1994 Tour de France. ©Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT

Lance Armstrong, member of the U.S. Postal Service-sponsored professional cycling team, won the Tour de France seven consecutive times from 1999 through 2005. His tape scandal stands out in that the recorded conversation didn't include him directly.

In July 2004, Greg LeMond, three-time Tour de France winner and rival of Armstrong, secretly recorded a phone conversation between himself and Stephanie McIlvain, who worked for Armstrong as liaison to sponsor Oakley. LeMond asked her if she would tell the truth about a conversation she overheard in the hospital when Lance was being treated for testicular cancer, and she stated she wouldn't lie and that she heard it. In 2005, as witnesses in a lawsuit brought by Armstrong against SCA Promotions, Betsy and Frankie Andreu testified that in 1996 they overhead Armstrong admit to using steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs to a doctor in the hospital where he was being treated; McIlvain gave a deposition saying that she did not overhear him making the admission. Armstrong insisted that hospital staff never asked him if he doped, and his lawyer stated that the medical records showed no evidence of that conversation.

In 2010, McIlvain and seven others were subpoenaed to testify in a criminal investigation of Armstrong and others regarding drug use in the world of professional cycling to determine whether to bring charges. It is uncertain what testimony McIlvain gave to the grand jury, and the investigation was ultimately dropped.

In October 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a report stating that there was conclusive proof that Armstrong doped throughout his career and encouraged other teammates to do so, as well, including the testimony of 11 of his teammates and at least one eyewitness. Armstrong continued to deny the charges, but in that same month, the Tour de France stripped him of his titles. Livestrong, the cancer charity he founded after his bout with the disease, reported a dip in revenue after the scandal, and Armstrong broke official ties with Livestrong in November 2012.

During and interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013, Armstrong finally admitted to having taken performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career.

The taped phone call was only one of many pieces in the damning puzzle of evidence that came together against Armstrong.

The Bobby Davis and Laurie Fine Phone Conversation
Bernie Fine on the sidelines at a game between the Syracuse Orange and the Connecticut Huskies during the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden on March 12, 2009 in New York City. ©Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

On Oct. 8, 2002, Bobby Davis, former ball boy at Syracuse University, taped a phone conversation between himself and Laurie Fine, wife of longtime Syracuse associate head basketball coach Bernie Fine. Her comments indicated that she may have known or suspected that her husband molested Davis when he frequently stayed at their home as a child, although she never went so far as to admit to having seen it happen. Davis has accused Bernie fine of sexually abusing him for about 15 years beginning when he was only in seventh grade.

Davis gave the tape to the Syracuse Post-Standard in 2002 and ESPN in 2003, but both declined to publish the information, at least in part because there wasn't enough evidence and there were no other witnesses. Davis also reportedly went to Syracuse police in 2002, but no investigation was launched. Syracuse University investigated Davis's allegations in 2005 and found no corroborating evidence.

On the tape, Laurie and Davis discuss Bernie Fine's molestation openly. Davis even asked Mrs. Fine, "You think I'm the only one he's ever done that to?" and she replied, "No." The tape also seems to confirm that Laurie Fine herself had a sexual relationship with Davis, who said later in an interview that it occurred when he was 18 and that he had told Bernie Fine about it. Laurie Fine has denied that she and Davis had such a relationship.

The tape was finally released by ESPN in November 2011, after Davis's older stepbrother reported that Fine also molested him when he was a ball boy. The tape along with the new allegations resulted in Syracuse putting Bernie Fine on administrative leave. However, the age of the alleged crime meant that the statute of limitations had passed, so the police could not investigate.

A few days after the tape emerged, a third man accused Bernie Fine of molesting him in a hotel room in 2002 when he was 13, the night before an away game in Pittsburgh. After the third allegation -- a more recent crime -- police conducted a search of the Fines' home.

Laurie Fine threatened to sue ESPN for libel for releasing segments of the tape, prompting them to release the full 47-minute tape. As of mid-2013, Bernie Fine has denied all charges.

FBI Wiretaps of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich
Blagojevich was taken into federal custody Dec. 9, 2008 to face corruption charges which included trying to sell Obama's Senate seat. ©Scott Olson/Getty Images

An FBI investigation of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich began in October 2008 when one of his associates, John Wyma, tipped them off that Blagojevich was attempting to solicit campaign contributions or other personal benefits in exchange for official favors. Authorities received permission to wiretap his phones and install microphones in his campaign office, recorded him for around seven weeks and gathered enough evidence to arrest him in December 2008. The scandal also led to his impeachment.

