Conniving congressmen weren't the only ones who looked bad on the FBI's Abscam videotapes. Some of the undercover agents also put on a shabby performance, even though they were aware that they were being filmed by hidden cameras.
The secret videotapes raise questions about whether the agents, posing as bagmen for a fictional Arab sheik, set in motion crimes that otherwise might not have been committed. Justice Department Officials have repeatedly denied this. Assistant Attorney General Philip Heymann, for example, has assured Congress that no one from the department "dangled bait in front of a congressman."
But my associate Gary Cohn has reviewed hours of the secret videotapes, which tell a different story. In one scene, agent Anthony Amoroso pressured a middleman, Howard Criden, to encourage Rep. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.) to accept a $50,000 bribe.
Amoroso appears as a darkly menacing man who could have been cast for the role by Hollywood. He was known to Criden as Tony DeVito, the sheik's backdoor man. The portly, pleasant Cirden, blinking through glasses, had the knowing look of a stuffed owl.
He had brought Thompson to the sheik's rented house here supposedly for a $50,000 payoff. But the congressman had declined to accept the money and had suggested more devious methods of payment, such as deposits in New Jersey banks. This disappointed Amoroso who took Criden aside and argued that the sheik wanted to pay cash. A direct payment, Amoroso explained, would make the shiek feel as if he owned a piece of the congressman.
"Go back and talk to [Thompson]," argued the undercover man. "See what his position is."
Criden shook his head. . ."He told me he won't discuss money."
"You talk to him," Amoroso insisted. "I want some kind of acknowledgement from him that he knows what's going on. . .I'll give him the [expletive deleted] money. . .If anybody is going to jail -- right? -- in this whole thing he won't be going alone."
Criden still held back. "Yeah, he doesn't want to ruin his whole [expletive deleted] career, either."
The G-man kept arguing that Thompson had to take the $50,000 in cash. "Then we'll know he's got it; then I'm happy."
"I don't know if I can get him to do that, Criden protested, "but I'll take a shot at it."
Still, the wrangling continued. Criden argued that "the best thing about this guy [Thompson] is that he can deliver guys, key guys. He knows who'll do business and who won't. But if I make a [expletive deleted] bad track with this guy, I'm in trouble with everyone else. This guy can deliver to us as many guys as we want."
Despite his misgivings, Criden agreed to approach Thompson again. The meeting took place on Capitol Hill, followed by a rendezvous later in the evening at the house. Two undercover agents had stuffed a briefcase with $50,000 for the payoff.
"Frank understands the situation," Criden announced, referring to his campanion on Capitol Hill.
"Okay," said Amoroso. "I just want to make sure you understand. There's the briefcase."
Thompson gestured toward the briefcase. "Howard, carry that for me."
"Okay," Criden agreed.
On public display, Thompson exudes dignity and integrity. But in the company of the two bagmen, he did not. He offered to introduce them to other congressmen who might want a piece of the action.
"We hope to bring, at Frank's suggestion," Criden chimed in, "some more people, people screened very carefully, and we'll be seeing you shortly. . ."
"And the first guy you might see," said Thompson, "might as well be a pal of mine from New York." (Government prosecutors believe he was referring to Rep. John Murphy (D-N.Y.), who has also been indicted in the Abscam "sting" operation.)
Footnote: Thompson has denied any wrongdoing. His attorneys have called for dismissal of the indictment on the grounds that FBI agents abused their power and violated Thompson's constitutional rights.