An FBI undercover "sting" operation, set up to catch organized crime figures selling stolen securities and art objects, has snared several members of Congress on potential bribery charges, according to sources.
The sources said the FBI has videotapes of several transactions in which different members of Congress discuss their willingness to help FBI undercover agents with legislation or other favors. The FBI agents were posing as representatives of Arab businessmen.
The investigation is described as the largest ever involving members of Congress. More than $400,000 in cash has been paid out to some congressmen and some state officials over the past year, sources said.
One of the videotaped transactions was as recent as mid-January, sources said.
Sources said the subjects of the investigation include Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D.-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Labor Committee; Reps. John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee; Frank Thompson (D.-N.J.), chairman of the House Administration Committee; John Murtha (D-Pa.), a member of the House Ethics Committee; John W. Jenrette Jr. (D-S.C.) and Richard Kelly (R-Fla.).
The Long Island paper Newsday reported last night that Reps. Michael Myers and Raymond F. Lederer, both Pennsylvania Democrats, also are subjects of the inquiry.
Several state and local officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are also said to be involved. These include the mayor of Camden, N.J., and a New Jersey state gambling official, according to sources.
The political fallout from the investigation could be immense because of the number of members of Congress involved, including three committee chairmen, and the apparent quality of the evidence.
It seems certain the case will provide new energy to the dormant debate about congressional ethics. The last major scandal involving Congress was the South Korean influence-buying scheme, which produced major congressional hearings but few criminal charges and little disciplinary action against House members by their peers.
In one case, for example, a videotape shows Murphy discussing with the undercover agents how to help their "Arab" clients get permanent residency if they entered the United States, the sources said. A briefcase containing $50,000 was handed to a Murphy associate after the discussion, they added.
Murphy said through an aide last night that he had "no idea of any [bribery] allegations."
The Camden mayor, Angelo J. Errichetti, was a key figure early in the investigation sources said.
He offered help in getting an Atlantic City casino license for the "Arab." A state gambling commission official was later paid $100,000, the sources added.
An even more central figure was Howard Criden, a Philadelphia lawyer, who was the go-between in transactions involving Reps. Murphy, Thompson, Lederer and Myers, sources said.
Criden, a former assistant district attorney, allegedly told the undercover agents he could introduce them to members of Congress who would help their "Arab" client for cash.
Sources said Criden was questioned by FBI agents yesterday and began to cooperate, opening the door to confronting the four House members with whom he dealt.
In each case, Criden or the member is alleged to have accepted about $50,000 in cash in return for promises the help the "Arab oil shiek" with any problems he might have entering the United States or settling here.
Jenrette of South Carolina also reportedly was recorded as talking about accepting $50,000 for an immigration bill, and the money was later picked up by an associate, sources said.
Sen. Williams was implicated when he agreed to help in obtaining military contracts for a titanium mine for which he received stock, the sources said.
Sources cautioned that indictments might not result from all the cases.
Thompson said last night that he was questioned by the FBI yesterday, and acknowledged months ago talking to two men in Washington who said they represented an investor with a large amount of money. Criden made the introductions, he said.
Thompson emphatically denied ever taking money to help with legislation. He said he did suggest the names of some New Jersey banks in his district as possible places to invest the money.
Williams, in a statement issued by his office, said, "Nobody from the Department of Justice has talked to me at all about this. In fact, not one soul has talked to me. Honestly, I can say I don't have any comment on this."
The other members of Congress under investigation could not be reached for comment.
A focal point of the investigation was a large house in northwest Washington where the undercover agents entertained some of their congressional guests.
NBC-TV last night showed film it took of the house where the FBI filmed members. Reporter Brian Ross noted that the l ights in the house were unusually bright to accommodate the secret FBI videotaping equipment.
More than 100 FBI agents were involved yesterday in trying to reach the members of Congress and others in the case because word of the investigation had begun to leak out to several news organizations.
A federal grand jury in Washington is expected to begin hearing evidence this week, though any move for indictments is considered weeks or months away, sources said.
Sources gave this account of the case: the investigation began in the summer of 1978 when FBI agents set up a "sting" operation in the hope of luring organized crime mebers to sell stolen government securities and other valuables, starting on Long Island. That investigation, too, has been highly successful, though it has not been publicized yet.
The undercover agents solicited business by letting the underworld sources know they represented "Arab businessmen" with millions of dollars to "invest." The FBI calls the operation ABSCAM- for Arab scam.
By that fall, associates of some of the members of Congress made contact with the "sting" operation and allegedly began arranging meetings, in Washington and New York, between the undercover agents and the federal officials.
In one videotaped transaction, a member of Congress and his companion are shown fighting over a briefcase full of cash as they leave the room.
On another occasion, another member of Congress flatly refused to take part in the discussion when it turned to money-for-legislation and stalked out of the room. d
One source who has viewed some of the tapes said he was "sickened" by the sight of members of Congress nodding in agreement and saying "no problem" when the undercover agents mentioned giving them money for legislative favors.
In a copyrighted story by its Washington bureau chief, Anthony Marro, Newsday reported that in one transaction caught on videotape, a member of Congress is seen stuffing greenbacks into his trouser and jacket pockets.