The profanity-laden recordings revealed efforts to take campaign contributions or other bribes in exchange for appointment to the U.S. Senatorial seat vacated by President Barack Obama upon his election to the presidency, among other possible perks within his power as governor. After the first trial in August 2010 resulted in a hung jury, Blagojevich's defense team tried to keep the tapes from being played as evidence during the retrial, to no avail. In 2011, he was convicted of 18 counts of felony corruption, including wire fraud, soliciting bribes and attempted extortion, and sentenced to 14 years in federal prison, $21,800 in fines and two years of supervised release. He is serving his sentence as inmate number 40892-424 at the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in Littleton, Colorado.

Oddly enough, Blagojevich was not the first Illinois governor to be accused of a felony, nor the second, but the fifth just in the past 100 years. These include George Ryan in 2007 for conspiracy, racketeering, tax fraud and making false statements to the FBI; Otto Kerner in 1973 for bribery, conspiracy and perjury; Dan Walker in 1987 (a while after his 1970s term) for bank fraud; and Lennington Small in 1929 for embezzlement. All but Small were convicted. Blagojevich has the distinction of receiving the longest sentence.

Former Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams Encouraging Players to Injure Opponents
Gregg Williams watches a play during a game between the New Orleans Saints and the San Diego Chargers at the Louisiana Superdome in August 2010. ©Chris Graythen/Getty Images

In a less than sportsmanlike gambit, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was caught on tape the night before a 2011 National Football Conference (NFC) postseason championship game encouraging his players to injure opponents on the San Francisco 49ers. The incident was recorded by documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon, who caught less than four minutes of the roughly 12-minute speech on tape. Pamphilon was following the team for a documentary about former Saints player Steve Gleason, who is fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease.

During the recorded portion of the speech, Gregg mentions several 49ers by name or number, sometimes even directly referencing injuries they have sustained. His language is aggressive and specific in the ways players should go after their targets: "Little 32, we want to knock the [expletive] out of him," as well as, "We hit [expletive] Smith right there," pointing to his chin, according to Pamphilon. Shortly thereafter, while rubbing his thumb, index and middle fingers together to indicate payment, he apparently puts a bounty on Alex Smith, saying, "Remember me. I've got the first one. I've got the first one. Go get it. Go lay that mother [expletive] out." He also tells the team they don't apologize for the way they play and refers to the NFL as a production business.

Gregg Williams and many players, with the knowledge of at least one other coach and the general manager, reportedly kept a pool of around $50,000 to hand out rewards for injuries, including $1,500 for knockouts (knocking a player entirely out of the game) and $1,000 for cart-offs (causing a player to be removed from the field). Paying out for game performances, even allowed actions like intercepting passes, is against NFL rules. Suspensions were handed out to Saints staff members, including one year for head coach Sean Payton, six games for assistant head coach Joe Vitt and eight games for general manager Mickey Loomis. The Saints were also fined $500,000 and lost their second-round 2012 and 2013 draft picks. Williams's speech apparently came after the NFL warned the Saints that it was being investigated and needed to stop the bounty program, but before the penalties were meted out.

The tape went public the same day Payton, Vitt and Loomis were scheduled to have appeals heard by the National Football League (NFL) regarding their punishment for the bounty scheme. Their appeals were denied. Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, but did not appeal the decision.

Gregg Williams actually left the team after that game to work for the St. Louis Rams. And despite any dirty play, the 49ers won the NFC playoffs 35 to 32 against the Saints.

Sarah Ferguson Taking Money for Access to Her Royal Ex-husband
Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew awaiting their daughter Princess Beatrice at the finish line of the Virgin London Marathon in April 2010. ©Indigo/Getty Images

The British royal family has seen its fair share of scandal, and Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, Prince Andrew's ex-wife, is no exception. In 2010, News of the World (before it was shut down in the phone hacking scandal) had reporter Mazher Mahmood pose as a businessman and meet with Fergie. He taped her offering him access to her ex-husband in exchange for 500,000 pounds (more than $720,000), as well as possible future payments, saying she could open doors for him and the access would pay him back tenfold. The fake businessman gave her a $40,000 cash down payment on tape and said he would wire the rest. Prince Andrew, who acts as representative for international trade and investment for Britain, apparently knew nothing about the situation. His lack of involvement was reiterated by both his office and his ex-wife after news of the scandal broke. The Duchess made a public apology for her lapse in judgment when the tape came to light.

