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ABSCAM Trials: 1980 & 1981

ABSCAM Trials: 1980 & 1981

Defendants: First trial: Howard L. Criden, Angelo J. Errichetti, Louis C. Johanson, and Michael J. Myers; Second trial: Alexander Feinberg and Harrison A. Williams, Jr.
Crimes Charged: Bribery and conspiracy
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: Richard Ben-Veniste, Ray Brown, Plato Cacheris, and John Duffy; Second trial: Harry C. Batchelder, Jr. and George J. Koeizer
Chief Prosecutors: Edward A. McDonald and Thomas P. Puccio
Judge: George C. Pratt
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trials: August 11-31, 1980; March 30-May 1, 1981
Verdicts: Guilty
Sentences: First trial: Myers: 3 years imprisonment, $20,000 fine; Errichetti: 6 years imprisonment, $40,000 fine; Johanson: 3 years imprisonment, $20,000 fine; Criden: 6 years imprisonment, $40,000 fine; Second trial: Williams: 3 years imprisonment, $50,000 fine; Feinberg: 3 years imprisonment, $40,000 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: The sting operation that became known as ABSCAM worked beyond the government's wildest expectations. No previous federal investigation had bagged so many highly placed corrupt political figures or produced so many trials.

In 1978, undercover FBI agents and convicted swindler Melvin Weinberg began posing as American representatives of wealthy Arab businessmen eager to make sizable investments in the United States. Under the auspices of a company called "Abdul Enterprises Limited" (from which the name ABSCAM derived), they let it be known that their clients were willing to pay heavily for influence and favors, especially visas from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The first politician snared was U.S. Congressman Michael J. Myers, who was videotaped accepting a $50,000 bribe.

As ABSCAM spread its tentacles and word of easy money circulated, more and more politicians fell prey, including U.S. Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr., and five other congressmen. Geographical considerations and the sheer number of defendants necessitated several trials. The first began in Brooklyn, New York, on August 11, 1980, before Judge George C. Pratt.

In opening his case, Thomas P. Puccio, who would handle most of the ABSCAM prosecutions, brought to the stand Anthony Amorosa, a federal undercover agent. Amorosa and Weinberg had run the sting in a New York hotel room. That videotaped transaction was played to the packed, hushed courtroom. Amorosa handed Myers an envelope containing $50,000, saying, "Spend it well." Myers, who sat next to fellow defendant Mayor Angelo J. Errichetti of Camden, New Jersey, boasted of the influence he wielded in Congress. "As leader of the Philadelphia delegation, I control four and then six when we go into state matters I'm going to tell you something real simple and short-money talks in this business and it works the same way down in Washington."

Four-Way Conspiracy

As the tape rolled, the other two defendants, Louis C. Johanson, a Philadelphia City Councilman, and Howard L. Criden, Johanson's former law partner, watched intently. Both were charged with having conspired with Myers and having shared the money. Myers let slip the names of other prominent Washington politicians, though none was ever charged with wrongdoing. Stifled laughter in court greeted Myers' comment when, leaning across confidentially to the agents, he said, "The key is, you got to deal with the right people," adding a moment later, "I feel very comfortable here."

Next came Melvin Weinberg, a colorful character who provided detailed descriptions of the ABSCAM sting and his efforts to help federal agents. In defense estimations Weinberg was the state's weak link, and they set about undermining his credibility in a three-day grilling. John Duffy, appearing for Johanson, set the tone:

"Are you a con man?"

"I don't know. They say I am."

"Have you spent most of your adult life living by your wits?"

"That's correct."

Richard Ben-Veniste, representing Criden, quizzed Weinberg on the scam he had "franchised to con men all over the world."

"We franchised it," shrugged Weinberg, "but not to con men."

"You were like the MacDonald's of con men?"

Weinberg beamed. "That's correct."

When Congressman Michael Myers took the stand, the 37-year-old Democrat was led through some gentle questioning by his attorney, Plato Cacheris. Cacheris' theme, one adopted by most ABSCAM defense lawyers, was that because there had been no criminal intent, there had been no crime. Myers agreed: "No, it wasn't proper that I accepted this money, but I didn't do anything wrong and didn't intend to do anything wrong It seemed like a chance to pick up some easy money." Myers explained that he had grossly exaggerated his influence during the course of the meeting to get the money.

Less compelling were his attempts to explain away a second meeting, also captured on tape, at which he received an additional $35,000paid because after dividing up the original payment with his co-defendants, Myers had been left with just $15,000 and felt "entitled" to more. Myers blamed this verbal indiscretion on two bourbons given him by the undercover agents, causing him to say things he didn't really mean.

Prosecutor Puccio had an easy task on cross-examination. The videotape said it all. Pouncing on Myers' assertions that he meant to take the money and then do nothing in return, he asked, "Congressman Myers, did you think it was dishonest to obtain money by false pretenses?"

"No, I didn't think that this was dishonest."

