Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti ran into harsh words on Capitol Hill yesterday from some House members whose colleagues have been implicated by the FBI undercover operation known as Abscam.
Civiletti's appearance before a House Appropriations subcommittee was his first public testimony on the House side since the scandal broke three weeks ago.
Rep. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.) told Civiletti that he felt the department was partly to blame for a public conception that Congress "is just full of a bunch of crooks."
"Your organization has contributed to this breakdown [in public confidence] by the leaks that have riddled your organization," he said.
Civiletti repeated his concern about press reports that seven House members and one senator were secretly videotaped talking about legislative favors in return for cash. And he repeated his intention to punish any Justice official or FBI agent who told reporters about the operation.
He said, though, that he thought there was only a "remote possibility" of bringing criminal charges against any leakers who are caught.
Andrews also pressed Civiletti for a commitment to make a public explanation if some of the eight are not indicted so the public won't think they escaped prosecution because they are "big and powerful."
Civiletti resisted this, however, saying he would first turn over to the congressional ethics committees evidence from cases that fall short of indictments.
Meanwhile, two congressmen who have been publicly linked to the Abscam probe have begun the process of turning over subpoenaed material to a federal grand jury in Washington.
A spokesman in the office of U.S. Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.) said the subpoenaed material -- including Jenrette's appointment books, telephone logs and other office records -- had been gathered by aides there for submission to a grand jury this week as requested.
In the office of U.S. Rep. Richard Kelly (R-Fla.) a spokesman said Kelly's attorney and the Justice Department had agreed to a one-week postponement from last Friday's scheduled delivery for subpoenaed material to the federal grand jury. The spokesman emphasized there was no refusal on Kelly's part to provide the material and no formal attempt to block the subpoena, but merely an agreement that more time be allowed for getting the material together.
On Monday, the Senate Select Committee on Ethics agreed to delay its investigation of Sen. Harrison Williams' involvement in the affair because Justice refused to cooperate in making evidence available.
The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct met in closed session yesterday to consider how it could begin a parallel investigation without much substantive help from Justice.
In Philadephia, meanwhile George Schwartz, the president of the city council, took his own swing at leakers. He filed a suit in federal court Monday claiming that the publicity has violated his rights. News reports said Schwartz took $15,000 from FBI agents at a Philadelphia hotel.