Former House aide Stephen Elko told a congression a committee yesterday that the Airlie Foundation's Murdock Head was so meticulous about cash payoffs to then-Rep. Otto E. Passman (D-La.) that he wrapped them in facial tissue to avoid any fingerprints.
Summoned form federal prison to testify before the House Committe on Standards of Official Conduct, Elko brought its members to hushed attention yesterday afternoon with the first public testimony about the alleged payments to Passman between 1971 and 1973 for his help in obtaining federal funds for an Airlie Foundation project. Head has denied making such payments.
Describing himself as the key go-between, Elko told the committee that Passman increased the foreign aid budget's family planning funds in 1972 by a whopping $75 million to make room for a $5 million project Head had in mind.
Asked why such a huge increase was chosen, Elko replied in nonchalant tones:
"Well, it was right off the wall . . . no sense in messing around with figures in between." The final appropriation of $125 million in family planning funds that year, he said, was, after all, the full amount Congress had authorized. Other people besides Head, the witness hinted at one point, were interested in "various projects" that called for similar funding from the Agency for International Development.
Rep. Millicent H. Fenwick (R-N.J.) expressed shock at the easy manner with which Elko described what he said was his first delivery of cash to Passman at Head's behest, sometime in the late spring of 1972.
"I just knew Mr. Passman real well," Elko said, pointing out how they both and lived for years on the same floor of the Congressional Hotel here and often used to watch boxing matches together.
"But bringing him the money, that was new." Fenwick persisted.
"I don't think that's anything unusual around here," Elko replied.
"Oh, Mr. Elko," Fenwick exclaimed.
In other testimony before the committee, an Agriculture Department investigator told how lawyers there had concluded in the spring of 1976 that Passman might be accused of "extortion" for allegedly threating to cut off all foreign aid to Korean unless a shipping agent he favored was designated for all the commissions on Food for Peach shipments to Korea.
The investigator, NIck Panos, said, however, that he and another Agriculture Department official were told that the White House and the National Security Council wanted them to be "cautious" with their inquiry because of fears that Passman might sit on a foreign air qppropriation for Israel. The inquiry was never finished because higher-ups in the Agriculture Department vetoed a trip to Korea for additional evidence, on the grounds that it wasn't necessary, Panos testified.
Once the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee for foreign aid, Passman was indicted by a federal grand jury here March 31 on charges that he received $213,000 in cash from Korean businessman Tongsun Park for pressuring the South Korean government to buy Louisiana rich through Park.
One of the counsels for the House committee, which has also been investigating the Korean influence-buying scandal, said Elko was called because his testimony about Passman so strongly paralled the pattern brought out in the Korean investigation.
The Washington Post reported last month that Elko had told federal authorities Dr. Head handed him a total of $40,000 to $42,000 in the early 1970s for delivery to both Passman and to Elko's boss, Rep. Daniel J. Flood (D-Pal.). But Elko's testimony yesterday was strictly limited to his assertions about Passman.
Dr. Head, whose Warrenton, Va. based founation serves as a conference center and has produced a variety of documentary films for government agencies, has denied early accounts of Elko's allegations and subsequently declined through his lawyers to comment further.
Elko reportedly came to know Head as administrative assistant to Flood, another member of the so-called "college of cardinals" who preside over the House Appropriations subcommittees. Elko, now serving three years in federal prison for bribery and obstruction of justic in another matter, said Head asked him toward the end of 1971 about getting additional funding in the AID budget for the Inter-American Dialogue Center, a population control and family planning project that Airlie had devised.
All Head wanted was additional money to be provided in the appropriations bill for family planning purposes, the committee was told. As for getting AID's approval of the dialogue center once funds were available, Elko said, "he (Head) would be able to handle the rest himself."
Elko said he approached Passman with the idea that the family planning money might be boosted from its usual $50 million level to $75 million or $80 million since this would be "very helpful to people who were interested in various projects."
Passman reportedly was amenable, but said the House bill was too far along to be changed. Elko said Passman told him to lobby for an increase in the Senate, with the understanding that Passman would accept the higher Senate appropriation when the bill went to a House-Senate conference. Elko said he personally approached then-Sen. Joseph Montoya (D-N.M.) about the matter. The final appropriation was $125 million.
Subsequently Elko said, Head invited him to his offices at Airlie's International House in late spring of 1972 and "he told me what a good job I'd done."
"The bureaucrats (at aid) were very happy (with the extra money)," Elko recalled Head telling him. "They were thrilled. He was thrilled."