“Politicians can’t help you,” declares Walter Dilbeck. “All they can do is get you in trouble.” Obviously Dilbeck, 56, a Kentucky wheeler-dealer who wears marble-sized diamond pinkie rings and flashy suits, does not feel quite the same way about ex-politicians. His newest and most valuable business partner: former Vice-President of the United States Spiro T. Agnew. “He has already opened more doors than I need,” says Dilbeck. “There’s no doubt our joint venture will make millions. We’ve already made a helluva lot of money.”
Last March, barely five months after he pleaded nolo contendere to charges of income tax evasion and resigned from office amid allegations of bribery, Agnew, while staying in Frank Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs, agreed to meet Dilbeck. Early in their negotiations, Agnew was reluctant. But on June 30 the two men signed a partnership agreement. For $400,000 over four years, plus one-third of the profits the first year and one-half for the remaining three, Dilbeck can use Agnew’s name and connections. There is no doubt in Dilbeck’s mind that they are well worth the price. “Say you’re playing basketball and you need a tall center,” he explains. “You buy him, even if it costs you through the nose. I believed Spiro Agnew could get more done than any other man I could hire—and I was right.”
When it comes to buying and selling, Dilbeck is an experienced whiz. Indiana-born and decorated for his service in Germany during World War II, he returned and began buying up property in the Evansville area. Moving across to Kentucky, he parlayed his real estate holdings into a mini-empire which includes, at last count, eight separate corporations. He sets his current worth at around $12 million, although some local bankers, while acknowledging his status as a millionaire, suggest his self-estimate is inflated. In 1968, Dilbeck lost at least $150,000 (he claims $300,000) on the Louisville Colonels, a minor league baseball team. “All I got out of it was five free baseballs and some bad publicity,” he grumbles. The following year he dropped $3 million trying to set up an ill-fated Global Baseball League.
Throughout his curious career, Dilbeck, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Evansville in 1956, has been a generous political contributor. He gave $140,000 to Ronald Reagan’s 1968 presidential effort, then lashed out against the California governor when he withdrew from the race. Four years later, Dilbeck poured $200,000 into Hubert Humphrey’s presidential coffers—with results just as disappointing.
Nonetheless, Dilbeck’s investment in Agnew already seems to be paying off. Their first project—the purchase of 1,600 acres on Kentucky’s Lake Barclay for the construction of a resort city—is well underway. Agnew traveled to the Middle East and personally negotiated with investors in Kuwait to put up the $6 million purchase price, but has since managed to hammer out an even better deal with some Saudi Arabians. He also helped arrange a deal with Japanese interests to purchase the Mt. Victory Coal Co. in Somerset, Ky., a venture that will earn Agnew and Dilbeck about $2.5 million in royalties over the next five years.
Clearly, Agnew’s swift fall from power does not seem to have hurt his capacity to negotiate, nor does his disgrace worry his new partner. To Dilbeck, the real villains in the Agnew case were builders who offered Agnew bribes, then testified against the Vice-President for taking them. “The American people,” says Dilbeck, “hate a squealer worse than a taker.”