The jury in the Abscam bribery trail of Rep. Michael O. (Ozzie) Myers (D-Pa.) was told today that two codefendants in the case secretly pocketed $10,000 from the alleged payoff envelope to reduce the amount of cash they would have to share with the congressman.
Ellis Cook, former law partner of defendants Howard L. Criden and Louis Johanson, testified that Criden returned from the payoff meeting last Aug. 22 with only $35,000. He said Criden "didn't know what to tell Congressman Myers because it was supposed to be $100,000."
The payment actually was $50,000 in $100 bills, but the fourth defendant in the case, Camden, N.J., Mayor Angelo J. Errichetti, already had taken $15,000 from the envelope, Cook and Criden told him.
Criden was concerned that if he told the congressman how much was left, the law partners would get nothing, Cook testified and so Criden took $10,000 out of the envelope, leaving $25,000 for Myers to do with "as he thought fair."
When Myers arrived at the Philadelphia law offices. Cook said, he took only $15,000 and left the building. This meant the three lawyers had $20,000 to split among themselves -- the $10,000 they took and the $10,000 that Myers left.
Cook is an unindicted coconspirator in the case believed to be cooperating with the government. He said in beginning his testimony that Criden was like a father to him, "I love the man," he said.
After Myers left their offices, Cook continued, the three attorneys divided the $20,000 with Cook getting $4,500 Criden $9,000 or $9,500 and Johanson $6,000 or $6,500.
Cook said he later put his share of the cash in his safe deposit box and then got signature cards to make the same box available to Criden and Johanson.
Cook's testimony is the first direct evidence of what happened to the alleged payoff money after Meyers and Errichetti left a Kennedy Airport hotel room after meeting with undercover FBI operatives last summer.
Wednesday the jury was shown a half-hour videotape in which undercover FBI agent Anthony Amoroso Jr. handed Myers the payoff envelope after receiving promises that the congressman would help an Arab "sheik" with his immigration problems.
Although there has been no testimony tracing the trail of the envelope, it apparently made its way from Myers to Errichetti, to Criden, and after each had taken a share, back to Myers. In a later videotape, also expected to be shown to the jury, Myers allegedly complained to undercover FBI agents in Philadelphia that he didn't get enough money and extracted a promise that he would receive $35,000 more.
No video or audio tapes were played for the jury today. Most of the session was taken up with the defense attorneys' continued attack on the government conduct in the case.
In cross-examining Amoroso, they got him to acknowledge that the whole purpose of the Aug. 22 meeting was to get videotaped evidence of a criminal act. This raised the possibility that the government entrapped the defendants.
The defense has claimed that the four defendants never intended to take part in a bribery conspiracy involving Myer's help in private immigration bills. Instead they claim that undercover FBI informant Melvin Weinberg conned their clients into acting out a role that Weinberg had scripted for his own purposes.
At one point in the cross-examination, however, Amoroso told Errichetti's lawyer, Raymond A. Brown, "if he [Errichetti] didn't want t do if [take part in an unlawful transaction] he could have walked right away."
After Brown implied that Amoroso had induced his client to take part in the payoff scheme, government prosecutor Thomas P. Puccio countered by trying to introduce evidence of earlier alleged payoffs to Errichetti to show a predisposition on his part to accept illegal cash.
Out of the hearing of the jury, Puccio told U.S. District Court Judge George C. Pratt that Errichetti had taken a $25,000 payoff in January 1979 in connection with an Atlantic City casino deal, and had split $100,000 with New Jersey Gambling Commission member Kenneth MacDonald.
Errichetti also gave undercover investigators a checklist of New Jersey state legislators, including himself, "whose influence could be bought," Puccio said.
The judge said he would decide overnight whether to allow the jury to hear that evidence.
During his testimony, Cook said that Criden had told him the law firm could earn "some fees" if the lawyers introduced members of Congress to the sheik. He said that he was told some unidentified parties had already received $100,000 for introducing Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.) to the "sheik." Williams has been under investigation in the Abscam case, but has not been indicted.