Leaks to the press Feb. 2 curtailed the FBI's undercover Abscam investigation of at least one House member and stopped a key participant from implicating four other congressmen and three Philadelphia city councilmen in the alleged bribery conspiracy, according to legal papers.
The documents assert that Howard L. Criden, a Philadelphia attorney who has been indicted four times since his decision not to cooperate, was prepared to state his role in cash payoffs for the congressmen.
A draft of an affidavit that Criden never signed said he discussed with Reps. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.) and John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.) last fall their willingness to help representatives of Arab businessmen, but said they didn't want to handle the money personally. In actuality, the "representatives" were undercover FBI agents.
Criden has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.
The unsigned affidavit also said that Thompson called Criden on Feb. 1 and said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) was "ready to go" with a similar arrangement. Murtha had already met once with the undercover FBI agents. A possible second meeting with Murtha, who has been named a coconspirator with Thompson and Murphy, but not indicted, never was held.
Press disclosures on Feb. 2 ended the undercover phase of the investigation, and the leaks have played a major role since in the evolution of the prosecutions.
Early on, Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti ordered an unprecedented investigation of possible Justice Department leaks, requesting agents and attorneys to take lie detector tests. The premature disclosures focused public attention on alleged government misconduct as well as on the charges against the congressmen.
In an extraordinary series of pretrial hearings in Philadelphia and Brooklyn last week, defense lawyers tried to pinpoint the leaks and argued that prosecution behavior was so outrageous that the indictments should be dismissed.
In Philadelphia on Thursday, a reporter was held in contempt of court after refusing to tell a federal judge whether she talked to a prosecutor who already had admitted warning her about the breaking story.
While the breakdown in plea bargaining with Criden was reported just after the first Abscam disclosures, the legal papers give the first detailed account of why he claims the arrangement failed.
Criden's lawyer, Richard Ben-Veniste, filed the papers as a motion to suppress the government's use of the statements in its case against Criden. Federal judges in Philadelphia and Brooklyn accepted the papers under seal, at Ben-Veniste's request. A copy of the papers was made available to The Washington Post, but not by Ben-Veniste.
Ben-Veniste said in the papers that his client would not sign the affidavit with prosecutors Thomas P. Puccio and Peter F. Vaira because of the publicity. He felt "they had broken their deal."
According to Ben-Veniste's papers, Criden already had signed a letter stating he would cooperate in return for pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge. But before he was to sign the affidavit, he went to a pay phone in the hallway of Puccio's office in Brooklyn to call a lawyer, Donald Goldberg, in Philadelphia.
The papers then give this account:
On the way to the phone Criden noticed a secretary photocopying items from early editions of the next day's New York Times. On the front page was one of the first-day stories detailing the Abscam investigation and Criden's participation in it.
Criden then told Goldbereg what had happened and was advised by Goldberg to leave the office immediately.
It is not clear whether Criden backed out of the agreement then because of Goldberg's advice to leave, or, as Ben-Veniste's papers claim because he was upset about the publicity.
The papers said that Criden had been assurred by the prosecutors that it would be several days before there would be any news releases about the case and that they would try to downplay his role.
Criden was concerned about publicity because he wanted time to arrange his affairs and insulate his family, according to the papers.
Ben-Veniste's account also said the following:
The Philadelphia attorney agreed to cooperate at first after Anthony Amoroso Jr., an FBI agent who Criden thought was a representative of a rich Arab sheik, pulled out his badge during a meeting at a Kennedy Airport motel. The agent told Criden he was under investigation and might be charged with crimes in many jurisdictions.
Criden was then shown part of a videotaped meeting he attended earlier and agreed to listen to the prosecutors' offer.
Puccio, chief of the organized crime strike force in Brooklyn, and Vaira, the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, told Criden "that he was in rather severe difficulty and could be indicted in three or four jurisdictions on 50 counts. They further informed him he could spend the rest of his life or a substantial portion of it in jail."
Though Criden stopped short of signing the affidavit that day, it was reported in the Feb. 4 New York Times that he had agreed to cooperate and had given agents a sworn statement. On Feb. 5, Vaira wrote Goldberg a letter confirming Criden's decision to withdraw from the agreement and adding that the government was then withdrawing its plea bargain offer.
"In fact, the agreement, such as it was, had been contemporaneously breached by the government's failure to live up to its promise of confidentiality," Ben-Veniste's papers said. "Criden's disillusionment with the government's promise was sealed with the appearance of the Times article."
Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate special prosecutor, also negotiated with the government after he became Criden's attorney, but he reportedly was seeking a deal where his client would not have to plead guilty to even a single felony count. The government refused to accept that proposal.
