The Justice Department expects to secure indictments within 90 to 120 days in the political corruption case that has reportedly implicated eight members of Congress on potential bribery charges.
Urging Congress to forgo any investigations of its own until any trials take place, Attorney General Benjamen R. Civiletti warned yesterday that parallel inquires on Capitol Hill could jeopardize prosecutions of the guilty and taint the reputations of the innocent. He called postponement to congressional investigations "the only sound and fair course."
Federal prosecutors have already started issuing grand jury subpoenas in Washington and other cities for a wide range of financial records. The subpoenas are evidently designed to trace the funds that were paid out during the FBI "sting" operation and find what the money was used for.
In addition, it was learned that prosecutors are encountering problems in putting together admissible segments of FBI videotapes concerning some of the targets, reportedly because of loose statements and leading questions by some of the undercover agents assigned to the investigation.
During the day, Rep. Richard Kelly (R-Fla.), who sources say was videotaped stuffing $25,000 in cash into his jacket and pants pockets, became the first official to admit taking money from the undercover agents.
He said, in an interview with NBC's David Brinkley, that he took the money as part of his own investigation of a group of "shady characters" who were trying to buy special immigration bills for their Arab sponsors.
Kelly said he put all $25,000 in the glove compartment of his car ostensibly to protect his family, and then started spending on "kind of a rotating basis," buying lunches and the like. When he finally returned the money to the FBI Sunday, he said, "there was $174 gone."
Kelly said he gave the money back because the FBI "blew my case. When they blew the cover on their case, they blew the cover on mine."
On Capitol Hill, there was a strong feeling among both House and Senate members that a cloud had been cast over Congress in the past week and that the government should not expect them to just sit around and wait for the courts to act as the elections draw closer.
Acting Senate Minority Leader Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he is especially concerned about the fact that some of the government's cases are apparently so weak that the Justice Department will not be able to prosecute them unless more evidence comes to light.
"I am alarmed by the extent to which people may be involved" publicly but "will never be involved in a grand jury investigation or indictment," Stevens told reporters.
Alluding to the massive news leaks since last weekend of the FBI's "sting" operation, Stevens said "reputations have been seriously damaged in a manner not consistent with the standards of American jurisprudence."
He said the news media would have to "answer at some point for the manner in which the precepts of the Constitution have been violated." Stevens predicted "some substantial libel cases" as a result of the publicity.
Stevens delivered his assessment as the result of a meeting he and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) held Tuesday night with Civiletti. Stevens said Civiletti told them the lawmakers who have been publicly named as having been implicated in the FBI'S Operation ABSCAM (for ARAB SCAM) fall into three categories.
"There are some they feel they are certain to recommend prosecution on. There are some they are not yet certain they have enough evidence on. And there are some that under the current circumstances they are not sure they would recommend any further action on," Stevens said.
The members of Congress who have become subjects of investigation are Sen. Harrison A. Williams (D-N.J.) and Reps. John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.), Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.), John W. Jenrette (D-S.C.), Michael Myers, Raymond F. Lederer and John W. Murtha, all Pennsylvania Democrats, and Richard Kelly (R-Fla.).
FBI undercover agents posing as Arab "shieks" or their representatives videotaped a number of the lawmakers discussing favors and others taking cash payments during the 18-month undercover operation.
The political fallout before trial was especially evident in Philadelphia yesterday where three top city officials -- City Council President George X. Schwartz, Council Majority Leader Harry P. Jannotti and Councilman Louis C. Johnson -- have also been implicated publicly in the Abscam net.
"Politically these five guys [the city officials plus Myers and lederer] might as well have been in a plane crash," said one of the city's ranking Democrats. "They might survive the charges, but politically they're dead."
The chairman of Philadelphia's Democratic city committee, David Glancey, had told reporters he would ask each of the five to step down if indicted, but on television last night he went a step further and pronounced both Myers and Lederer "unelectable." He said later that the Democratic committee is already looking around for new candidates.
In Congress, the House and Senate ethics committees took steps to initiate tentative inquiries, but there was little indication that they would get very far without access to the Justice Department evidence.
Assistant Attorney General Philip B. Heymann, who appeared before both Committees during the day, said the department would refuse to share its evidence against those indicted until their trials are completed. He indicated that information involving others would be turned over at the end of the grand jury stage so long as it does not endanger pending cases.
Heymann said he hoped the trials would be completed within four to six months after indictments are returned.
If the evidence were turned over now, he told the House ethics committee, "The FBI agents would in efect, be working for you instead of us."
Heymann envisioned "one nightmare picture for all of us . . . in which we get tangled in each other's feet" if parallel investigations are conducted by Congress. "Nobody gets due process," he warned, "and we all look incompetent."
He assured the committee that Operation Abscam did not begin as an investigation targeted against Congress, and called it a "relatively natural evolution" of a case that began wth a search for stolen paintings and securities.
During that effort, Heymann said, the FBI came into contact with people who said they could sell not paintings, but influence.
"At that point, the federal government did not step back," he said."Influence peddlers started making offers."
Under questioning by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), Heymann said the Justice Department would resist a subpoena of the FBI videotapes and might ask the courts to quash one.
The House ethics panel is preparing to hire a special counsel to work out procedures with the Justice Department for a limited investigation.
The Senate Ethics Committee voted 6 to 0 to conduct a "preliminary inquiry" into the allegations against Williams. The first step toward a full investigation is to consist primarily of secret interviews by Chairman Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), Vice Chairman Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) and committee staff members. Wallop noted that they may hit a dry hole in their efforts to compute independent evidence and wind up waiting for the Justice Department.
Heflin said the committee has no desire to interfere with any pending criminal investigations or prosecutions, but he added that, "We should not, and must not, overlook the clouds on the integrity of the Senate."
Williams has come under investigation in connection with a titanium company stock deal developed during the investigation and in connection with his reportedly taped claims of influence with the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.
Heflin also said his committee staff will made a preliminary examination of published reports of an FBI investigation involving Sen. Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.).
The FBI has reportedly started investigating a suspect bribery scheme involving Cannon and the Teamsters union.
Cannon has denied the allegations. He said he was assured by FBI Director William H. Webster yesterday that "there is no pending investigation against me." The FBI declined to comment.