She and Prince Andrew divorced in 1996 after ten years of marriage. She was reportedly in debt to the tune of over $4 million at the time of her divorce, and nearly $1 million after her U.S. company Hartmoor LLC went under in 2009. She only receives around $20,000 a year as part of her divorce settlement. At the time of the scandal, she was living in Prince Andrew's home, Royal Lodge, near Windsor Castle. Aside from her royal marriage, she is also known for her charity work, writing children's books and her former role as spokesperson for Weight Watchers.

Princess Diana's Squidgygate
Even the people's princess was not immune to scandal. When a 1989 phone call became public in 1992, it became clear that all was not well in her marriage to Prince Charles. ©Tim Graham/Getty Images

Lady Diana Frances Spencer married Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, on July 29, 1981 in a televised fairytale wedding, making her the Princess of Wales when she was only 20 years old. The couple had two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. The royal relationship proved tumultuous, however, with rumors of adultery on both sides. They separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. Princess Diana was lauded for her charity work and adored by the public, but despite her ongoing popularity, she wasn't free of scandal.

In 1992, a 20-minute cell phone conversation between Princess Diana and childhood friend James Gilbey, Lotus marketing manager and heir to a gin fortune, emerged. During the call, which was apparently made on New Year's Eve 1989, he told her he loved her and repeatedly called her "darling" and "Squidgy." On the tape, Princess Diana commented that her husband made her life torture and referred to him as "His Nibs."

The call was somehow overheard by two ham radio operators, Cyril Reenan and Jane Norgrove, on separate days, and recorded by Reenan, who sold the tape in 1992. The newspaper that bought it published a transcript of the call, and also allowed people to call a phone line to listen to the recording. Ken Wharfe, former bodyguard of Princess Diana who wrote a book about her after her death, accused the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) of recording the conversation and possibly playing it on a loop until it was picked up on ham radio. He even said that Diana called and listened to the recording herself. Wharfe stated that he was told Queen Elizabeth ordered an internal inquiry into the initial recording and the leak. An inquiry into the incident was reportedly vetoed by Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke.

Prince Charles had his own leaked cell call scandal over intimate conversations between himself and Camilla Parker-Bowles, dubbed Camillagate. The call was also apparently recorded in 1989 but mysteriously leaked shortly after the Squidgy tape. Prince Charles and Camilla have since married.

Washington Mayor Marion Barry Smoking Crack
Despite the drug scandal, Marion Barry managed to continue his career in Washington, D.C. government. ©Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Washington Mayor Marion Barry Jr. had a dramatic rise and fall, and rise again. In the 1970s, he was a celebrated Civil Rights activist, District of Columbia school board member and city councilmember who even took a bullet while trying to defend a city building during a hostage crisis. He became mayor in 1978 and served three consecutive terms.

There were rumors of his drug use in the 1980s, but Barry's fall from grace came in 1990 when he was caught using crack cocaine on videotape. And it was no accident. In a sting operation that was part of a corruption probe, the FBI, in conjunction with Washington, D.C. police, had Barry's former girlfriend Hazel Diane (aka Rasheeda) Moore lure him to a room at the Vista Hotel on Jan. 18, 1990. Barry met Moore and an undercover FBI agent posing as a friend of hers. The FBI taped the encounter via hidden video cameras and audio recorders. On the videotape, Barry broached the subject of sex, which Moore declined, and then drugs, although he did it without referring to drugs directly. Barry said he didn't have any and asked if she did. The undercover agent provided crack to Moore, who gave it to Barry. Moore declined to use it, and Barry smoked it in a crack pipe and then suggested they go downstairs.

As he was calling his security guards, who were downstairs, FBI agents burst into the room to arrest him. Barry said that Moore set him up, in less than polite words, while the FBI was trying to Mirandize him. He asked what the charges were, and he was told cocaine possession.

During the trial, Ms. Moore stated that she underwent a religious conversion before the bust and that she was worried about Mayor Barry's health. Barry was convicted of only one of 14 charges, misdemeanor cocaine possession -- although not the one stemming from the sting operation, but rather a charge based on testimony from another witness, Doris Crenshaw, that he used cocaine with her in 1989. Barry was acquitted of an earlier possession charge. The other 12 charges, including multiple possession charges, one conspiracy to possess and one perjury charge, resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial. For the charge that stuck, he was sentenced to six months in prison.

