Political scandals are as old as politics itself. Sex, greed and self-importance often go hand-in-hand with power, money and cronyism, causing many a politician to stray from the straight and narrow. When the dirty details come out, the voters fume, comedians laugh and politicians blush.
Some scandals, such as extramarital affairs, are merely personal -- these may be mostly just embarrassing for the parties involved. Others involve wrongful death or an abuse of power at the highest level. These types of scandals can cripple even the most promising careers.
The Greeks had a word for it: hubris. It means the arrogance that leads to ruin. Thinking they are above the law or immune from any consequences, politicians sometimes take actions that prove to be self-destructive.
Political scandals happen all over the world, and many are as outrageous as any soap opera. This list takes a look at 10 of the most infamous ones.
Teapot Dome Scandal
The Teapot Dome Scandal was the largest of numerous scandals in the United States during the presidency of Warren Harding. Teapot Dome is an oil field located on public land in Wyoming reserved for emergency use by the U.S. Navy. Oil companies and politicians claimed the reserves were not necessary and that the oil companies alone could supply the Navy in the event of shortages.
In 1922, Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall accepted $404,000 in gifts and loans from oil company executives in return for leasing the rights to the oil at Teapot Dome to Mammoth Oil and Pan American Petroleum without asking for competitive bids. The leases were legal, but the gifts were not.
Fall's attempts to keep the gifts secret failed, and on April 14, 1922, The Wall Street Journal exposed the bribes. Fall denied the charges, but when one of the oil company executives revealed that he had given the secretary a $100,000 interest-free loan, the jig was up.
In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled that the oil leases had been illegally obtained, and the U.S. Navy regained control of Teapot Dome and other reserves. Fall was found guilty of bribery in 1929, fined $100,000, and sentenced to one year in prison. He was the first cabinet member imprisoned for his actions while in office.
President Harding was not aware of the scandal at the time of his death in 1923, but it contributed to his administration being considered one of the most corrupt in history.
On the next page, we'll turn to an even juicier scandal across the Atlantic.
The Profumo Affair
The trouble had begun two years earlier when British nobleman Lord Astor invited osteopath Stephen Ward to a party at his country estate. Ward brought along a friend, 19-year-old Christine Keeler, and some other young women. When Keeler went for a nude swim in Astor's pool, she attracted the eye of another guest at the party, John Profumo, who happened to be Secretary of State for War in the Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Profumo started an affair with Keeler, who was also dating Eugene Ivanov, a Russian naval attaché and possible Soviet spy.
Later, when one of Keeler's other boyfriends caused a violent ruckus, reporters got interested, and the story began to come out. Profumo was questioned about the affair in the House of Commons and denied any improper involvement with Keeler. But British newspapers kept on the scent and the truth came out. Profumo finally confessed and resigned in disgrace. Although there was no evidence that secrets had been compromised, Macmillan stepped down a few months later for health reasons. In 1964, the Conservatives lost a close election to the Labour Party, ending their 12-year reign. In a tragic twist to the affair, while the scandal still simmered Keeler and Ward were jailed for perjury and sex offenses. Ward committed suicide during his trial in August 1963.
Our next scandal was tragic from the beginning.
After being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy was known as a liberal who championed causes ranging from education to health care, but he was less successful in his personal life.
On July 18, 1969, Kennedy attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. He left the party with 29-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, who had campaigned for Ted's late brother Robert. Soon afterward, Kennedy's car veered off a bridge and Kopechne drowned.
An experienced swimmer, Kennedy said he tried to rescue her but the tide was too strong. He swam to shore, went back to the party, and returned with two other men. Their rescue efforts also failed, but Kennedy waited until the next day to report the accident, calling his lawyer and Kopechne's parents first, claiming the crash had dazed him.
There was speculation that he tried to cover up that he was driving under the influence, but nothing was ever proven. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, received a two-month suspended jail sentence and lost his driver's license for a year.
The scandal may have contributed to his failed presidential bid in 1980, but it didn't hurt his reputation in the Senate. In April 2006, Time magazine named him one of "America's 10 Best Senators," and he was esteemed at the time of his death in 2009.
Next, we'll turn to the best-known of all political scandals: Watergate.
On May 27, 1972, concerned that Nixon's bid for reelection was in jeopardy, former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt Jr., former New York assistant district attorney G. Gordon Liddy, former CIA operative James W. McCord Jr., and six other men broke into the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. They wiretapped phones, stole some documents and photographed others.
When they broke in again on June 17 to fix a bug that wasn't working, a suspicious security guard called the Washington police, who arrested McCord and four other burglars. A cover-up began to destroy incriminating evidence, obstruct investigations and halt any spread of scandal that might lead to the president. On Aug. 29, Nixon announced that the break-in had been investigated and that no one in the White House was involved.
