Abscam bribery scandal

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Abscam was the FBI's operational name for its 1980 "Arab Scam" sting. The sting was executed using FBI agents posing as two fictitious sheiks seeking to bribe local, state and federal officials and eventually netted the convictions of seven members of Congress. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) was videotaped agreeing to help one of the sheiks in exchange for an investment in his district and showed a willingness to possibly accept money in the future, but took no bribe and was not indicted in the scandal.

The phony sheiks

An FBI agent masqueraded as "Sheik Kambir Abdul Rahman" in the sting. The sheik and other agents masquerading as his American employees purported to have millions in a Chase Manhattan bank account that they wished to invest in an American titanium mine, New Jersey casinos and East Coast port facilities. They also purported a desire to bribe various local, state and federal officials in order to facilitate and protect their investments. [1]

An FBI agent played an additional wealthy sheik, Yasser Habib, who claimed he feared radicals would force him from to flee his country and thus sought asylum in the U.S. The sting spanned 23 months, involved 100 agents and cost $800,000. [2]

The first sting: The "sheik's" investments and Sen. Harrison "Pete" Williams

The Abscam sting started with then-mayor of Camden and New Jersey state Sen. Angelo Errichetti. FBI cameras caught Errichetti cutting a deal with agents playing aides to "Sheik Rahman" to help him make investments in the Camden seaport and a casino in Atlantic City in exchange for a $400,000 fee. Errichetti took $25,000, cash, as a down payment and said that Casino Control Commission Vice Chairman Kenneth MacDonald would also require $100,000 to obtain the casino license. The FBI later filmed Errichetti and MacDonald picking up the $100,000. [3]

Errichetti then showed up at a March 1979 meeting with Sheik Rahman on the FBI's camera-equipped yacht in Delray Beach, Fla. Accompanying him was then-Sen. Harrison "Pete" Williams (D-N.J.). The sheik said he wanted to invest in casinos and land in Atlantic City and a titanium mine in Virginia, but needed help navigating the political and business waters of the U.S. Williams told the sheik's interpreter (who "translated" into nonsense approximating Arabic), "You tell the sheik I'll do all I can. You tell him I'll deliver my end." [4]

Over the next several months, Williams and the sheik's men struck a deal by which Williams would convince government officials to seek military contracts to help the mine thrive. In return Williams received a share of the mine's stock (which the sheik had invested $100 million in) made out to an associate of the senator's, Alexander Feinberg, who promptly endorsed the stock back over to Williams. The FBI filmed all the transactions. [5]

Williams was also filmed boasting that he had helped a hotel company save $3 million by using his influence with the casino commission to secure approval for the renovation—rather than a rebuilding—of one of the company's casinos. That same company had employed William's wife as a consultant for $18,000 a year while she was also on the payroll of the Senate Labor Committee, which Williams then chaired. [6]

The second sting: the second "sheik" and eight members of Congress

After the deal with Williams, Errichetti introduce the sheik's men to Howard Criden, a Philadelphia lawyer who informed several members of Congress about the sheik. The members then met with the second sheik, "Yasser Habib," who was supposedly seeking help with immigration approval, at a house in Washington rented and wired by the FBI. Each was filmed by the FBI under bright lights set up to help the camera which the sheik's aides passed off as the sheik's sentimental reminder of the desert sun: [7]

  • Rep. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.) was taped at the FBI house saying that he would help the sheik. Criden later picked up a bag with $50,000 in cash inside, which he said was for Thompson. [8]
  • Rep. Raymond Lederer (D-Pa.) was filmed taking $50,000 from the sheik. [9]
  • Rep. Michael Myers (D-Pa.) was filmed taking $50,000 from the sheik. [10]
  • Rep. John Murphy (D-N.Y.), who was already under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, argued with Criden over who would pick up his money and Criden eventually picked up a suitcase full of cash at a Kennedy Airport hotel. [11]
  • Rep. John W. Jenrette (D-S.C.) was apparently informed of the sheik by Virginia businessman John Snowe. Snowe was filmed taking $50,000, which Jenrette was later taped receiving. Jenrette later protested that his memory was hazy due to drinking and couldn't recall taking any money. [12]
  • Rep. Richard Kelly (R-Fla.) was filmed stuffing wads of bills into his suit and asking the sheik's men if it showed. Kelly later tried to explain that he had taken the money only as part his own investigation of the "crooked" dealings at the house. [13]
  • Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) was also filmed at the house but did not pick up any money (see below). [14]

An eighth member of Congress, Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) went to the house apparently under the impression that he was going to receive a contribution to the political action committee (PAC) of his struggling presidential campaign. When the sheik's mean told him they didn't know what a PAC was but wanted to give him the money anyway, Pressler said, "Wait a minute, what you are suggesting may be illegal," and walked out of the house. Pressler later said, "I find it somewhat repulsive that I'm on tape, but now I'm called a hero. It's a sad state of affairs when it's heroic to turn down a potential bribery situation." [15]

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.)