Despite the scandal, Marion Barry rose to prominence again, winning back his city council seat in 1992. In 1994, he was reelected as mayor. All in all, he served four terms as D.C. mayor, and before, after and in between served as D.C. councilmember, a seat that he still holds as of summer 2013.

The Nixon White House tapes
President Nixon secretly taped conversations for posterity, but that practice ended up causing him all kinds of trouble. © Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The granddaddy of all audio recording scandals involved the 37th President of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon. President Nixon secretly taped meetings and phone conversations that took place in the White House and other locations starting in 1971. All in all, he taped around 3,700 hours of conversations, apparently intended for posterity, and for the most part without the knowledge of the other people involved in the meetings.

In June 1972, several burglars were caught breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., attempting to plant bugs. Two other men, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, apparently led them via walkie-talkie from a nearby building. Several of the men, including Liddy, Hunt and James McCord, had connections to the Nixon re-election committee. All either pled or were found guilty of the break-in. Liddy and Hunt were also responsible for an earlier break-in of the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam strategist who leaked the Pentagon Papers exposing lies that led the U.S. to war. This group of White House-affiliated burglars were dubbed "plumbers" for their utility in fixing leaks. Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein covered the Watergate break-in story with the help of multiple sources, including the one dubbed "Deep Throat," who in 2005 was revealed to be a former high-ranking FBI official, Mark Felt.

After the Watergate incident was potentially linked with the White House, two government investigations were launched, one led by a special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and another, the Senate Watergate Committee, led by North Carolina Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr. In July 1973 during the Senate hearings, Alexander Butterfield, former appointment secretary to the president, revealed the existence of the tapes, after which Nixon stopped taping. The two investigative bodies requested the Nixon's recordings, but the president denied, citing executive privilege. He eventually gave them edited transcripts, which were damning enough on their own, but he continued to refuse to hand over the actual tapes and to deny any wrongdoing, including uttering his famous "I am not a crook" line.

Nixon's lawyers had to disclose that 18 and a half minutes were missing from one of the tapes, ostensibly accidentally erased -- at least in part -- by Nixon's loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods. In July 1974, the Supreme Court voted unanimously that Nixon had to hand over the tapes, and shortly thereafter impeachment proceedings began against him for obstruction of justice. The tapes did reveal shenanigans. The so-called "smoking-gun" tape contained a conversation from mid-1972 that proved Nixon was involved with the cover-up over Watergate from the beginning, rather than having just learned of it in March 1973 as he had maintained. Rather than face inevitable impeachment, Nixon announced his resignation on Aug. 8, 1974, two and a half years into his second term. He was the first U.S. President to resign. Vice President Gerald Ford became President, and a few weeks later granted Nixon a full pardon, despite the fact that no criminal charges were ever lodged against him.

Segments of the tapes have been released periodically over the years, and often reveal controversial revelations and language. The Watergate incident, aside from felling a president and making us all super cynical about politicians, also led many subsequent scandals to suffixed with "gate."


Do People Who Protest in Public Have an Expectation of Online Privacy?

Do People Who Protest in Public Have an Expectation of Online Privacy?

Is 'doxxing' (posting someone's personal information online) a good idea when in the service of a 'higher cause'? HowStuffWorks looks at this issue.

Author's Note: 10 Most Incriminating Secret Recordings

Because with the ubiquity of cell phones, not to mention security cameras, it is quite possible for any of us to be caught on tape at any time. It's pretty easy not to commit the obvious crimes, save speeding (although there are so many laws that we may accidentally be committing smaller infractions regularly). But embarrassing moments are harder to guard against. And there is no telling what conversations could be taken out of context, like Job's, "I killed Earl Milford." I've caught myself and friends discussing video game kills in crowded places like they were real. What must the nearby families have thought of us? Now they could just take out their smartphones and start recording.

Many of these famous cases were sting operations or clandestine recordings made for the purpose of catching someone in a crime or lie. And your average Joe is unlikely to catch the attention of a news outlet. But any of us can have our most awkward moments plastered on YouTube or Facebook. I'd say we should start moderating our actions and comments like politicians and celebrities, but that doesn't seem to be working out so well for them, either.

Related Links


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