How Quickly Reagan Administration’s Corruption Was Forgotten

Written in 1996, this piece highlights the selective memory of many Americans when it comes to President Reagan, seeing his administration through rose-colored glasses. However, in retrospect, it may be a bit harsh. Johnson’s charge that “138 administration officials” were accused of crimes by the end of Reagan’s term does not tell us how many were actually convicted, or evaluate the seriousness of all of their crimes.  And one cannot automatically assume that corruption charges and ethical problems within the federal government mean Reagan administration officials was culpable, any more than one can automatically assume that the Obama administration is culpable for things like IRS targeting of conservative groups, the breakdown of security and killing of the American ambassador in Bengazi, Libya, and other manufactured “scandals.”  

Gleeful charges by Republicans that Whitewater is comparable to Watergate and that the Clinton Administration is more corrupt than any recent administration are ludicrous when compared to the actual record of corruption in the Reagan-Bush administration and when it is noted that the charges against Clinton result from goings-on in Arkansas long before he became President. With Reagan, scandals occured while he was President.

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Haynes Johnson’s book, “Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years” (1991, Doubleday), chronicles the U.S.’s fall from dominant world power to struggling debtor nation during the Reagan years.

Johnson says “two types of problems typified the ethical misconduct cases of the Reagan years, and both had heavy consequences to citizens everywhere. One stemmed from ideology and deregulatory impulses run amok; the other, from classic corruption on a grand scale.”

“By the end of his term, 138 administration officials had been convicted, had been indicted, or had been the subject of official investigations for official misconduct and/or criminal violations. In terms of number of officials involved, the record of his administration was the worst ever.” (P. 184).

“Reagan’s customary response to instances of wrongdoing by aides was to criticize those who brought the charges or to blame the media that reported them.”

“Three great scandals stained the Reagan record, and they all involved the age-old form of corruption formed by the connection between money and politics. What distinguished them in the Reagan years was the number of buyers and sellers involved, and the amount of money there was to be made. The sheer volume of both had multiplied beyond any previous measure. Nothing better illustrated the problem than a case that connected some of Reagan’s closest associates, a score of top government officials in several departments and agencies, and the kind of political corruption that extended byack to the Washington of Grant and Harding: influence peddling, government contracts, cash, bribes, kickbacks, fraud and conspiracy. Before it was ended, it had dragged Atty Gen. Meese, advisor Lyn Nofziger, and many others into the net; led to indictments, trials, and convictions; and besmirched the reputation of the Reagan administration. It became known, popularly, as the Wedtech case.”

* Lyn Nofziger –convicted on charges of illegal lobbying of White House in Wedtech scandal.

* Michael Deaver — received three years’ probation and was fined $100,000 after being convicted for lying to a congressional subcommittee and a federal grand jury about his lobbying activities after leaving the White House.

* E. Bob Wallach — close friend and law school classmate of Attorney General Edwin Meese, he was sentenced to six years in prison and fined $250,000 in connection with the Wedtech influence-peddling scandal. Details from Johnson’s book. Not mentioned in Johnson’s book was that on appeal, in 1993, Wallach’s conviction was reversed, due to jury deadlock and a mistrial was declared.

Then there was:

— the Pentagon procurement scandal, which resulted from the Republicans’ enormous infusion of money too quickly into the Defense Department after the lean Carter years. Details.

— Massive fraud and mismanagement in the Department of Housing and Urban Development throughout Reagan’s eight years.  Details. These were finally documented in congressional hearings in spring 1989, after Reagan left office. Cost the taxpayers billions of dollars in losses. What made this scandal most shameful was that Reagan’s friends and fixers profited at the expense of the poor, the very people HUD and the federal government were pledged to assist through low-income housing.

— the Iran-Contra scandal. In June, 1984, at a National Security Council meeting, CIA Director Casey urged President Reagan to seek third-party aid for the Nicaraguan contras. Secretary of State Schultz warned that it would be an “impeachable offense” if the U.S. government acted as conduit for such secret funding. But that didn’t stop them. That same day, Oliver North was seeking third-party aid for the contras. But Reagan, the “teflon President” avoided serious charges of impeachment. North was convicted of falsifying and destroying documents, accepting an illegal gratuity, and aiding and abetting the obstruction of Congress. John Poindexter, Reagan’s national security advisor, was found guilty of five criminal counts involving conspiracy to mislead Congress, obstructing congressional inquiries, lying to lawmakers, used “high national security” to mask deceit and wrong-doing. Richard Secord pleaded guilty to a felony charge of lying to Congress over Iran-Contra.

— Environmental Protection Agency demonstrated favoritism toward polluters. Assistant administrator unduly influenced by chemical industry lobbyists. Details from Johnson’s book. Another administrator resigned after pressuring employees to tone down a critical report on a chemical company accused of illegal pollution in Michigan. The deputy chief of federal activities was accused of compiling an interagency “hit” or “enemies” list, like those kept in the Nixon Watergate period, singling out career employees to be hired, fired or promoted according to political beliefs.

Anne Gorscuh Burford resigned amid accusations she politically manipulated the Superfund money. Rita Lavelle was fired after accusing a senior EPA official of “systematically alienating the business community.” She was later indicted, tried and convicted of lying to Congress and served three months of a six-month prison sentence.

After an extensive investigation, in August 1984, a House of Representatives subcommittee concluded that top-level EPA appointees by Reagan for three years “violated their public trust by disregarding the public health and the environment, manipulating the Superfund program for political purposes, engaging in unethical conduct and participating in other abuses.”

— The Reagan Administration neglected nuclear safety. Details. A critical situation involving nuclear safety had been allowed to develop during the Reagan era. Immense sums, estimated at 200 billion or more, would be required in the 1990s to replace and make safe America’s neglected, aging, deteriorating, and dangerous nuclear facilities.

— Savings & Loan Bail-out. Details. Hundreds of billions of dollars were needed to bail out savings and loan institutions that either had failed during the deregulation frenzy of the eighties or were in danger of bankruptcy.

— Reckless airline deregulation. Details. Deregulation of airline industry took too broad a sweep, endangering public safety.

Drill Deeper:



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