Despite his efforts to hide his involvement, Nixon was done in by his own tape recordings, one of which revealed that he had authorized hush money paid to Hunt. To avoid impeachment, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974. His successor, President Gerald Ford, granted him a blanket pardon on Sept. 8, 1974, eliminating any possibility that Nixon would be indicted and tried.
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped expose the scandal using information leaked by someone identified as Deep Throat, a source whose identity was kept hidden until 2005, when it was revealed that Deep Throat was former Nixon administration member William Mark Felt.
Some scandals are just ridiculous, as you'll read in the next section.
During the Great Depression, Wilbur Mills served as a county judge in Arkansas and initiated government-funded programs to pay medical and prescription drug bills for the poor. Mills was elected to the House of Representatives in 1939 and served until 1977, with 18 of those years as head of the Ways and Means Committee.
In the 1960s, Mills played an integral role in the creation of the Medicare program, and he made an unsuccessful bid for president in the 1972 Democratic primary. But he's probably best known for one of Washington's juiciest scandals.
On Oct. 7, 1974, Mills' car was stopped by police in West Potomac Park near the Jefferson Memorial. Mills was drunk and in the back seat of the car with an Argentine stripper named Fanne Foxe. When the police approached, Foxe fled the car.
Mills checked into an alcohol treatment center and was reelected to Congress in November 1974. But just one month later, Mills was seen drunk onstage with Fanne Foxe. Following the incident, Mills was forced to resign as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and did not run for reelection in 1976.
Mills died in 1992, and despite the scandal, several schools and highways in Arkansas are named for him.
Next, let's turn to a scandal with wide international implications.
The Iran-Contra Affair
On July 8, 1985, President Ronald Reagan told the American Bar Association that Iran was part of a "confederation of terrorist states." He failed to mention that members of his administration were secretly planning to sell weapons to Iran to facilitate the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian terrorist groups.
Profits from the arms sales were secretly sent to Nicaragua to aid rebel forces, known as the contras, in their attempt to overthrow the country's democratically elected government. The incident became known as the Iran-Contra Affair and was the biggest scandal of Reagan's administration.
The weapons sale to Iran was authorized by Robert McFarlane, head of the National Security Council (NSC), in violation of U.S. government policies regarding terrorists and military aid to Iran. NSC staff member Oliver North arranged for a portion of the $48 million paid by Iran to be sent to the contras, which violated a 1984 law banning this type of aid. North and his secretary Fawn Hall also shredded critical documents.
President Reagan repeatedly denied rumors that the United States had exchanged arms for hostages but later stated that he'd been misinformed. He created a Special Review Board to investigate. In February 1987, the board found the president not guilty. Others involved were found guilty but either had their sentences overturned on appeal or were later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush.
Our next scandal involved more than one famous name. Read on.
The Keating Five
After the U.S. banking industry was deregulated in the 1980s, savings and loan banks were allowed to invest deposits in commercial, not just residential, real estate. Many savings banks began making risky investments, and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB) tried to stop them, against the wishes of the Reagan administration, which was against government interference with business.
In 1989, when the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, Calif., collapsed, its chairman, Charles H. Keating Jr., accused the FHLBB and its former head Edwin J. Gray of conspiring against him. Gray testified that five senators had asked him to back off on the Lincoln investigation.
These senators -- Alan Cranston of California, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, John Glenn of Ohio, Donald Riegle of Michigan and John McCain of Arizona -- became known as the Keating Five, after it was revealed that they received a total of $1.3 million in campaign contributions from Keating. While an investigation determined that all five acted improperly, they all claimed this was a standard campaign funding practice.
In August 1991, the Senate Ethics Committee recommended censure for Cranston and criticized the other four for "questionable conduct."
Cranston had already decided not to run for reelection in 1992. DeConcini and Riegle served out their terms but did not run for reelection in 1994. John Glenn was reelected in 1992 and served until he retired in 1999. John McCain continued his work in the Senate, and ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008.
A similar toxic combination of money and power was involved in the Chen Shui-bian scandals in Taiwan.
The Chen Shui-bian Scandals
Chen Shui-bian was a Taiwanese politician who rose from poverty to power in his country. The populist Chen was a reformer and a great showman known by his nickname A-bian. In 2000, his opposition group ousted the Kuomintang, the party which had ruled Taiwan since it was exiled from mainland China in 1949. As president, Chen opposed the strengthening of ties with China's government and flirted with the idea of declaring Taiwan independent from the mainland.