One of the government negotiators was the prosecutor who acknowledged in a pretrial hearing in Philadelphia last week that he had called a reporter, Jan Schaffer on the Philadelphia Inquirer, from Puccio's office on Feb. 2, the day of the plea bargaining with Criden.
The prosecutors' version of the statement Criden gave, but didn't sign, outlined the lawyer's alleged involvement in the Abscam case. The unsigned affidavit, written in the first person, gives the following account:
Criden and his law partner, Louis Johanson, one of the indicted city councilmen from Philadelphia, were introduced to the undercover agents by another defendant, Angelo Errichetti, the mayor of Camden, N.J.
The law partners flew to Florida to discuss investments in Atlantic City and on the way back, Errichetti memtioned that people he knew "were seeking the assistance of congressmen for the purpose of obtaining permanent residence or asylum in the United States for their wealthy Arab employers."
Johanson agreed to take up the matter with Reps. Michael O. Myers and Raymond F. Lederer, both Philadelphia Democrats who also have been indicted.
Criden then recounted his role in alleged payoffs to the two local congressmen in August and September, and went on then to discuss his relationship with Thompson, who was introduced by another defendant, Joseph Sylvestri, a New Jersey businessman.
At a meeting in Thompson's office near Princeton, N.J., with two other men present, the congressman "said that he would be willing to provide assistance for the Arabs for money but that he didn't want to personally pick up the envelope."
The conspiracy indictment against Thompson mentions that meeting but does not say what went on at it. Criden said in the unsigned affidavit that at a later meeting in October in Washington he and Thompson "received $50,000 for the congressman's assistance in getting a private immigration bill passed for the Arabs." He said Thompson received $20,000 -- another item not mentioned in the indictment -- with Errichetti, Sylvestri and Criden splitting the other $30,000.
In motions to dismiss the indictment, Thompson's attorneys have claimed that the videotapes of the meeting show that the congressman wasn't interested in taking any money. They maintained that Thompson never grappled with Criden over a briefcase containing the cash, as some news accounts reported.
In a brief filed in opposition to that motion, Puccio called the claimed examples of inaccurate articles "either inconsequential or quibbling."
According to the Puccio brief, the videotape shows Thompson gesturing toward the briefcase and telling Criden, "You look after that for me, will You?"
Puccio agreed there was no "tug of war" between Criden and Thompson for the briefcase, but said that at the conclusion of the meeting they "simultaneously grabbed the suitcase by its handle and lifted it. Thompson then allowed Criden to carry it out. How this hair-splitting could have influenced the grand jurors who viewed the videotapes is unexplained."
Thompson also said, according to the prosecution papers, that the veteran congressmen, who is chairman of the House Administration Committee, could delay deportation for the mythical sheik by introducing a private bill. Later Thompson promised to "make every possible attempt to assist" the sheik. l
Puccio also wrote that a survey of what defense motions cited as inflammatory news reports "demonstrates that bias against the defendants was not displayed in the press. To the contrary, there were innumerable references to alleged problems with the government's cases, to the necessity of a target-by-target evaluation, and to the possibilty that government personnel had committed crimes and acted irresponsibly and unethically."
In his proposed affidavit, Criden also related his dealings with Murphy, chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, who has argued that the tapes should be played in public to prove his innocence.
The indictment against Murphy said he met with Thompson and Criden on Oct. 19 in Washington. The proposed Criden statement said the meeting took place in a conference room near Murphy's committee and that "Murphy indicated that he would be willing to help the Arabs but would not personally handle the envelope. (Subsequently, Thompson stated that Murphy would not take the money directly, but would receive it from him.)"
On the way to a meeting at the Hilton Inn at Kennedy Airport the next day, Criden stated, "Murphy indicated again that he did not want to directly handle the money. The meeting took place as planned. When Murphy and I left the meeting, I was carrying the $50,000."
The next day, Criden met with Thompson at the bar of the Hilton Inn in Mount Laurel, N.J., gave him $20,000 and split the remaining $30,000 with Errichetti, according to the unsigned affidavit. "Thompson told me he would pay Murphy from his share."
Murphy's attorneys have argued in court that Murphy never received any money.
At a later date, Criden said in the unsigned affidavit, "Thompson indicated to me that Congressman Murtha of Pennsylvania would be willing to enter into an agreement similiar to that of the other congressmen." At a meeting in Washington in January, Murtha didn't take any money, though the plan had been that Thompson would receive $20,000 to share with Murtha, Criden said.
"Yesterday, [Feb. 1] Thompson called and told me that Murtha was ready to go. (He had indicated . . . during January that he was not ready to do business but would be willing to do so in the future.)"
At the end of the proposed statement, Criden is quoted as saying he arranged payments for his law partner and two other Philadelphia councilmen.