A story in yesterday's editions of The Washington Post was incorrect in quoting sources as saying government prosecutors were considering an offer to let Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) plead to a charge in exchange for his possible resignation from Congress and testimony against two other House members indicted in the Abscam bribery investigation. No such offer is or was planned, Murtha's attorney, Walter J. Bonner, said yesterday, on behalf of himself and Justice Department officials. The Post regrets the error.
Two powerful House committee chairmen, Reps. Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.) and John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.), were indicted by a federal grand jury in Brooklyn yesterday on charges of conspiring to trade their influence for bribes from FBI undercover agents.
The indictments bring to five the number of House members charged so far in the so-called Abscam undercover operation, making it the most sweeping congressional scandal in memory.
Reps. Michael O. Myers and Raymond F. Lederer, both Philadelphia Democrats, and John Jenrette (D-S.C.) were indicted earlier.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) also was named as part of the conspiracy charges yesterday, but he was not indicted. Sources said government prosecutors still are examining Murtha's role and may offer to let him plead guilty to some charge in return for his possible resignation from Congress and his testimony against Thompson and Murphy.
Murtha could be a key witness because Howard L. Criden, a Philadelphia attorney accused of accompanying Thompson and Murphy to separate meetings last fall where they allegedly accepted $50,000 for legislative favors, has refused to testify for the government. Criden was indicted for the fourth time yesterday.
Murtha's attorney, Walter J. Bonner, said last night that it was "absolutely inaccurate" to say his client was plea bargaining with the government. "There will be no trade of any kind whatsoever," he said. He added that the congressman testified voluntarily before the Brooklyn grand jury "very recently."
Thompson, 61, has been a member of Congress for more than 25 years and has been a leader in liberal causes, particularly in the labor and civil rights fields. He is chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the perquisities of the House, from office space to expense allowances.
Murphy, 53, has represented his Staten Island-Manhattan district since 1962. He as risen to become chairman of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and a strong supporter of the subsidized American maritime industry.
Murphy has been a controversial figure because of his support of authoritarian former foreign leaders such as the shah of Iran, Park Chung Hee of South Korea and Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua.
Both Thompson and Murphy denied thecharges yesterday, as did co-defendants Criden and Joseph Sylvestri. Under new rules of the House Democratic Caucus, however, the two lawmakers have to step aside as chairmen until the charges are resolved.
Details of the Abscam operation were revealed in press accounts in early February reporting that FBI agents videotaped the transactions with the members of Congress at a fashionable house in Washington and a New York motel.
The FBI's path to the congressmen began with Sylvestri last fall, according to the indictment. He allegedly conspired to find members of Congress willing to trade influence for cash and introduce them to Criden.
Sylvestri first brought Thompson to meet Criden.On Oct. 9 in Washington the congressmen and the lawyer met with Anthony Amoroso, an undercover FBI agent, and Mel Weinberg, an informer, who were posing as representatives of wealthy Arab businessmen, according to the indictment.
At a second meeting that day Thompson and Criden took $50,000 in cash, the grand jury alleged, "in return for the assurances of the defendant Frank Thompson that he would introduce and support private immigration bills to enable the foreign businessmen to immigrate to and remain in the United States."
The indictment also alleges that:
Thompson shared the $50,000 with Criden, Sylvestri and others and then arranged to introduce both Murphy and Murtha to Criden.
Murphy, Criden and the agents met at the Hilton Inn next to Kennedy Airport in New York on Oct. 20 and received $50,000 "in return for the defendant Murphy being influenced in the performance of official acts in an immigration matter on behalf of the foreign businessmen."
On Jan. 7, Murtha and Criden met with the agents, but no money changed hands.
The indictment also alleged that Thompson tried to benefit himself and former law partners by steering the Middle Eastern businessmen to make investments and bank deposits in his district.
Murphy, meanwhile, allegedly tried to get the undercover men to invest in a shipping business that would benefit him and agreed to use his position as chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee to aid the venture.
The indictment mentions that Murphy, Criden and Lawrence J. Buser met with Amoroso and Weinberg on Jan. 10 in Washington. Buser was identified in a February story by Newsday, a Long Island newpaper, as a New Jersey shipping consultant who served as an adviser to Murphy's committee. Newsday said Murphy suggested then that Arabs invest $70 million in a shipping venture in which the congressman would have a hidden interest.
Thompson said yesterday, "i have committed no crime, violated no law and breached none of my duties to the people of New Jersey."
He said that "at times investigative agencies and disreputable hirelings in their employ can act in over-zealous or illegal ways." He accused the government of "manufacturing" the situations it now prosecutes and leaking the charges to the media.
The silver-haired, 13-term House member already has won his primary race for reelection.
A group of Thompson supporters started a defense fund for him several weeks ago. Thomas R. Jolly, a Washington lawyer who is trustee of the fund, said yesterday that hundreds of people from all over the country have already contributed. More than $50,000 has been raised, mostly in donations ranging from $25 to $100, he said, "but that doesn't look like that's going to be nearly enough."
Murphy, a nine-term congressman, has taken the offensive against the Justice Department from the beginning and repeated his claims of innocence yesterday at a Capitol Hill news conference.
"I am not guilty of and categorically deny any complicity in any way, shape or form whatsoever in these charges," he said.
Murphy said four videotapes will show that he took no money. He said he lectured the supposed Arab businessmen "that it was wrong for them to offer me or any member of Congress any sort of favor in return for any of their requests."
He said he attended the meetings, after being introduced by Thompson, to try to get Arab investments in his district.
Murphy said when the undercover men asked for congressional help in bringing an Arab sheik into the country he told them to see their own lawyer. His attorney, Michael Tigar, said when Murphy is arraigned Monday he will ask for an immediate trial -- by June 30. Murphy's primary election is in September.
Criden's attorney. Richard Ben-Veniste, said "the government's case will be decided on the quality and not the quantity of the indictments." Sylvestri's attorney, Alfred DeCotiis, said in a statement that his client will plead innocent and that the Government's conduct in the case "raises very serious and disturbing questions, which should receive the most careful attention of the press, court and American public."
Defense attorneys have made clear they intend to challenge the government's case with charges of pretrial publicity, through calculated leaks, and of entrapment.
Only the first, broad conspiracy count charges all the defendants. Thompson and Murphy were charged with bribery in the second count and with illegally receiving compensation for government-related services in the third. The fourth count illeges that Criden violated a racketeering law and was aided by the two congressmen. The fifth count charges Murphy with receiving an unlawful gratuity, with Criden and Thompson aiding him.
In accordance with rules adopted May 29 by the House Democratic Caucus, any committee of subcommittee chairman indicted for a serious crime must step aside until the charge is cleared up.The rule was passed to strip Rep. Charles H. Wilson (D-Cif.), who was since censured by the House, of his post office subcommittee post.
Rep. Lucien Nedzi (D-Mich.) will become acting chairman of House Administration and Rep. Thomas Ashley (D-Ohio) is in line to head Merchant Marine and Fisheries.