To establish their "covers" as repressentatives of "rich Arabs," the FBI undercover agents were provided with a large yacht, a condominium at an ocean resort, the house here, and private planes in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, Newsday said.
The investigation is being coordinated from New York by Thomas Puccio, head of the Justice Department's organized crime strike force in Brooklyn, according to sources. Other prosecutors in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Florida also are working on the case.
Sources said that middlemen, who claimed they could influence state and federal officials, were attracted to the "sting" when they heard of the millions in Arab money.
Thompson said the FBI agents who questioned him yesterday asked him about his association with the attorney, whom he described as "a constituent, as far as I know a reputable person."
He said he met with the lawyer and two men -- who introduced themselves as Weinstein or Weintraub and DeVito -- last October at the Foxhall Road area home. The two men, according to Thompson, said they had "some principal with a considerable amount of money he wants to spead around" in investments.
"I suggested names of some banks in New Jersey where he [the attorney] could ask his clients to put money in," Thompson said. "As fas as I know, nothing ever happened."
Thompson added that the FBI agents who interviewed him yesterday implied he was under suspicion and left him with the impression he might have been recorded at the meeting.
No one at the Justice Department would make any official comment on the investigation yesterday, but some officials said they were concerned that future defendants in the case would complain about the publicity.
It is also clear, they said, that any defendants would try to say they were entrapped by the undercover agents.
Sources said they were startled by the increasing number of members of Congress who became involved in the investigation as it continued. When word of the "Arab" money circulated, "it was like drawing sharks to blood in the water," one source said.
Some powerful and prominent men in Congress are among those said to be involved in the investigation.
Sen. Williams, 60, a Democrat of Bedminster, N.J. was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958 after spending five years in the House. With his 21 years of seniority, his strong labor backing, his reputation as a leading liberal, he has become a power baron.
He is chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over labor law, education and the arts and many of the health and welfare programs that make up the greatest focus of attention for organized labor and liberal groups nationwide.
Since there is no separate subcommittee for labor law matters, Williams is full committee chairman is in effect chairman for labor law, which the full committee handles by itself.
Williams is second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee and chairman of the housing and urban affairs subcommittee with enormous influence over the housing industry, the cities and housing for the poor.
Williams' House colleague from New Jersey, Thompson, 61, Democrat from Trenton, was first elected to Congress in 1954. As second-ranking Democrat on the House Education and Labor Committee and Chairman of its labor-management relations subcommittee, he has had the same power over labor unions, the same pro-labor and liberal records on labor matters and most other domestic legislation as Williams has in the Senate. Together, the two men are the dominant Democrats on each side of Capitol Hill on labor matters.
Thompson, however, is also chairman of the House Administration Committee, a minor-sounding but extremely influential unit which has some of the same housekeeping functions as Senate Rules. Thompson's committee helped write the campaign funding laws and restrictions in the past. Many of the little benefits of office -- the staff privileges and rules of operation -- are under this committee's jurisdiction. As chairman of Administration, Thompson succeeded former representative Wayne Hays (D-Ohio), who left Congress after a sex scandal.
Murphy has been chairman of the Merchant Marine Committee since 1976.
The 53-year-old representative from Staten Island is a West Point graduate who was a staunch supporter of former strongmen Park Chung Hee of South Korea, the shah of Iran and Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua.
Jenrette, 43, from North Myrtle Beach, was elected in 1974 to the House seat from the 6th District of South Carolina. He has won a reputation as a flamboyant personality. Two years ago, the press reported he held a fund-raiser at his home here, and for $100 a person, gave his guests all the homemade grape wine, liquor and "chicken bog" they could down, raising $20,000. Jenrette is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Murtha, 47, was elected in 1974 in a special election to fill a seat left vacant by the death of an incumbent. He is a member of the Appropriations and Ethics committees.Murtha was one of those named to probe phantom House votes last year. Murtha comes from Johnstown, Pa., was a Marine in Vietnam, car wash owner and rated high in voting record compilations put together by labor.
Kelly, 55, of Zephyrhills, Fla., was first elected in 1974 and is a member of the Agriculture and Banking committees. Last year it was reported that while he had made a point in his career of attacking the big spenders in government, he himself had run $11,500 over his office allowance for 1978.
In 1976, he spearheaded an effort to get strikers disqualified from the food stamp program unless they were on it before a strike started. Disney World is in his district. In 1978 his labor rating was zero, his Americans for Democratic Action rating 5 percent, his Americans for Constitutional Action 100 percent.
Lederer, 41, from Philadelphia's Third District, was elected in 1976. He comes from a family long active in city politics. His older brother is a judge, and another brother was once chief of detectives. Lederer, a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, was once reported to have ambitions to become chairman of the Democratic committee of the city but his name disappeared from the contenders.
Michael (Ozzie) Myers, 36, was elected in 1976 as Democratic congressmen from Philadelphia's First District. Myers, a former longshoreman, pleaded no-contest to one charge of disorderly conduct last April 10 after originally having been charged with assault and battery for allegedly participating in a brawl in a rooftop bar in an Arlington, Va., motel. Myers denied there was any punching and said "we were just doing a little partying . . . I'm a gentle guy." Myers, who is on the Education and Labor and Merchant Marine Committees, reportedly was part of the Frank Rizzo organization when Rizzo was mayor of Philadelphia.