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) was captured on videotapes made by the FBI at the house they used to make the bribery deals. On the tape, Murtha is shown discussing a deal with the "sheik" and other undercover FBI agents to help the sheik obtain approval to immigrate to the U.S. Murtha was offered $50,000 for his help but refused, with the caveat that he might be interested once he got to know the sheik better. [16]

Murtha was named as an unindicted coconspirator in the indictments filed against then-Reps. John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.) and Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.). [17]

Murtha testified against them at their bribery trial in the fall of 1980. During the trial, Murtha testified that Thompson had tried to get his help in enlisting two more congressmen in another immigration deal with the sheik that would be repaid by investments made in his district. Murtha testified that he said he would be interested because his district had high unemployment. He also testified that Thompson had told him that there would be "some walking-around money available for the three congressmen involved," which he understood to be $50,000 in cash. He testified that he suspected money would be offered to him when he went to the meeting with the sheik. [18]

FBI ends sting

The FBI ended the sting on February 2, 1980. Several media organizations had learned of the organization and were going to run with the story. [19]

Press leaks

The details of the investigation were leaked to the press in the form of a "pros-memo," or prosecution memo. The memo contained the Justice Department's chronological summary of the FBI evidence. Members of Congress and the American Civil Liberties Union protested the leak and the U.S. Attorney General, Benjamin Civiletti, promised an internal investigation. Civiletti later told the Senate Ethics Committee that the memo made no distinction between the bribery cases, including some that were too weak for prosecution. Press reports as early as late February 1980 indicated that this may have been the case with Murtha and that the case might be dropped. [20]

Convictions

Nineteen people, including seven members of Congress, were eventually convicted in the Abscam case in 1980 and 1981:

Members of Congress

  • Rep. Raymond F. Lederer (D-Pa.) — convicted of bribery and conspiracy; sentenced to three years in prison and fined $20,000. [21]
  • Rep. John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.) — convicted of conspiracy and receiving an unlawful gratuity (the latter charge was set aside by an appellate court); sentenced to three years in prison and fined $10,000. [22]
  • Rep. Michael J. Myers (D-Pa.) — convicted of bribery and conspiracy; sentenced to three years in prison and fined $20,000. [23]
  • Rep. Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.) — convicted of bribery and conspiracy; sentence was delayed pending an evaluation of his medical condition. [24]

Other officials

  • Angelo J. Errichetti, then-Mayor of Camden, N.J. — convicted of bribery and conspiracy; sentenced to six years in prison and fined $40,000. [25]
  • Louis C. Johanson, a then-member of the Philadelphia City Council — convicted of bribery and conspiracy; sentenced to three years in prison and fined $20,000. [26]

Others convicted

  • Howard L. Criden, a Philadelphia lawyer — convicted of bribery and conspiracy; sentenced to six years in prison and fined $40,000. [27]

Appeals

Appeals of the four former representatives and Errichetti, Johanson and Criden

The four former representatives and Errichetti, Johanson and Criden all appealed &mash; but eventually had confirmed — their convictions. They raised some different issues but all called the undercover methods used in Abscam outrageous and violations of their due process constitutional rights. They also argued that the Justice Department had violated the separation of powers clauses in the Constitution by singling out and inducing members of Congress to take bribes without evidence of any previous corrupt actions. Myers event went so far as to call the conduct of the government "more offensive than that of the criminal element." [28]

The U.S. Second Circuit Appeals Court upheld the convictions of all seven in a single opinion in September 1982. They then appealed to the Supreme Court. [29]

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Rep. Thompson. The brief argued that the Supreme Court should take the case in order to "establish badly needed guidelines" for the "extraordinarily intrusive techniques" of such stings. The Justice Department replied that every person convicted in the investigation was a "willing volunteer" in corrupt activity. [30]

The Supreme Court finalized the convictions of the four former Representatives and Criden, Johanson and Errichetti by refusing, without comment, to hear their final appeal on June 1, 1983. [31]

House Ethics Committee investigation

In early 1980 the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation on Abscam to parallel to the Justice Department's. The committee hired E. Barrett Prettyman Jr. as special counsel to head the investigation. Prettyman eventually prepared disciplinary charges that led to the expulsion of Rep. Michael J. Myers (D-Pa.) and the resignations of Reps. John Jenrette (D-S.C.) and Raymond F. Lederer (D-Pa.). He also submitted a recommendation to the committee to file several misconduct charges against Rep. John Murtha. The committee, controlled by a 7 to 6 Democratic majority, rejected the recommendation on a party-line vote on July 28, 1980 and dismissed the matter. Prettyman then resigned in protest. [32]

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