A scandal was brewing in the summer of 1973, involving Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. The United States Attorney's Office in Baltimore, Maryland, was investigating allegations that Agnew, while Baltimore County executive in 1966, had solicited payoffs from contractors doing county business and that as governor of Maryland and later as vice president he had accepted kickbacks from engineers whose firms had received state contracts, even accepting several $2,000 payments in the Executive Office Building next to the White House.
On 31 July, Agnew's lawyers were handed a letter written by George Beall, United States attorney for Baltimore, informing him that he was under investigation for conspiracy, extortion, and bribery. At a meeting with Attorney General Elliot Richardson, Agnew denied all the charges, and on 6 August, as the story broke in the newspapers, he released a statement saying, "I am innocent of any wrongdoing."
Although Nixon called Agnew into the Oval Office and assured him of his support, the White House chief of staff, Alexander Haig, immediately dropped over to Agnew's office after that conference and suggested to the vice president that if he were indicted he should consider how it would affect his performance as vice president—a not so subtle hint to consider resignation. The White House defended Agnew's conduct as vice president but made no mention of what he might have done in Maryland, a significant omission. Meanwhile, Richardson and Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen pressed the case, while the Baltimore prosecutors found a key witness—the person who had taken the bribes and stored them for Agnew—willing to talk. Nixon backed Richardson and Petersen and kept his distance from Agnew. He refused to allow Agnew's lawyers to work with his own to plan a joint strategy involving presidential claims of executive privilege. His statements of support for Agnew were unenthusiastic.
In September, Agnew began to plea-bargain with the prosecutors, but negotiations dragged on for more than a month as he sought a deal that would not involve any admission on his part of wrongdoing. He tried desperately to get out of the corner: he made an issue of leaks to the press by the prosecutors; he had a 20 September meeting with Nixon, trying to get the president to put pressure on Richardson to agree to a compromise; he asked the House to impeach him so that Congress could conduct an investigation, believing that the courts would have to stand aside while an impeachment inquiry was taking place. But all these maneuvers failed. White House aides refused to pressure Richardson, and the Democratic majority in the House refused to impeach Agnew until judicial proceedings had run their course.
The delay was not to Agnew's advantage. He antagonized Nixon by attacking the Justice Department. His standing in the polls was dropping, a sure sign that he was a political liability. An exhaustive investigation of his finances was completed by the Internal Revenue Service, and the prosecutors now had details about his personal life that conceivably could prove embarrassing if they were revealed. Between 5 and 9 October, Agnew's lawyers and justice department lawyers cut a deal, which on 8 October was agreed to by a federal judge.
Part of the bargain involved Agnew's resignation from office. On 9 October he composed a letter to President Nixon and a formal letter of resignation and took both to the president personally. The resignation was effective the following day at 2:00 P.M. , just as the former vice president entered the federal courtroom to plead nolo contendere to the charges, which the judge immediately explained was the technical equivalent of a guilty plea. Then Attorney General Richardson read a lengthy statement into the record outlining the government's evidence against Agnew, which concluded with a plea for leniency (part of the bargain worked out the day before). The judge thereupon decided not to sentence Agnew to jail, pending good behavior for the next three years. He did fine Agnew $10,000 for income tax evasion.
With Agnew out of the way, the president nominated the House minority leader, Gerald Ford, to be vice president, a decision received by Congress with great enthusiasm and strong bipartisan support. With the resignation and succession crises resolved, attention once again turned to the long-simmering Watergate crisis.