Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who died in 2007, was a staunch defender of "traditional values" and a prime mover in the impeachment of Bill Clinton. And according to documents obtained by Gawker, the FBI thought he was on the take.
The FBI spent four years investigating Hyde for racketeering and bribery in the 1970s, according to his FBI file, which we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The probe, which was authorized at the highest levels of the Justice Department and has not been previously disclosed, involved the use of wiretaps and physical surveillance to nail Hyde for taking kickbacks from mob-affiliated state contractors when he was an Illinois state legislator. Though the charges were brought before a grand jury, the Assistant U.S. Attorney overseeing the case abandoned it for lack of evidence in 1976, two years after Hyde was elected to Congress.
Though Hyde's reputation is far from pristine—he was revealed as a hypocrite in 1998 when he acknowledged an affair with a beautician named Cherie Snodgrass as he managed Clinton's impeachment in the House, and sat on the board of a savings and loan that was sued for "gross negligence" in 1992—he is a revered figure in the conservative movement. He was the author of the "Hyde Amendment," which bars the use of federal money to pay for abortions—one of the chief issues that has helped derail health care reform. George W. Bush awarded Hyde the Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly before his death in 2007, and conservative macher Grover Norquist eulogized him by calling him "the lion of the conservative movement."
According to FBI records, though, Hyde's name can be added to the list of corrupt Chicago politicians we've been hearing so much about lately. According to the documents, which can be read in full and at length here, Hyde offered to steer an Illinois Department of Public Aid contract to a mob-affiliated New York company called Computer Specifics Corporation in 1972 in exchange for a cash kickback amounting to 10% of the total contract. Hyde was a state assembleyman at the time and was viewed as a close advisor to Illinois Gov. Richard Ogilvie.
The investigation was conducted by the FBI's New York office, which had been looking into Computer Specifics for other bribery charges. The firm was eventually charged in New York with paying state officials in exchange for a $2 million contract to handle the Board of Educations payroll operations. Agents became interested in Hyde when an informant told them that a middleman had told Computer Specifics that it could land a contract to handle Illinois' welfare operations if Hyde and an unnamed "governor's man" each got a 10% cash kickback. Here's a memo summarizing the investigation and seeking permission from then-Attorney General Richard Kleindienst to outfit the informant with a body mic to record his conversations with Hyde:
Another memo recounting an agent's interview with the informant lays out the scheme in more detail, and alleges that Hyde set up a meeting between a representative of Computer Specifics and the Illinois Department of Public Aid to discuss the contract in June of 1972. The informant told the FBI that Hyde said the whole contract was pre-arranged: "All [redacted] had to do was keep the appointment in Springfield at the proper time." Illinois was planning to roll out a new ID card for its welfare system at the time, and Hyde told Computer Specifics that as soon as that was through, their contract would be approved. Once that happened, the informant said, "HYDE and his man in Springfield will...accept cash payments for their fees...which would be a continuing arrangement as long as Illinois retained the program.
This December 1972 memo reports the results of a wiretapped phone call in which the unnamed middleman says he spoke to Hyde and that Hyde told him that, since things had "quieted down after the election," Computer Specifics could "finish up the deal." The memo also shows that Richard Ben-Veniste, the New York Assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the official corruption section, determined that "the facts constitute a violation of the...bribery statue [sic]." In a cosmic irony, Ben-Veniste would later spar with Hyde over the Clinton impeachment—he was one of Clinton's chief defenders and testified against the impeachment proceedings before the House Judiciary Committee, which Hyde chaired.
The agents investigating Hyde repeatedly requested, and were granted, permission to use wiretaps, body mics, and physical surveillance to follow Hyde's role in the scheme. Here is one agent's report of snooping on a meeting between two unnamed subjects in a New York coffee shop—presumably one of them is the informant—in which one is "overheard mentioning the name 'HYDE.'"
The Computer Specifics contract was never consummated, and Hyde never actually took a bribe. And the investigation took a turn in August 1973, when the FBI informant was "beaten and threatened by [redacted] and two unknown subjects" while wearing a wire. The meeting in question was related to a different investigation, and not to Hyde, but agents wrote that "due to [the beating], [redacted] is no longer in a position to provide further evidence regarding this matter." Furthermore, the agents in Illinois had turned up no dirt on Hyde:
But by 1974, a new Assistant U.S. Attorney, Elliot Sagor, was in charge of the investigation. And according to the documents, Sagor thought there was a strong bribery case against two redacted targets—presumably the middleman and Computer Specifics officials—and possibly Hyde, irrespective of whether the bribes were ever paid. (Because of what appears to be an error by the FBI in failing to fully redact some of the documents, it's clear that the FBI had wiretap evidence of Richard L. Byrne, a Chicago loan shark who was indicted in New York in 1974 on extortion charges, telling a representative of Computer Specifics that he had spoken to Hyde about the contract and that Hyde would "do nothing until he received the money up front." Which means Byrne was likely the middleman.) According to this FBI memo, Sagor was planning to bring the case before a federal grand jury in New York in December 1974, and was prepared to prosecute Hyde "if indicated." He requested that agents interview Hyde, who had been elected to the House of Representatives the prior month.
But for the next two years, according to the documents, Sagor became busy with another high-profile case, and repeatedly delayed a decision on whether to finally interview Hyde and pursue an indictment. In fact, the documents show Sagor repeatedly urging agents to keep Hyde in the dark about the investigation, and it appears he was never contacted. Agents tracked down two other unnamed targets in the case—one who worked in the Illinois Department of Public Aid and one in the governor's office during the time that Computer Specifics was vying for the contract—both of whom denied any kickbacks and pleaded vague memories on whether Hyde set up the Compter Specifics meeting.
In June of 1976, Sagor finally gave up, declining it because "the facts of the case do not form the basis for a successful prosecution."
By the time Sagor dropped the investigation, Hyde had been a sitting member of Congress for a year-and-a-half. And according to the file, he was engaged in a friendly correspondence with FBI Director Clarence Kelley even as Kelley's agents were trying to to take Hyde down. Here is a 1975 letter Hyde sent to Kelley requesting a signed photograph to hang in his Capitol Hill office, presumably to demonstrate his commitment to law and order.
Though the details of the investigation never leaked out, even as Hyde was in the spotlight during impeachment, it does appear to have negatively impacted his career. In 1983, Ronald Reagan's White House Counsel, Fred Fielding, sent the FBI a request to check its records regarding Hyde because he was being considered for a Cabinet-level presidential appointment. The FBI sent back this memo:
Needless to say, Hyde didn't get the nomination.
When we called Sagor, who is now in private practice, for comment, he said: "I'm not in a position to comment. This was a long time ago." A call to Ben-Veniste was not immediately returned.