Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, in back-to-back meetings with House and Senate leaders, yesterday suggested that they not press their inquires into reports implicating eight members of Congress in an FBI investigation of political corruption.
Civiletti reportedly urged that any full-scale congressional probes be held up for 60 to 120 days so that the case could move into the courts without being jeopardized by parallel investigations on Capitol Hill.
He also voiced his reluctance to turn over FBI videotapes and other evidence that has yet to be submitted to federal grand juries.
The Justice Department was asked to submit its formal position in writing this morning at a meeting of the House ethics committee.
One participant at Civiletti's meeting with House leaders of both parties in the office of Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) came away with the impression that Civiletti has no intention of yielding videotapes allegedly showing the eight lawmakers discussing favors, and in some cases taking cash payoffs from FBI undercover agents.
From O'Neill's office, Civiletti hurried over to the Senate side of the Capitol for a similar conference with Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and acting Minority Leader Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
According to Stevens, Civiletti said he would urge that the ethics committee not proceed while grand jury inquiries are undner way.
Earlier, in an appearance before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that was considering the Justice Department budget, Civilette found himself grilled by three senators who asked whether FBI undercover agents had set up the lawmakers and suggested that they take part in criminal activity.
Civiletti sought to soothe the senators by assuring them that the legality of such investigations is carefully monitored by Justice Department lawyers.
"One of the first questions asked is whether it [the undercover operation] amounts to unfairness, or comes close to the likes of entrapment or inducement to commit crimes that otherwise wouldn't be committed," Civiletti said.
The usual targets of such investigations are members of organized crime, Civiletti observed, but "from time to time, there is unanticipated participation by others."
In other developments concerning the FBI sting operation, in which undercover agents posed as rich Arabs or their representatives:
Sen. Harrison A. William (D-N.J.), the only senator known to be under investigation, reportedly boasted in one session, captured on videotape, of his influence with New Jersey's Casino Control Commission.
Sources said that at a meeting in New York City's Plaza Hotel, Williams claimed to have saved $3 million for Ritz Associates, a partnership that last spring won preliminary approval of its plans to open a casino in Atlantic City in 1981. Williams' wife is a consultant and former director in a New York company that holds a marjority interest in the Ritz partnership.
Williams had no direct comment. A spokesman said of the reported conservation that "it's just a rumor" at this point.
Rep. Richard Kelly (R-Fla.), who allegedly stuffed $25,000 in cash in his jacket and pants pockets at one meeting with the FBI poseurs, turned over approximately that amount of money to federal authorities Sunday, according to sources.
Kelly, who had denied any wrongdoing, declined comment on the report, taking the position, as he did at a news conference Monday, that it would be inappropriate for him to a talk about the "technical aspects" of the investigation.
A Richmond, Va., businessman who allegedly picked up $50,000 from the FBI undercover agents for Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.) last month has agreed to testify for the government, sources said. The businessman, John Stowe, formerly in the vending machine business in Myrtle Beach, S.C., could not be reached for comment.
Jenrette told a Washington Post reporter that he had accompanied Stowe to a meeting here Jan. 21 with what he thought were Arab investors to discuss a business deal in his congressional district and to seek a loan of his own for a financially troubled South Carolina golf course in which Jenrette has an interest. Jenrette said his memory of the meeting was hazy because he'd been drinking vodka martinia.
"I was in bad shape," he recalled. "It was a full moon and I had three drinks. Or I had three drinks and it was a half moon."
Sources said Jenrette looked at the $50,000 being offered and was noncommittal at the meeting, murmuring something about having to give Stowe $15,000. Later, the sources said Jenrette called and informed the undercover agents that Stowe would pick up the money the next day. Stowe did so, sources said, and the transaction was recorded on videotape.
Other subjects of the investigation include Reps. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.), John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.), John P. Murtha, Raymond F. Lederer, and Michael O. Myers, all Pensylvania Democrats, and several public officials and go-betweens from Philadelphia, New Jersey and elsewhere.
Members of the Senate Ethics Committee met yesterday afternoon to begin what Chairman Howell Heflin (-d-Ala.) called a "preliminary inquiry" into the allegations concerning Sen. Williams, but, like their counterparts in the House, decided to wait for a session with Justice Department representatives before going beyond a discussion of procedure and precedents.
At one point, Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.) said he thought Williams should volunteer to appear and testify without further ado. If he were in Williams' shoes, Helms said, "I would be clamoring at the door of the Ethics Committee to tell you what really happened."
Williams and an associate, a Cherry Hill, N.J. lawyer named Alex Feinberg, have come under investigation in connection with a $100 million titanium-mining deal that was part of the FBI's "sting" operation.
The episode involving New Jersey gambling casino operations was first reported by Newsday and later confirmed by other sources. According to the sources, Williams told the FBI undercover men at one point during their meeting at the Plaza Hotel that "I spoke with Lordi [New Jersey Casino Control Commission Chairman Joseph A. Lordi] about doing something for the Ritz." Williams was quoted as saying, "I saved them $3 million."
Feinberg, the sources said, then interjected, "Yeah, I spoke to MacDonald about that." (Kenneth N. MacDonald, vice chairman of the Casino Control Commission, resigned from the post Monday.) Feinberg reportedly went on to say that Ritz executives were so pleased with his help that they were considering making him counsel to the company.
In Trenton, N.J., yesterday, Lordi denied any conversation with Williams about the casino application, and said he expected an apology from the New Jersey senator.
Lordi said such a statement as the one attributed to Williams might have been simply an example of the kind of bragging often found among lawyers and politicans -- "boasting about having more power than they really have."
James Murray, a New York lawyer for the Hardwick Companies, which owns more than 50 percent of Ritz Associates, said he knew of no intercession by Williams on Ritz's behalf when the Casino Control Commission approved its architectural plans last spring for a $100 million renvoation of the old Ritz-Cartlon Hotel on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.
Murray said, however, that Feinberg was retained as a lawyer for Hardwick-Ritz last July or August on Sen. Williams' recommendation and that Mrs. Williams, a former director of the Hardwick Companies, is still a consultant to the firm. He said she was paid $34,500 in fees over the past two years and still "attends all our board meetings."
"They may have put in good words" for the Ritz casino project, Murray said. "The senator knew about the project. He may have mentioned it to other people. I'm sure Williams did." But he said he knew of "no improper influence" that was exerted.
In a final development on Capitol Hill yesterday, O'Neill announced that Reps. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) and Wyche Fowler Jr. (D-Ga.) have been added to the ethics committee to replace Murtha, who stepped aside this week, and Rep. Morgan Murphy (D-Ill.), who resigned from the committee in December.