Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said yesterday that Congress "will go down the tube" if it decides to "sit back and wait for 'justice to take its course' in connection with the videotaping of eight of its member while they allegedly were agreeing to swap political influence for money.
"I don't think country will wait that long," the candidate for the Republican presidential nomination said on "Issues and Answers" (Abc, WJLA). He added:
" i think the leadership of the Congress should sit down together and say, 'Look, this is as bad as anything that's been alleged against Congress since Teapot Dome' [a scandal in the Harding administration nearly 60 years ago].
"We have a precedent of doing an honorable and thorough job on Watergate, and now let's figure out how we're going to do it now, today."
At the Justice Department's request, the House and Senate ethics committees have agreed to put off formal inquires of their own while the FBI and the department complete their so-called "sting" or Abscam, for Arab scam, investigations and any criminal proceedings that may result.
Questioning the committees' delay, Baker said that a special select committee in the House and another in the Senate, or a House-Senate committee, should be set up. The mission would be to look into the allegations that have resulted from "leaks" to the press and to get from the department whatever information is available, Baker said.
In addition, the special committees or committee should "examine the interrelationship between the right of an individual citizen in a legal proceeding, and the responsibility of the Congress, on the other side, to monitor and discipline its own members," Baker continued.
"It is as important to reassure the country as it is to find the facts," Baker said. "I would like to see an institutionalized effort by the Congress to find out not only about the guilt or innocence from the moral standpoint of our membership, but to find out about the propriety of the acts of the Justice Department, and even the conduct of the news media in that connection."
"Do you think they should subpoena the evidence?" Baker was asked: "No," he replied. The response raised a question as to just what congressional investigators would work with.
Baker's opposite number, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), was asked on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC) if he had been "shocked" by the revelations. "Yes, I was," he replied.
While urging that nothing be done that might interfere with the judicial process, Byrd said he was not saying that congressional hearings should not be held right away. The department and the ethics committees have "separate and distinct responsibilities," he said.
Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), appearing on "Face the Nation" (Cbs, WDVM), said that any congressman or senator who accepts a bribe "should be kicked out of Congress promptly, without any question."
At the same time, he said, legislators whose names have been mentioned have been "outrageously and unfairly treated." He mentioned Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D-N.J.) as a legislator who has had "a lifetime of honesty and probity," but who "may well have been very badly ruined by this kind of an attack with no opportunity to respond."
Baker said that a number of persons have asked him how they could support a candidate who comes from Congress.
"You know," he said, "there is a searing sore right in my gut because I believe in the Congress, and I know it to be made up of honorable people, men and women, but this thing has had a devastating effect on Congress."
In other developments in FBI "sting" cases yesterday:
Mario T. Noto, the former deputy commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service who is under investigation for allegedly trying to aid a reputed organized crime chief with his immigration problems, said through his attorney that he has done "absolutely nothing wrong."
Attorney Myles J. Ambrose said Noto was interviewed by FBI agents Saturday and cooperated by answering their questions. But he declined to comment further "in view of the widespread prejudical publicity."
The Washington Post reported yesterday that Noto was being investigated because of allegations that he had tried to help Carlos Marcello, the reputed Mafia boss of New Orleans.
A spokesman for the Prudential Insurance Co. said his company had not given the FBI permission to have undercover agents pose as Prudential salesmen in an undercover "sting" operation that has produced bribery allegations about two former Lousiana candidates for governor and the speaker of the House in Texas.
A law enforcement source close to the investigation noted, however, that a Prudentail official had agreed to say the firm was underwriting policies from the FBI's dummy insurance company in case anyone got suspicious. None of the targets of the inquiry was curious enough to question the undercover men, he added.
More than a dozen Louisiana officials, including Gov. Edwin Edwards and Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris, said they have been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in New Orleans Tuesday. Fitzmorris is alleged to have taken a $10,000 bribe from an undercover operative in connection with a promise on a state insurance contract Fitzmorris has denied the allegation.