Untrustworthy Witness

In closing arguments each defense attorney fell back on attacking Weinberg's credibility. Ben-Veniste hit the hardest: "Mel Weinberg makes J.R. Ewing look like Peter Pan." He was, said Ben-Veniste, the kind of man that if you shake hands with him, "you count your fingers afterward and then look for your watch."

It was a theme easily countered by Puccio. Myers, he argued, was the man who failed on standards of honesty. "Would a man like that hesitate for one second to lie on the witness stand to get off the hook?"

On August 30, 1980, all four defendants were found guilty. Their attempts to have the convictions overturned were rejected by Judge Pratt on July 24, 1981. In a 136-page decision, he said of the accused:

Their major defense has been that they were tricked into committing the crime on videotape. The government's need to unmask such conduct more than justifies the investigative techniques employed in these cases. Without question these convictions were reliable, and no constitutional right of any defendant has been infringed.

Sentencing was deferred until August 13, 1981, when Judge Pratt imposed jail sentences and heavy fines on each defendant. But before that, the judge had presided over yet another ABSCAM trial. Puccio was again the chief prosecutor, as the government this time sought to convict the biggest fish caught in their net.

Influential Senator Charged

At the time of his arraignment, Harrison A. Williams, Jr., 61, had been a senator for New Jersey for 22 years and was one of the most powerful men in Washington. He and an associate, 72-year-old lawyer Alexander Feinberg, were jointly accused of scheming to illegally benefit a Virginia titanium mine and processing plant. Williams had allegedly agreed to use his position to obtain government contracts to buy the output of the mine and plant, in which he was to have a secret 18 percent interest.

Assistant prosecutor Edward A. McDonald opened on March 31, 1981, by showing the jury a photograph of Williams aboard a yacht in Delray Beach, Florida, posing with Sheik Yassir Habib, actually Richard Farhart, an FBI agent. "Habib"supposedly ready to lend $100 million to the titanium projectwas also present at an Arlington, Virginia meeting with Williams, which was videotaped. When the conversation turned to matters of influence, Williams assured Habib that he could "go right to the top," and mentioned then Vice President Walter Mondale. Speaking of Mondale, he said, "We have a relationship that will make all of that possible that's all I want to tell you now."

Another ABSCAM victim, Henry Williams (no relation to the senator but a longtime associate) decided to cut his losses and turn state's evidence. He described the senator's tendency and willingness to exploit his position for money. Contrary to what the defense had claimed, Williams said that the senator had been connected with the titanium company since 1976.

To counter this allegation, the defense produced ex-Secretary of the Treasury Henry H. Fowler, now an investment banker. Chief defense counsel George J. Koelzer asked, "Did you feel that Senator Williams was putting any pressure on you to help this enterprise?"

"No."

"Did he indicate that his business could get government contracts?"

Again the answer was no.

Which was the line taken by Williams himself, when he gave evidence on his own behalf.

"Were you guaranteeing government contracts?" Koelzer asked.

"Absolutely not, not at all."

Warning From Bench

At Koelzer's behest, Williams repeatedly and emphatically denied all charges. So often, in fact, that Judge Pratt expressed concern to Koelzer that such repetition might backfire. "You may convince the jury of exactly the contrary of what the witness is saying, simply because he is saying so often. And it may in their view become very artificial and rehearsed." Koelzer, insisting that the technique was necessary to counteract the damaging effects of the tape, then turned to his client and a section on the videotape where the subject of influence was raised. He asked Williams,

"Why didn't you get up and walk out?"

"I respected the man [Habib]."

Prosecutor Puccio wasn't so sure.

"What did you have in mind?"

"To impress the sheik."

"Impress the sheik with what?"

"The baloney, this was the baloney session."

With this answer, Williams went right to the heart of the defense argument of entrapment. Before Habib had arrived, Williams had received coaching from another undercover FBI agent on how to flatter the sheik. None of this would have happened, Williams claimed, had he not been coerced by that instruction.

It was a line of reasoning that failed to impress the jury. On May 1, 1981, they found both defendants guilty. Judge Pratt later mandated jail sentences similar to those in the previous trial.

No Acquittals

There were six more ABSCAM trials and not one defendant was acquitted. The final tally included one senior U.S. senator; six members of Congress; one mayor, who was also a New Jersey state senator; three members of the Philadelphia City Council; an INS inspector; one lawyer; one accountant; and assorted business associates of the public officials. All of the politicians were either expelled from office or else turned out by voters at the next election. By any reckoning, ABSCAM had to be counted a major success.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Caplan, Gerald M. ABSCAM Ethics. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1983.

Eubanks, Brian F. Stetson Law Review (Spring 1984): 691-706.

Frey, Richard G. Criminal Justice Journal (Summer 1984): 203-250.

Greene, Robert. The Sting Man. New York: Dutton, 1981.

Verrone, Patric M. Boston College Law Review (March 1984): 351-381.

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