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Most Shocking Political Scandals In American History

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The world of Washington D.C. is no stranger to scandal, and backhanded deals and wayward politicians have been buzzing around the system like flies since the early days.

Here are the 23 most shocking political scandals in U.S. history. Enjoy!


The D.C. Madam

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Deborah Jeane Palfrey was convicted in 2008 by a federal court for running an escort service. Also known as the D.C. Madam, Palfreys business was known to cater to several high profile clients including senators and department officials. Republican Senator David Vitter was caught in the centre of the scandal, an incident that followed him throughout his career and attempt to run for Governor of Louisiana.

The issue resurfaced in 2015 when Palfreys lawyer claimed previously sealed information may contain information relevant to the upcoming presidential election. He has begun to release the names of some of the businesses that called the escort services on behalf of their clients.

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No free money

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Jack Abramoff, also known as the Man Who Bought Washington. A former lobbyist, Abramoff spun a massive web of corruption with his clients. Trading millions of dollars, free meals, tickets and trips to members of congress. He was eventually convicted and sent to prison, but released a book afterwards in which he revealed that the system of gifts for favours in Washington was still extremely pervasive in shaping public policy and legislation.

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"Ma, ma, where's my pa?"

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While running for president in 1884, it was revealed that Grover Cleveland had been involved in an affair with a widow named Maria C. Halpin. Halpin had given birth to a son and named him Oscar Folsom Cleveland, believing Grover to be the father.

Cleveland agreed to pay child support for Oscar, and then paid to put him up in an orphanage when Halpin was no longer able to raise him. The incident sparked one of the most famous political chants of the time; "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!" Still, Clevelands honesty about the affair actually worked to his benefit and he won the election.

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The Foxe and the Hound

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Rep. Wilbur Mills was a powerful member of Congress as well as the chairman of the House Ways and Means committee. His career began to dissolve after he formed a relationship with an exotic dancer known by the stage name Fanne Foxe. Mills would freely throw money around Foxe, and admitted his identity on stage at the burlesque house where she worked.

He was discovered drunk in a car at the Tidal Basin in 1974, with Foxe in the car with him. Despite bouncing back from the incident in his reelection, Mills continued the destructive relationship, even holding a drunken press conference in her dressing room. Eventually seeking treatment for alcoholism and leaving the House of Ways and Means in 1976.

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Black Friday

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When Jay Gould and James Fisk attempted to corner the gold market, President Ulysses S. Grant attempted to thwart their plan to drive up the price of gold by adding gold to the economy. This had the opposite effect of Gould and Fisks plan, and the inflation of the market created an investor panic which adversely affected the heavily gold dependent economy of the time.

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Spy vs. Spy

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In 2003, Ambassador Joe Wilson published an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. His wife, Valerie Plame, was then ousted as an undercover CIA spy in a subsequent Washington Post column.

The relationship between the two events sparked controversy that the White House had deliberately exposed her in retaliation for her husband's criticisms. Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis Scooter Libby, was convicted of perjury, lying to the FBI and obstructing investigations into the leak but his sentence was later commuted to 30 months by President Bush.

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Save it for the book deal

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David Petraeus was a four star general and the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He had a bright political future ahead of him and was a year into his new position as CIA director when he became rocked by scandal. FBI investigators were concerned that he had shared classified materials over the course of an affair Petraeus had conducted with his own biographer. He denied the charges, but in the course of the investigation authorities discovered classified information in his home, costing him his job in 2012.

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"I did not..."

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Throughout his 1992 run for the presidency and subsequent term in office, Bill Clinton was pursued by rumours of extramarital affairs. These allegations came to a head in 1992 when Arkansas state employee Gennifer Flowers declared under oath that an affair lasting almost twelve years had taken place between herself and Clinton.

Both Bill and Hillary denied the claims, but six years later another affair came to light with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton initially denied the claims but later admitted that he had a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. A debate about whether or not the president had committed perjury on his previous under-oath statements led to his impeachment trial. The Senate eventually voted to acquit him of his actions, but the scandal continued to follow him and his wife into her bid for the 2016 presidential election.

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The Whiskey Ring

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Wracked by scandal throughout his administration, Ulysses S. Grant faced yet more corruption in 1875 when it was revealed government employees had been pocketing whiskey taxes for themselves. Grant called for swift and decisive punishment, but caught in controversy when he tried to protect his own personal secretary Orville E. Babcock from being implicated in the affair.

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The first domino to fall.

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Richard Nixon's first Vice President, Spiro Agnew, became the second in American history to resign after he was accused of tax evasion and bribery. Despite declaring that he would not resign if indicted, Agnew was forced to resign in exchange for a plea bargain to keep himself out of jail.

Nixon selected Gerald Ford as a replacement VP, and the man would go on to replace Nixon himself as president following the Watergate scandal.

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The Keating Five

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Senate investigated five U.S. senators, including John McCain, for interfering with the investigation of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. The company had been engaging heavily in high-risk investments, for which the senators asked a federal investigation not to pursue the charges.

Owner Charles Keating was a noted contributor in all five senators' campaigns, causing a two year investigation that resulted in only one senator being formally reprimanded. Lincoln would later collapse and required a taxpayer bailout of over $3 billion. The scandal would follow McCain into his 2008 run for president.

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Till death do us part

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Years before he was president, Andrew Jackson married a woman named Rachel Donelson. While marrying a divorcee was controversial at the time, both she and Jackson were under the impression that she had been legally and completely divorced. However, once they were wed they discovered this was not actually the case. Donelson's first husband charged her with adultery and Jackson had to wait another 3 years to finally marry her legally in 1794.