Chen won reelection in 2004, but the scandals began in 2006. First, his son-in-law was accused of insider trading. The same year, his wife was charged with corruption and forgery. It was proven that she had wired $21 million in campaign funds to banks in Singapore, Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. There were charges that Chen himself had misused his authority; his opposition tried unsuccessfully to mount an effort to recall him from position. Under the law, he couldn't be prosecuted while in office.
The scandal continued to build, and Chen resigned in August 2008. He was arrested six months later for embezzling $3.15 million of public funds and taking $9 million in bribes. A court convicted him in 2009. He and his wife were both sentenced to life in prison and fined a total of $15 million. Their sentences were later reduced to 20 years. The promising career of A-bian was over.
Sexual misbehavior has been the downfall of many a politician, as we'll see in our next scandal.
Just as "Watergate" will always sum up the scandals surrounding Richard Nixon, "bunga bunga" will probably be the catchword associated with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. His bunga bunga parties that took place at his mansion near Milan were replays of Roman orgies.
Berlusconi was a self-made businessman who had risen to wealth from an early gig as a cruise ship lounge singer. Using his media empire as a launching pad, he remained a power in Italian politics for 17 years, more than half that time as prime minister. Accusations of tax fraud and bribery were hurled at him early on. In addition, Berlusconi was a notorious playboy -- one theory held that he got the idea for "bunga bunga" from his friend, the now deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who allegedly hosted parties with "harems" of young women.
Berlusconi's most spectacular scandal came in 2011 when he was accused of paying for sex with an underage girl. He had befriended a teenage runaway from Morocco named Karima El Mahroug, who was also known as Ruby Heartstealer. She worked as a nightclub bellydancer and attended Berlusconi's wild parties. Although she and Berlusconi both denied a sexual relationship, Berlusconi used his influence to get her out of jail for theft in 2010, an act of chivalry that authorities saw as an abuse of power.
Before his trial on the sex offense and misuse of office began, Berlusconi had already been swept out of office. While he had been enjoying bunga bunga, the Italian economy had been going down the drain. The European debt crisis of 2011 was Berlusconi's ultimate downfall, though he was still scheduled to stand trial for sex crimes, with a possible 15-year jail term hanging over him.
Even the most pious of politicians can be immersed in scandal, as we'll see in the next section.
The Moshe Katsav Rape Scandal
Moshe Katsav, like Chen Shui-bian, was a poor boy who rose to a position of power in his country. Katsav was born to a Jewish family in Iran. His family immigrated to Israel in 1951, when Katsav was 5. They lived in a refugee tent camp for several years.
Katsav, an observant Jew, got a university education and joined the conservative Likud Party. He held a number of cabinet posts in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2000, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, elected him to the ceremonial but prestigious post of president. While in office, he rejected many pleas for pardons from convicted criminals.
His troubles began in 2006, and it was Katsav himself who set them rolling. He complained to the attorney general that he was being blackmailed by an employee who had worked for him when he was minister of tourism in the late 1990s. An investigation concluded that the woman's charges were true: Katsav had twice forced her to have sex with him. He was charged with two counts of rape.
Other women came forward, accusing Katsav of indecent assault and sexual harassment while he was president. Katsav denied his guilt, though he admitted "I've hugged and kissed women." He claimed the prosecution was a political vendetta.
In 2007, he resigned the presidency. He negotiated a plea bargain that would have meant no jail time, but changed his mind and pleaded not guilty. At his trial in 2010, he was convicted and an appeals court upheld the verdict. Katsav was sentenced to seven years in prison and required to pay compensation to his victims. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the occasion of Katsav's sentencing was "a day of sadness and shame."
Read on for lots more information about political scandals.
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- Hechinger, Paul. "Infamous British Political Scandals: the Profumo Affair," BBC America, December 28, 2011. (January 12, 2012) http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2011/12/infamous-british-political-scandals-the-profumo-affair/
- Hooper, John. "George Clooney and Cristiano Ronaldo star in Berlusconi trial witness list," Guardian, November 23, 2011. (January 12, 2012) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/23/clooney-ronaldo-witnesses-berlusconi-trial?INTCMP=SRCH
- TheStar.com What does 'bunga bunga' mean? Berlusconi mystery revealed. March 24, 2011 http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/959751--what-exactly-does-bunga-bunga-mean?bn=1
- Urquhart, Conal. "Moshe Katsav handed seven-year prison sentence for rape," The Guardian, March 22, 2011. (January 12, 2012) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/22/moshe-katsav-jailed-seven-years-rape?INTCMP=SRCH
- Wines, Michael. "Chen Shui-Bian," New York Times, September 11, 2009. (January 12, 2012) http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/_chen_shuibian/index.html