Thomas Puccio, the Brooklyn federal prosecutor who supervised the Abscam operation, today rejected published allegations that he had leaked details of the investigation to the news media.
He is the first Justice Department official directly involved in Abscam to publicly defend himself in the controversy surrounding the leaks.
The 11-year prosecutor, head of the Organized Crime Strike Force in the Eastern District of New York, acknowledged that he spoke to two newspapers prior to publication of initial accounts that FBI agents pretending to represent an Arab sheik had videotaped seven congressmen and one senator taking or agreeing to take cash bribes in return for political influence.
But he said his intent was "merely to ask them to hold stories about the case that they had already written."
Puccio said that on Feb. 1, the day before the story broke, he met with Anthony Marro, head of Newsday's Washington bureau, in his office in the Brooklyn federal building. Marro had requested the meeting. "I simply asked him to hold it," Puccio said. "Marro asked me if I would confirm any of the details he had and I said 'no.'"
Puccio wanted Marro to hold the story at least until Sunday Feb. 3, because he and the FBI planned to question some 50 principals in the case scattered around the country that Saturday.
"I also asked Sydney Schanberg, mettropolitan editor of the New York Times, to hold the story. But in both cases I was dealing with news organizations who had the story before I ever spoke to them," he said.
Puccio said he tried to get them to hold it beyond Sunday, but was unsuccessful. Both Newsday and the Times carried accounts of the operation in their earliest editions on Feb. 3 after NBC News first mentioned it in sketchy terms during a 6:30 p.m. show on Feb. 2. Puccio says he did not talk with NBC.
On Feb. 2, Puccio had a similar conversation with The Washington Post, which also carried accounts of Abscam in its Feb. 3 editions.
Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti has appointed U.S. Attorney Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to investigate the leaks, particularly an allegation that Justice Department officials leaked to Times reporter Leslie Maitland a long memo from prosecutor Puccio. "My only contact with Maitland was to ask her to hold the story," said Puccio.
One of the seven congressmen named in the investigation, Rep. John Murphy (D-N.Y.), questioned at a press conference Wednesday whether Puccio was responsible for the leaks and asked Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann to remove Puccio from the case.
Today reporter Marro described his meeting with Puccio as "pro forma" but refused to detail what they discussed. Said Marro: "I can't say this guy's not the source or that guy's not the source until someone hits a right one," because "then what do I say? No comment? I just won't discuss sources."
Marro is known to have told Newsday colleagues Wednesday that any suggestion that Puccio had leaked or confirmed his story at the Friday meting was "bull," and that he "didn't anticipate anything and didn't get anything from Puccio."
Puccio has a reputation in New York law enforcement circles as an innovative, hard-nosed prosecutor, who has said he is "more interested in the crimes of the Fortune 500 than in the mobs' five families." He has brought the political corruption investigations the same tough, impatient style that characterized his years as a young narcotics prosecutor, when he convicted the policemen responsible for the theft of the French Connection heroin from the police property clerks' office in New York.
In the last year, Puccio successfully prosecuted two major labor racketeering cases, convicting Joseph Tonelli, president of the 300,000-member paperworkers' union and a member of the AFL-CIO national executive board, and George Boylan, president of a boilermakers' local. Tonelli was sentenced to three years in prison and Boylan 10 years.
In recent years, Puccio also convicted a powerful Brooklyn borough councilman and, while working closely with the FBI on Abscam, prosecuted Joseph Stabile, the first FBI agent ever convicted on corruption charges.