Jerome B. Wolff
Engineer and former state roads chief testified in 1973 case that led to then-Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation
Jerome B. Wolff, an engineer whose testimony about contract kickbacks passed to Spiro T. Agnew led to the vice president’s forced resignation in 1973, died Friday at his Stevenson home. He was 98.
His death was confirmed by his wife, the former Eleanor Rosenhaus. “His heart gave out,” she said. Mr. Wolff, who served as chairman of the old Maryland State Roads Commission, was not convicted of a crime. He cooperated with a team of 1970s federal investigators who uncovered illegal cash payoffs paid in exchange for government contracts, a scheme The Sun described at the time as “a staple in Maryland politics.”
“Jerome displayed a lot of courage when he came forward to testify against Agnew,” said his attorney, Arnold M. Weiner. “In my mind, he did a great public service in doing do.”
Born in Chicago, Mr. Wolff earned an engineering degree from Northwestern University and a law degree from Loyola University in Chicago.
He moved to Maryland in 1952 and practiced civil engineering. He became assistant director of Baltimore County’s Department of Public Works.
He later founded two consulting businesses, and along the way Mr. Wolff, a Democrat, became a close associate of Mr. Agnew, a Republican. They worked together as the country added new roads and residential subdivisions. Mr. Agnew was elected Baltimore County executive in 1962.
“Jerry Wolff was active with developers and worked with them to get water and sewers to their sites,” said Harry E. “Sleepy” Young, a retired Baltimore County government land acquisition supervisor. “He knew everybody.”
In 1967, as Mr. Agnew was elected Maryland’s governor, he named Mr. Wolff to be chairman-director of the Maryland State Roads Commission. In that role he oversaw preliminary work on the parallel Chesapeake Bay Bridge and what is now the Francis Scott Key Bridge.
“Among his fellow engineers, the brilliant Wolff was hailed as a genius,” wrote authors Richard M. Cohen and Jules Witcover in their 1974 book, “A Heartbeat Away: The Investigation and Resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.”
The book stated that Mr. Wolff “was justly proud of his professional standing and was honored when other engineers turned to him when they had a seemingly insoluble problem.”
As the state highway chief, Mr. Wolff had a role in the design of the old East-West Expressway, an interstate planned to cut through Baltimore. Opponents of the plan sold lapel buttons that said: “Who’s Afraid of Jerome Wolff?”
“He almost thought he was Baltimore’s Robert Moses,” said former Maryland Sen. Julian L. “Jack” Lapides, a historic preservationist and early leader in the anti-highway building movement.
“He was a brilliant man but could be also be rather officious,” Sen. Lapides said. “His stupid highway plan would have killed the Inner Harbor and Harbor East, Federal Hill and Fells Point.”
Mr. Wolff relinquished the state highway post in late 1968 when Mr. Agnew — then-vice president-elect — named him a science and environment aide in his Washington office.
He served two years, then left the post when White House counsel John W. Dean III made a ruling that Mr. Wolff had a conflicting interest in two engineering firms. Mr. Wolff then joined J.R. Greiner Environmental Engineering firm.
In 1971, George Beall, a newly appointed federal attorney for Maryland, began investigating governmental corruption. He and his team of attorney-investigators detected cash payoffs in Baltimore County under then-County Executive Dale Anderson, who had succeeded Mr. Agnew.
Mr. Beall and his team discovered payments for governmental contracts persisted even as Mr. Agnew moved on to Washington. The illegal cash payments were estimated at 3 percent to 5 percent of large contracts. He and his aides also found, to their initial surprise, that the money continued to be passed to Mr. Agnew while he was vice president.
“Agnew demanded 50 percent of the payoffs, according to testimony, and the other half was split between [I.H. “Bud”] Hammerman [a Baltimore County-based developer] and Mr. Wolff,” said a 1973 Sun article based on a 40-page summary of evidence presented against Mr. Agnew.
The federal investigators who sought Mr. Agnew’s resignation found Mr. Wolff an ideal witness.
“What made his willingness to cooperate with the government investigation even more important was the supporting material he brought with him,” wrote Mr. Cohen in his 1974 book. “He was, in the word of a prosecutor, ‘a pack rat,’ a guy whose nature is to keep a lot of documents. He also kept diaries, and daytimers in which he wrote painstaking notes.”
After being confronted by federal authorities, Mr. Wolff described his role as part of the money collection team who sought payments from engineers seeking government work, then paid 50 percent to Mr. Agnew and split the other half. He told officials he retained 25 percent and gave the other 25 percent to Mr. Hammerman.
Throughout the summer of 1973, as rumors circulated that Mr. Agnew would resign, Mr. Wolff, Mr. Hammerman and others cooperated with the investigation.
They were summoned to the Baltimore federal courthouse on the evening of Oct. 9, 1973, to sign legal documents. The next day in the same courthouse, Mr. Agnew resigned his vice presidency, pleading no contest to criminal tax evasion charges.
“The Agnew resignation was a major story, but it quickly passed,” said Mr. Cohen in a phone interview Tuesday. “The importance and the drama were overshadowed by Watergate.”
After the Agnew resignation, Mr. Wolff cooperated with investigations that led to convictions in other kickback cases against Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson and Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph Alton.
In 1981, he returned to the courtroom to testify in a civil suit brought by the state and several Maryland residents against Mr. Agnew. The suit ultimately recovered $248,735 for the state treasury, The Sun reported.
Mr. Wolff went on to keep an office in Towson and remained a consultant in the field of hydraulics. In 1978, a Towson judge reversed an earlier suspension of Mr. Wolff’s engineering license on a legal technicality. He also enjoyed astronomy and tennis. “He was a wonderful man and husband,” said his wife. “He truly loved his work.”
Graveside services will held at noon today at Druid Ridge Cemetery, 7900 Park Heights Ave.
In addition to his wife of 57 years, survivors include a son, Jeffrey Wolff, and a daughter, Karen Wolff, both of Baltimore. Jerome Wolff practiced civil engineering and founded two consulting businesses.