Despite what seemed like an honest mistake, the case was used repeatedly against Jackson in the 1828 election. Although it didn't cost him the presidency, Rachel died shortly before Jackson took office, a tragedy that he blamed on stress caused by incessant personal attacks.

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Rigging the system

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One of the lawmakers caught up in the Abramoff scandal was former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Indictments of alleged money laundering, as well as his connection to Abramoff, forced DeLay to leave Congress in 2005.

He was accused by a grand jury of using loopholes in Texas campaign finance laws to elect state legislators who would vote for DeLay's own redistricting legislation. In 2010 he was convicted for money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering, but the conviction was eventually thrown out by a Texas appeals court.

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The Teapot Dome Scandal

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The most significant of many scandals during his presidency. Warren G. Harding discovered that his Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall had been selling the rights to oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming as well as other locations in exchange for personal profits and cattle before he was eventually caught, convicted and jailed.

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Poor credit history

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The Credit Mobilier Company was caught stealing from the Union Pacific Railroad. They attempted to cover up the scandal by selling stocks of their company at a largely discounted price to government officials, including then Vice President Schuyler Colfax, damaging both his own reputation as well as that of President Ulysses S. Grant.

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A story that holds no water.

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Easily the most famous U.S. political scandal of all time, to the point that -gate has become the go-to suffix for several major scandals since. The Watergate story first emerged as a suspicious break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Thanks to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it was revealed that President Richard Nixon had been engaging in illegal activities to ensure his re-election in 1972. The attempts at a cover-up by the Nixon administration were blown wide open and Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign in 1974.

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Misusing the public trust.

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Hundreds of Congressmen and members of George H.W. Bush's cabinet were put under scrutiny when it was discovered that the House Bank had been allowing members of Congress to overdraft their bak accounts without penalty.

At the same time, another scandal brewed in the House post office, in which employees and congressmen faced allegations of misusing and embezzling public funds. For the scandal, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was made to serve prison time until he was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

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Beam me up, Scotty.

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Ohio Congressman Jim Traficant was a colourful character in the world of politics before he was stripped of his office. Famous for making Star Trek references during his floor speeches, he had served for 17 years before he was convicted of bribery, racketeering and corruption in 2002.

It was only the fifth time in U.S. history that the House of Representatives decided to impose the ultimate penalty for unethical conduct and Traficant served seven years in prison before he died in 2014.

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The Star Route Scandal

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Six months before his assassination, James Garfield had to deal with the Star Route Scandal of 1881, dealing with corruption in the postal service at the time private organizations were responsible for handing postal routes in the western United States.

They would give officials a low bid, but then these officials would turn around and present these bids to Congress requesting higher payments while pocketing the difference. To his credit, Garfield dealt with the issue head on despite the involvement of members from his own party.

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The Iran-Contra affair

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One of the most convoluted scandals in U.S. politics, the Iran-Contra affair spanned entire continents and nearly ended President Ronald Reagan's second term in office. In order to rescue American hostages in Lebanon, the U.S. sold arms to Iran. However, modifications to the plan were made by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North that would see a portion of profits funneled to support the Nicaraguan Contras, a rebel group attempting to overthrow the communist Sandinista government.

These transactions directly violated both American policy on negotiation and ransom, as well as legislation passed by Congress barring U.S. aid to the Contra cause. An intense investigation ensued which resulted in the removal of National Security Council member John Poindexter as well as North himself admitting to the destruction of relevant government documents. While Reagans role in the affair remains unclear, he told the public in a televised address "that the buck stops with me. I am the one who is ultimately accountable to the American people."

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On the wings of an eagle

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George McGovern was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, but his status going into the Democratic National Convention was in doubt as a running mate had not yet been picked.

When the time finally came, McGovern's campaign hastily selected Senator Thomas Eagleton to share the ticket. However, Eagleton withdrew himself from the race after just two and a half weeks when it was revealed that he had been previously hospitalized for depression and had received electroshock treatments. McGovern lost to Republican candidate Richard Nixon in a landslide.

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A falling star.

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Senator John Edwards was a charismatic figure in the Democratic Party who had gained significant traction after running on John Kerry's presidential ticket in 2004. Launching his own presidential nomination in 2008, Edwards was followed by tabloid allegations of cheating on his wife with filmmaker Rielle Hunter, who had been hired to document his campaign.

He eventually came clean that the accusations were true and that he had fathered a child with Hunter, sinking his bid for the nomination. However, he would later be charged with using campaign money to hide this affair.

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Going down twice.

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Colorado Senator Gary Hart seemed like he had the Democratic nomination locked down in 1988, and was considered a strong contender for the presidency. However, suspicions of marital infidelity and an investigation by the Miami Herald led to a media frenzy that completely tanked his bid for the nomination. He withdrew from the race, but returned some months later to let the people decide. Three months later, he quit again.

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You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, or so the saying goes.

The same can be said for your interactions with cops, most of whom are perfectly happy to let minor infractions slide––When was the last time you were actually ticketed for jaywalking?––provided you're not a total Karen should you interact them.

Your local police officer likely doesn't care about jaywalking or the fact that you went five miles over the speed limit unless you give him a reason to, as we learned when Redditor Takdel asked police officers: "What stupid law have you enforced just because someone was an a-hole?"

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